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When I first started working on my series on homelessness, I remember walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles one night with a homeless man named Ronald, listening to him point out places that reminded him of the not-so-distant past.
“That’s where I used to sing for food,” Ronald said, pointing at a restaurant. He jabbed his thumb to another street: “And that’s where I would walk over to trade food for crack.” He pointed at another corner and said, “That’s where I sometimes sleep so I can be far away from the crazies of Skid Row.”
At the time, Ronald was many months sober and fighting each day to stay sober. He was lucid and experienced and bruised enough to share nuggets of hard-earned wisdom with me. One of the many questions I asked Ronald was one I’ve heard others ask me numerous times: “There are so many homeless people around me. How do I know whom to help?”
Ronald stopped walking and looked at me. “Sophia, remember this: You can’t help everyone. If you tried to help everyone, you’ll be sucked dry like they are. The person you should help is the person God wants you to help.”
“Sure, but then how do I know who’s the person God wants me to help?” I asked.
“If God wants you to help someone, He’ll make that known to you,” Ronald said, an answer that didn’t quite satisfy me.
Easy for Ronald to say—he’s got a special anointing. When God wants Ronald to help someone, out of his mouth pour songs of prophecy, his heart clenches with conviction, and sometimes he gets literally kicked and walloped into his mission, like Jonah.
As for me, I am pretty much your average humdrum Christian. I was raised in a Christian home, and today I read the Bible, go to church, and pray according to Scripture. My dreams are extraordinarily dull, and although sometimes I cry joyful tears when I worship, I’ve never experienced the sort of lightning-bolt confirmation I want from God to questions like these. So how would someone like me know when God wants me to help a particular homeless person?
Enter John. John is a 61-year-old homeless man who has been living in LA’s touristy neighborhood of Venice for almost six years. He’s an alcoholic who spends each weekday collecting recyclables and blowing all his cash on cheap vodka from CVS. He walks so much back and forth between the beach and the recycling center that he wears through his sneakers within months. And for some reason, my boyfriend David and I have a very soft spot for our dear friend John.
I’ve known John for almost two years and have written about him several times. But although David and I have tried to help him several times, including checking him into rehab, nothing much has changed for John. He still sleeps on the same street next to a Gold’s Gym and a Public Storage facility, and he still passes out inebriated every night. Over time, David and I took a step back and stopped pushing him to change his life: He needed to come to that conclusion himself. But we still care for him and try to remind him, whenever possible, that a different life is possible.
Then on a recent Thursday, John told us his sister was in town. We were shocked: The only thing we knew about John’s immediate family was what he had told us—that his sisters had bought him a bus ticket from Seattle to LA and haven’t been in contact with him since. Whenever he mentioned his sisters, John made it sound like they had given up on him. “It’ll be best for them if I were dead,” I remember him saying. Now he was telling us that his sister had flown down from Seattle to look for him.
Turns out, John had been chatting drunkenly with a security guard one night and had mentioned his sister’s full name. He promptly forgot that conversation, but the security guard, whose name is Rafael, remembered. Rafael looked up John’s sister’s name online and found a landline phone number for her. His sister said she had kept that landline number because that was the number John would remember should he ever call. When Rafael told her where John usually sleeps, she flew down, booked a motel near the airport, and drove a rental car to look for John. She recognized him as soon as she saw him.
I met up with John and his sister that week on a Friday afternoon before she returned home. I wanted to meet her in person so that she’d see a smiling human face and know that there are people who care for John in this big, chaotic city of Los Angeles. As we stood next to an overpriced parking lot by the beach walk, I hugged John’s sister and patted John’s arm hello.
Unsurprisingly, the two siblings were overwhelmed. It had been almost six years since they last saw each other, and for years John’s sisters had no idea if he was dead or alive. John’s sister asked him if he would go back to Seattle with her, but he refused.
Rafael the security guard joined us too, and I soon found out that he had only been sent to work in Venice temporarily, and was actually leaving for home that very day. Rafael told me he lives 50 miles north, and it was only by chance that he got stationed at the Public Storage near where John sleeps. It was by chance that John wanted to chat with a stranger and happened to mention his sister’s name. But it was not by chance that this kind stranger took the time to look for his sister and call her.
As I listened to Rafael, I too felt overwhelmed. I turned to John and said, “See, John? This is not a coincidence! It can’t be! Someone up there loves you.”
“Someone up there who? The sky?” John replied with his usual cheeky humor. But I knew he knew what I meant. During his worst moments, he had asked for prayer—he might not know God personally, but he knows innately to call out to Him.
Later I said to John privately, “Look, John, your sister flew down all the way just to look for you. Rafael looked for your sister for you. People care about you, John. That means God cares about you too.”
“Yeah,” John mumbled, and muttered something about knowing he needed to enter rehab. But we knew it would take a lot more for John to check himself in to a rehab center. He says he wants to quit alcohol—and I believe he does—but his will is insufficient. For now, one step at a time.
First step: John’s sister had brought with her a copy of his birth certificate. Like many homeless people on the streets, John had lost all his belongings, including his ID, which meant he hasn’t been able to get many of the resources that he needs. So we gave John one task: Take the birth certificate copy to the nearby nonprofit St. Joseph’s, and ask the staffers there to help him procure an ID.
“OK, OK,” John said. “I’ll do it first thing Monday.” Then he paused: “Oh no, wait, Monday is recycling day. I’ll do it Tuesday.”
“You promise?” I said doubtfully.
“Yes, I promise, I promise,” John replied.
I told John’s sister I would keep in touch with her about John, and she looked relieved. There’s no other way for her to check on him, since John doesn’t have a cell phone. She said she’s retired and doesn’t have a lot of money, but she plans to come down periodically to visit him, now that she knows where he is.
As we said our goodbyes, she waited for John to walk ahead of her before turning to me with a wistful, anguished expression: “He’s really such a wonderful person, you know. He was so smart, so talented. … He even went to law school!” She didn’t say much more, but we both silently mourned all the years that alcoholism has robbed from this gentle, suffering man.
I then remembered what Ronald also told me when I had expressed a sense of despair: “With love, anything is possible. That love comes from God who sends someone to a person He loves. … Be encouraged. No matter what people are going through and how bad it is, if they’re not dead, there is still hope.”
John’s life is not over. Seeing how God had placed people in his life encouraged me because it confirmed to me something I had already known: God loves John. I met John and developed a heart for him because God loves him. Therefore, there is hope for John. And if John can’t see it, perhaps we can help him see it.