You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
The crack of a gunshot shakes me awake.
I lie alert, listening with shallow, silent breaths. I peer out from under the cardboard. My eyes lock on the silhouette spears of a fence standing 20 yards away and beyond them a few stars pinprick the black sky.
No outcry, no running feet.
A full-throated engine -- must be a bus -- emerges from the stillness, and then an accompanying rush of a speeding car. The noises lie beyond the fence. I stare at the sharp shadows, fully awake now, listening. A ripple of adrenalin flutters in my stomach and then a chill shudders through my body. My knees draw tighter to my chest and I'm glad the sleeping bag feels constricted and close.
The silence is not comforting.
It's past midnight; I need to make it through the night.
This is not my first time in a sleeping bag. I grew up going on family camping vacations. Every few years my educator parents took advantage of their summer breaks to pile the four of us kids into a car and tour the country via camping grounds. Then as the mother of a Cub Scout I'd notched a few camping trips on my mom belt by helping to watch over the antics of my son and his friends. But lying in a sleeping bag through the night is where the similarity between those experiences and this one ended. There is no parent keeping guard on this cold night.
I got here because a few weeks earlier, flipping through office email, I came across a message that inexplicably drew me. It's the season of fund-raising requests and this one came for Covenant House Missouri. I read that it's an organization that serves homeless youth, from age 16 up to their 22nd birthday. What made this one stick was the note that one in five homeless kids become trapped by human traffickers, whether for labor or sexual work.
The spiral haunted me. How a young person already in dire straits, desperate to find someone to trust, is taken advantage of and then caught up in a worst situation. Could I do something?
My shoulder aches; I realize I am lying at an awkward angle. I shift to turn to my other side, the cardboard box flattening against my face. I snake my arm through the twisted sleeping bag to dig my iphone out of my coat pocket.
Only 1:30 a.m.
You've got to be kidding me.
Funny coincidence, my New Yorker husband Juan knew the founders of Covenant House. Some 35 years ago now Juan hung out with the men that initially put the organization together and he remembers their animated conversations. Today the corporate headquarters is still in NYC and its grown to 15 other major cities. Along with shelter for homeless youth, the program provides a number of services, from counseling to education to drug treatment, to address the kids' needs and to coach them toward independence.
In St. Louis, 3,000 kids sleep on its streets every night. Three thousand! Invisible, vulnerable. The facts defy stereotypes. For example, half are from St. Louis County, an area more affluent than the city. Perhaps less surprising, half find themselves on the street because of family dysfunction.
I had drifted into a doze but now my bladder wakes me. I mentally assess: how bad is the pressure? Can I stand it a few more hours? I shift to my other side, and drag a scarf under my head to simulate a pillow. The movement exposes my face to outside the box and the cold snaps my eyes open. Wind chill in the 20's.
I wonder about kids outside tonight. Huddled against concrete, hidden in the shadows. I imagine that if I was homeless I would get good at spotting hidden corners during the day that I could return to at night. I imagined knowing when buildings lock up at night so that I could slip inside ahead of time. I thought about kids in just a hoodie and jeans -- here I lie clothed in four layers in a sleeping bag inside a box -- and I feel cold. My heart sends out a prayer, "Father, keep them safe. Please let them feel Your love."
A gust of frigid wind catches my face again and I duck into the bag, pulling its folds over my head.
Damn the hot chocolate I drank at midnight.
Where do kids go when they need to pee in the night?
Dig out my phone: 2:32 a.m.
You've got to be kidding me.
So I decide to participate in a "Sleep Out," which is a Covenant House fund-raiser similar to walks that other organizations do. Participants walk in support of a cause, which donors support by giving money. For Covenant House "sleepers" raise funds by sleeping out in the elements for one night, duplicating a homeless experience. Outdoor-lifestyle firm R.E.I. provides sleeping bags while a moving company, Two Men and a Truck, donates cardboard boxes -- the boxes are a barrier from the chilled ground.
About 25 Sleep Out volunteers assembled at the Covenant House earlier in the evening. In the registration area we mill around, mingling with Covenant House staff, all wearing Sleep Out t shirts. i get into an animated conversation with three junior counselors about racial issues in St. Louis. "I don't like the term 'African American'," said one young woman, "My family's been here for generations. We're just Americans!" "I think the words Caucasian and White are stereotypes," said a young man. "Look around - there's lots of colors in this room." I pepper them with questions, enjoying their articulate arguments and passionate vision for this community. "It can get better!"
Abruptly, our conversation ends. Time to gather in a meeting room for orientation, a panel Q&A and then small group discussions with staff and youth. Surprised, as the program begins, I realize that the composed young people I'd been joking with are not counselors but residents, former homeless kids.
A growing rustling rises -- is it rain? -- no... leaves from nearby trees stirring in the wind. Unable to stand it, I worm out of my cardboard cave and hurry unsteadily toward the building to use the bathroom. I pass a fire pit where a few people in lawn chairs are staying up all night to watch over the scattered sleeping bags. Inside the building I find five sleepers; a few unable to sleep, a few others taking a bathroom break like me.
We chat for awhile. I stall going out into the cold and mix up another cup of instant hot chocolate.
It's 3:28 a.m. when I return to my sleeping bag.
Remember that as I write this now I have their faces in my mind.
- There is Brianna* whose mother died of cancer in 2010 but before passing left her daughter a house and car with an aunt as a guardian. When the aunt neglected to pay taxes on the house, they lost it and Brianna moved into the car. She slipped into a depression so deep she ceased to speak.
- There is Jada* who grew up homeless, shuttling from hotel room to car to shelter to the street, passed between mother and father until getting kicked out of the family unit. To make money she prostituted herself, though not just to anyone, she explains. She had three regulars.
- There is Ethan* whose mother died when he was a baby. He has 20 brothers. Raised by an unconscionably cruel foster mother, he would escape to his aunt's home and sit on the front stoop watching dealers sell drugs. He learned the trade, joined the Bloods gang and became an intimidating dealer himself.
In the echoing meeting room, listening to their testimony, I am quietly reeling. I am struck by the incongruity between their stories and the composure in front of me. Tears prick my eyes. The suffering and hardship they have experienced is so sad, but the reason I am moved is not sympathy for their past but, rather, what I see in the present.
They are unbound. They have worked very hard to untangle from the grip of memory. They have faced the terror and sadness of their experience in order to leave it behind. Somehow they have moved from victim to refusing to allow their history to deface the beauty of a life that deserves love and feels wanted.
Phenomenal, caring professional staff have guided these young people's journeys, encouraging the youth to choose for themselves whether to walk forward or not. Amazingly, today they affirm goals and dreams and aspirations that would have been untouchable just a few short years ago.
Where hopelessness had been is now a kernel of recognition: I do have worth; I am worth fighting for.
Fellow sleeper Colleen shakes my box; I jar awake. Scooting, I shoot forward out of the bag and narrowly miss a nosedive. Glancing around I see that most of the sleeping bags are rolled and the lot vacant. I hurriedly wrap up my bag, while another sleeper kindly drags my cardboard to a stack of other flattened boxes. Stiffly, I stretch. It's just after 5:00 a.m.
Inside the building we sleepers clutch cups of hot coffee and chatter, "How did it go? Did you sleep?" We're herded back into the meeting room where we share a few reflections, recognizing that one uncomfortable night is not the same as chronic homelessness. Jada joins us in her pajamas and sweatshirt, smiling at our comments. I look around the room. Faces are puffy and hair is mussed -- not the typical business executive gathering.
I think this night will linger for all of us.
I know it will for me.
In just a few days is Thanksgiving -- I hope you have a very happy one! -- I am grateful for the many, many blessings I have. Thank you for allowing this blog to land in your inbox each Monday; I'll return next week with an update on writing the book. I am grateful for your support.
In this spirit let me end with another quote from Maya Angelou:
If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present...gratefully.
P.S. - *I changed the names of the young people to protect their privacy. Also - a few of you had trouble with the fund-raising link last week. If you'd like to contribute, here it is again: Joan's Fundraising Link
With warm thanks,