Testing My Christianity: Homelessness and My Own Dad

Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. … For each one should carry his own load. … Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return. The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; but the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. … Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up. … Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone …. 

                                                                                   Galatians 6:2-10 


In Galatians 6, we are called to help one another, yet each is ultimately responsible for themselves before the Lord.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink … at least not every time. The truth is, you can make him drink with force, but short of that …. .

My dad died a few years ago. He had been chronically homeless for most of the last three decades. He was an alcoholic and probably used some sort of drugs, but I can’t speak to the drug part of it. He wasn’t willing to accept the help. He had so much support, love, and lots of opportunities to get and remain sober, but he wouldn’t stay in the fight. He refused to stay the course. Whether it was his inability, his developing mental health issues, his stubbornness, his unwillingness, his brokenness, his denial or delusion, whatever the case, the end result was the same. He kept going back to that life of drinking, living on the street, and doing life his own way.

He seemed fine with it, he didn’t complain or seek out sympathy. He wanted to be in control of his life and didn’t want anybody telling him what to do; and for him, that meant the freedom of homelessness. The word freedom is used loosely here, because he definitely was dependent on government handouts in the form of food, money, a cell phone, medical care, and sometimes shelter.

Like with all adults, he has the right to choose to live that way. As his family, we didn’t like it: we wanted more from him, more of him. Nevertheless, we knew where to find him. We knew his routine, the “spots” where he’d hang out, and the faces of those who knew him.

If it was early in the morning, before 7 am, I could find him at McDonald’s sipping on a cup of coffee and reading the paper; late morning, he would be making his rounds chatting with the locals, both inside and outside the strip mall – “his strip mall”. By the afternoon, he would be sitting on the bench or a cushioned crate on the boulevard side of his strip mall having a cigarette. He was a fixture there, an unofficial ambassador greeting the regulars as they entered.

His outgoing personality, confidence and charisma, and his bright white inviting smile drew people to him and made it difficult to convince him that he was a homeless drunk. He wasn’t a fully functioning, hold down a job, responsible citizen drunk; but he was a managing drunk nonetheless. And he was able to do odd jobs and handyman work. Boy could he do handyman work! He could fix anything. He was a super creative problem solver who could teach MacGyver a few things about using a paper clip or a piece of foam to fix an old radiator. I definitely got that trait from him.

His genes gifted him with smooth, healthy skin and a strong frame and his dignity pushed him to wash up, wear clean clothes, and present himself approachable. If not for his eyes – sometimes glassy, but always beige where the whites were supposed to be – most wouldn’t have a clue to the real truth and severity of his condition.

He looked pretty good – clean and imminently lovable.

This is where it gets dicey. He was in and out of rehab programs, mostly long term, in-patient programs that gave him plenty of time to be clean; with gradual reentry into society … they had all the right elements. Yet he still went back to drinking and the streets almost immediately when he got the chance. What do you do with that? What can anyone do with that?

My faith, my prayer life, my convictions – all of it has been tested – as I watched my dad’s destructive lifestyle choices drag on. Only God’s grace, love and forgiveness could give me what I needed to not only endure, but give to my dad, despite his living a sad existence physically, mentally, and spiritually. I always shared with my kids about their grandfather and as they got older I managed to bring them to see him a few times in his “spot” or in rehab.

If there was no way to live on the streets, nowhere to go, no handouts, no “comforts”, would he and others like him be forced to find a way to make it in society or live in the shadows? Would that be such a bad thing? Positive pressure, lack of necessities, and life in its heartless, unbiased realities have a way of moving us in a certain direction. I sometimes think our society, in the interest of helping, has made it too easy to turn away from our families and responsibilities, has taken away the guard rails of standard practice, and created a viable option to live on the streets.

All the homeless shelters, food banks, and now tent cities being allowed to exist have taken away our personal responsibility for our fellow man, whether they be our family members or our community members. Someone else will take care of it. Well, as we can see, that is simply not the case.

Each of us have an obligation to take care of our own family members, except where none exist. Then, the community has that obligation. The individual has the obligation to accept the help and support of said members. Even if your Uncle Ned, your sister Tamella, or your dad or grandma have drug or mental health issues, it’s still your obligation to find a way to care for them and stay in the loop as the responsible liaison to health and human services. If, however, your family or community member refuses your repeated assistance and chooses to go off on their own, so be it. But let’s not make it an easy, comfortable, or even viable long term option for them.

I know it sounds harsh, but we all make choices and decisions about how we live our lives and sometimes those decisions lead to suffering, hurt, and even death. We can only pray those difficult situations will lead them back to a better path, but if it doesn’t, that too we must accept.

I had to accept my dad’s decision to live his life at a fraction of his potential happiness. He missed out on the daily love of his family, watching my kids grow up, and sharing in the memories and celebrations. I took what I could get: visits to his “spot”; quick conversations before he fell into the foolish talk of inebriation and paranoia; standing around with our arms slung over shoulders like best friends shooting the breeze; visiting hours at whatever in-patient program he happened to agree to; and gazing into his handsome face with dancing eyes and listening to his corny jokes. It was far less than it should have been, but it was what I had. And I took it and stored it in my heart.

Daddy made his choices over and over again. He purposely walked the path toward death on the streets, despite having other options routinely placed before him.

No amount of help, support, money, or social services could reach my dad. But I often wonder if the positive pressure of societal norms – the universal rejection and ostracization of homelessness and drunkenness – could have squeezed him enough to draw him back to us.

#notAfraidToThink              #LoveMyDad                 #KeeptheFaith

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