It was a warm sunny day and I was just happy school was over. I always said this was my birthday present since school ended the week of my birthday or on my birthday. This year stuck out because Mama and Daddy were separated and things had been up and down emotionally for me. No child ever wants to see their parents separate–I know I didn’t. It was such an emotionally draining experience. Who was to blame? Mama? Daddy? Me? My brother? Who was going to stay with whom? And does this mean Granddaddy won’t be coming to pick us up?
These were the questions running through my mind as I entered the next phase of my life, which I was no way prepared for. Within a couple of days we were going to be moving, and where we ended up was not what I would have ever thought. Mama had packed the van with some of our things and said we were going to the park. My brother and I never asked any questions, we just did as we were told. Once we arrived at the park, my brother and I got out of the van and went to go play. We ran around playing and then watching the men fish. Mama had grilled some hot dogs and asked if we wanted to stay here overnight. Like a camp-out experience. The first night was fun. Then came the morning and my brother and I were ready to go “home.” This was when Mama had a talk with my brother and me. She explained that she was going through a rough time and we had to wait on moving into our place. She didn’t know how long we would be at the park, but it was very important for us to keep silent and tell no one about us now “living” at the park.
I thought this would be hard because every weekend we went over to our grandparents’ house. How would we hide this from Granddaddy? He waited for us to call to let him know we were ready to be picked up every Friday, if he didn’t just pull up in front of the house.
Somehow we never made the call. We had to protect ourselves, although Mama explained why it would seem we didn’t need to hide from Granddaddy. To my brother and me, Granddaddy made everything all right. The first couple of days were okay, but there is only so much sleeping in a van one can do, and only so much running around a park which really didn’t have much to entertain two young people. This was a park which only had one play area for kids, one bathroom, and open space; above it, all you could hear was the roar of cars and trucks passing overhead 24 hours a day, because the bridge which linked two countries was our landmark and now a symbol of home.
We didn’t have a variety of food. Each morning Mama would walk up the street, and when she returned, she had day-old bread, juice in small plastic bottles, and bologna. The bologna was so thin, you could see straight through it. She would pile about five slices on one piece of bread and then put the other piece of bread on top and this would be breakfast, lunch, and dinner EVERYDAY! Then one day the food ran out and we had nothing to eat. My brother woke up and said “come on, Martti–we’re going to find something.” My brother was my protector during this time. Each morning he would get up and walk me to the restroom, and he would walk in the ladies restroom and check to make sure no one was lurking to do any harm to me. As I would go in, Buggy, as we all called him, stayed “posted up” until I came out. Well, that morning, not only did he protect me, he also played provider. We walked along the pier and found a stick, then we found some old fishing wire and a hook, and soon a sinker, and all that was left was to find the bait. I dug up a worm. My brother assembled our supplies and then walked over to the rail and tossed the makeshift fishing pole over into the Detroit River. It seemed in no time my brother had actually caught a fish. He reached for the wire to pull the fish up (you see, we had no reel), and the wire started to cut his hand. All I remember is seeing, out of nowhere, this gloved hand reaching to grab the wire. Up and up the man pulled until finally a fish was visible. And just like that, the man was gone. I can still only see a rough image of the man’s face but really can’t bring it into full view. We ran back to the van and told Mama what we had done, and then all of a sudden we realized we didn’t have a way to clean and cook the fish. So we asked Mama if she had enough gas to make it to Granny’s house. She said she thought so. We hopped in the van with excitement and we made it to Granny’s house. We jumped out of the van and ran into the house, fish in tow. Granny looked at us and we said, “Look what we caught!” and she replied, “You bought Granny a fish!” and we said almost in unison, “No!” She looked at us. We said, “Can you cook the fish for us?” and she looked at us and said nothing and just prepared the fish for us. This was a good day. We stayed most of the day with Granny and breathed a little sigh of relief that we were in a home, in a neighborhood, with a park across the street and a bathroom where no one needed to stand guard, and the noise was different. No various sounds coming from cars or from a bridge above us. We were “normal.” If only for a day, it felt good. Then the time came for us to leave and Granny packed up a bunch of food and other things. We got back in the van and drove back to the park. Back “home.”
Some nights my brother and I would stay outside and sleep on the lawn chairs. This particular night, I stared up into the sky and it seemed like silence had taken over and the stars looked different for a moment. I said to my brother, “When I get out of here, I am NEVER coming back to this.”
Well, you can plan, and then God can un-plan. Fast forward nearly 30 years and I did return, not to a life of homelessness, but to help the homeless. It started in December 2012. My church was looking to visit COTS to feed the homeless. My niece quickly said, “I’m afraid of the homeless.” That’s when I got the idea to challenge the children of our church to stay out with me in the cold all night to see what the homeless may have to experience. Seven of us braved the cold, temps starting at 33 degrees and dropping to 21 degrees by morning. I explained to the children that although we were in a fenced-in parking lot outside of our church, they could not enter the church. That night the children heard gunfire and found ways to stay warm.
I asked the church to support each of the children by sponsoring them for their efforts, $5 an hour for each hour they stayed outside. We raised nearly $600, which we donated to the Denby House in Detroit, a shelter for the homeless.
My son and I have done other such events and acts of service over the years; and I know we’re not alone. So to you, the reader, pause to SEE those who are walking around the city, or lying in a park, or standing at a freeway entrance ramp, they are not homeless first, they are people. And as humans, we are to care for those who look just like us. As Jesus said in the book of Matthew, “if you did this to one, you have done this to me.” God bless you and continue to be a blessing to someone.