Note: The following was written by Laura Toni Holsinger. She is a member of the RISE community and formerly resided in Boston, MA.
"This work can be such a blessing, but it's not for the naive."
- A wise HARTS volunteer
This is a story about Tour Guide Mike. A friend who had several run-ins with homelessness... someone I knew in Boston... who passed away in August 2010. Mike fits into many of the world's "boxes," but I'd like to tell you about the Mike that became part of a church community in a historic downtown Boston church... a church that for many years wanted nothing to do with "his kind."
When we (our homeless outreach group) met Mike in 2006, he was a Freedom Trail (historic path throughout Boston) tour guide and was then homeless. Think about that. People who could afford vacations to Boston would stumble upon men and women dressed in colonial garb downtown who would give them a historic tour of the city. I'm sure they had no idea that he was homeless and that the tips they gave him at the end meant more than they could ever imagine. Life got better for Mike. Tours were frequent, which meant more income. He eventually got into an SRO (single room occupancy) and had a place to call home. He would come to see us each Thursday night in the park and would talk with joy about being able to watch DVDs in his apartment and cook himself a meal... something many of us take for granted. He called himself an actor. He would write these one-person dramas and perform them for us in the park. He was notorious for silly jokes. I always looked forward to them. He was part of our community... And we looked forward to seeing every week. And then, life got bad again. Mike started drinking... again. He spent the little money he had on alcohol, would show up on Thursday nights with alcohol on his breath, and would make up stories about people close to him dying or being sick, just to get our attention. Why did he think he needed to do this for us? We loved talking to him... he didn't need to impress us or go the extra mile for attention. It made me angry and sad to see him this way. Mike's health began to decline.... and it never got better. Even in his last months, he showed up on Thursday nights... albeit drunk, with urine all over his pants, smelling as if he hadn't showered in days. Mike died at a low point in his life: Sick, homeless, and seemingly helpless.
Mike taught me a lot about life and about God. At some points, he was one of those people that you would think could NEVER get better. Even God couldn't tear him away from alcohol, we thought. And then, he did... but it didn't last. Working with the homeless has made me thankful for things that I never thought twice about growing up. The luxury of showering whenever you wanted, a choice of snacks in the pantry, being able to leave extra "stuff" for the day in my car instead of carrying it all with me wherever I go, having a sterile place to keep my toothbrush, getting to plan my day on my own accord... Not according to a shelter, soup kitchen and bus schedule...
Jesus loved Mike. Even when we were tired of his lies or confused by his actions, we were called to love him unconditionally too. And in the chaos that was his life... and death... God surrounded him with people that cared about him.
I can't help but reflect on the fact that I am typically a very concise communicator, yet this story is all over the place... My conclusion? Homelessness is messy. There is no formula for good or bad fortune... It's unpredictable and unstable and always changing. So maybe my inability to sum up my thoughts in neat bullet points and structured paragraphs is a little taste of what it feels like to be homeless. I treasure the moments and people that can teach me such lessons. And so I will forever have a special place in my heart for Tour Guide Mike and my other friends who just so happened to be homeless.... One of them being Jesus.