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Radical outreach

When homeless ministry gets extreme

Radical outreach

A homeless woman in downtown San Diego. (Elliot Spagat/AP)

Early on the morning after Valentine’s Day, I drove down from Los Angeles to San Diego to spend a day with three men who were temporarily living on the streets with the homeless. 

Among them was Will Cravens, a pastor from Virginia. Cravens first roamed the streets of San Diego in 2014 looking for a childhood best friend who had disappeared and was last spotted in Mission Bay, a popular man-made aquatic park. Since then, Cravens has been flying back to the area twice a year, each time bringing a team of church men to sleep on the streets and break bread with the homeless. 

For this particular trip, Cravens brought with him a fresh-faced, 20-year-old church intern and a scruffy-faced, middle-aged man who’d recently lost his job. For five days and four nights, these men carried with them backpacks, sunscreen, and their Bibles. They ate at soup kitchens, walked everywhere, and donned ponchos when it rained. The whole purpose of the excursion, they told me, was to love others.

That’s a radical move—and in the eyes of many, probably pretty crazy. As we stood in line for free ham sandwiches and beans served by nonprofit volunteers, Cravens introduced me to a guy who described an even more radical move: Paul Arnold gave up housing and began dwelling among the homeless in San Diego—voluntarily, he says.

For six years Arnold has been befriending people from all walks of life who have ended up “homeless,” as defined by the government: sleeping on the streets, in transitional housing, or in emergency shelters. For six years, he says he’s been driving his friends to doctors’ and probation appointments, counseling them, and praying for them. For six years he’s been eating what they eat, washing where they wash, and curling up in the trunk of his red 1998 Ford Ranger at night.

I’ve experienced homelessness once. I slept in my 2001 Mazda 626 for three nights, at a dinky motel for two nights, and then in a friend’s living room for three weeks. It was awful, but I was 19, with a sprightly body that could fall fast asleep anywhere and could serve shrimp scampi for 12 hours straight at Olive Garden. Meanwhile, Arnold is a 61-year-old Navy veteran with a well-used, rangy body and a Santa Claus beard—that is, no longer a spring chicken—and he chose a lifestyle that predicts an average life expectancy of 42 to 52 years. That’s ... pretty radical. 

Which made me question: What about people like me, who can’t live among the homeless yet still have an interest in helping them? I know there are many people in LA asking the same question, because we can no longer ignore the poorest among us. In 2016, we Angelenos taxed ourselves $1.2 billion to create more permanent supportive housing, and in 2017 we again taxed ourselves almost $4 billion for more homeless services. Our tax monies keep flushing into county and city coffers to solve the homeless crisis, yet the homeless population continues to spike, and people are getting frustrated. We have followed the standard protocol—relegating the responsibility of alleviating homelessness to the government and local nonprofits—and it still hasn’t made much of a dent on the crisis. So what other things can we ordinary citizens do to help?

“These people are just the same as me. I knew it in my head, but I didn’t know it the way I do now.”

I turned that question to the members of Cravens’ team. They had flown out from northern Virginia to San Diego to live homeless for five days, but I knew there were also thousands of homeless individuals in Virginia and Washington, D.C. “Why come all the way here, when there are people who need help and love in your own backyard?” I asked. “On day five, after you return to the East Coast, what’s going to change?” 

Ben Skriloff, the 20-year-old church intern, looked momentarily stumped. After pondering for a while, he said that before the trip he had viewed the homeless as “lower-class” people who needed his help. He had no concept of what it took to become homeless, what it took to survive each day on the streets, what it took from a human being to be so cut off from the rest of humanity. Then he met a 30-year-old man whose parents died during his early adulthood and who says his dog is his only companion. He met Darryl, who told him he hasn’t had a real conversation with anyone for seven years. He met Richard, a Hollywood actor’s son, who skitters away when someone gets too close. He met “Captain America,” a chatty man who would only reveal his street name. 

“They changed my perspective: These people are just the same as me,” Skriloff said. “I knew it in my head, but I didn’t know it the way I do now.” 

I understood what he meant. He needed to take that radical step out of his comfort zone—all the way out to the West Coast—to meet people whom he’d otherwise never engage in his own town. He doesn’t know what exactly will change when he returns home, but he knows something has changed inside him. 

Then Skriloff turned the tables on me: “Can I ask you a question? When did you most feel helped by someone?” 

I ruffled through my memory, back to the hardest period of my life. “Well, there was a brief period when I was homeless,” I said. “I was sleeping in my car or staying in cheap motels. Then when a friend found out about it, she took me in for three weeks without hesitation.”

Skriloff’s eyes widened: “Wow. Really?”

I guess I don’t quite fit the look of someone who could have had such an experience. But most of the homeless population once thought they didn’t fit that label, either. Skriloff is right—we are all not that different. It sounds cliché, yet it’s easy to forget that truth when we see a dirt-covered, crazy-eyed person screaming in the streets or relieving himself in a public park. It takes something radical for us to look at the faces of these people and see somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, somebody’s mother.

As I drove back to LA, I thought about all the help I received during my hardest, weakest moments. Once, it was a friend who took me in without question. Another time, it was a church deacon who made a special CD of worship music for me. Sometimes, it was strangers who stopped me on the street to offer prayers or a kind word. These individuals may have forgotten these acts of love, but I didn’t, because during a dark time when I felt unseen and thought I wanted to be unseen, they saw me—and that’s radical.