“Am I allowed to use the bathroom?”

Over the past few months since our move, opportunities to serve in ministries serving those who are homeless have been popping up like never before.  We live in a county where on average there are 84,000 people homeless per night (at least that’s the stat I hear most often).  84,000 people. That’s about 10x the number of the population of the town I grew up in.

Last week we volunteered with the Pasadena Homeless Count. All over the country there are groups of people taking part in homeless counts during the last 10 days of January.  The aim is to acquire information that will help agencies acquire funding and provide better services for the homeless.  You’re sent out in teams of 2-3 with a survey instrument and a specific zone to cover.  You can see the results from last year’s count here.

Doing something like this puts a few things in perspective.  I’m not just referring to the gratitude I have for a roof over my head, food on the table and a bed to sleep in at night (though I am thankful for those things and sadly I am quick to forget that I should be thankful for them).  My husband brought up a thought-provoking question –  We all have assumptions about what a homeless person looks like.  Can we judge whether someone is homeless without any biases or assumptions?  Is it possible?

During the count we starting talking to a man sitting on a bench with a duffel bag sitting next to him, prepared to begin the survey with him.  Question one:  “Are you homeless today?”  Man: “No.” (Awkward moment of silence).  I wonder what he was thinking – surely he realized that thought he was homeless.  He was very kind and gracious and we had a little chat and he responded very positively to what we were out doing, but still…

On Sunday at the Community Meal at church I was working at the sign-in table.  I really like working at the sign in table and engaging the guests in conversation.  I like to think that my smiling and asking how they are doing and listening if they want to talk is one small way to share a little bit of Christ’s love with them.  I can’t relate to being homeless. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know the challenges they face day to day. I don’t know the looks they get from people walking down the street. I don’t know about the fear they face. The dangers. But on Sunday, there was one simple question that offered me a little bit of new insight.  A man I’d never seen before signed in and said these words to me:

“Am I allowed to use the bathroom?”

He didn’t asked me where the bathroom was.  He specifically asked if he was allowed.  I was momentarily taken aback. Asking permission? Day after day he must be told he’s now allowed.  “Of course,” I answered and pointed him to the men’s room.  I hope he felt welcome. I hope the meal was a safe place for him for a couple of hours. I hope he used the bathroom again before he left for the night. I hope he comes back next time.

Meanwhile…his humble question continues to resurface in my mind. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be obedient in a very small way to the words we read in Isaiah 1:17 – “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed….”

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