by Ebonie Johnson Cooper
According to my car’s dashboard, the temperature when I left work was 28 degrees. The wind blew heavily as I walked into my lovely , warm building complete with 24-hour concierge. I got in, changed out of my work clothes and plopped down to watch Jeopardy. Per usual, I became distracted by Instagram. I ran across a few posts that complained about how cold it was and then I saw one that said something along the lines of, If you see a young mother out tonight, have a heart and give her a ride. “That would apply if I were outside,” I thought to myself. Back to Jeopardy I went. As I sat on my plush couch in my apartment where the thermostat read 73 degrees, a quiet voice told me to Go. “Go outside and find those who need warmth. Go but go quietly,” it said. I thought for a second, where am I going to find homeless people in DC? It’s not like NYC, where I’m from, where they are pretty much every where. Then I remembered seeing a few near Gallery Place and on the entrance to I-395. Without another thought, I got up and I prepared to head outside into the night – alone- looking for people I didn’t know but who God knew needed me. I grabbed a few scarves and hats that I never use and off I went.
As I walked back to my car, I decided to stop in the CVS for a few hand warmers. They were all out. But they did have 3 for $10 fleece blankets. #Winning. I grabbed those and went back to my car. This time my dashboard read 19 degrees.
“Hey Mom, I’m heading out to give out a few items to the homeless,” I said over the phone as I pulled off. “I don’t like the idea of you going out all by yourself. Do you mind if I stay on the phone with you,” she asked. “Sure.” Off I drove with me behind the wheel and TJC on speaker phone.
I took the route I always take to Gallery Place and I saw no one. I turned a corner and still saw no one. I was hopeful that everyone found a shelter and my directive to go outside was just one of those, ‘you can’t see it now but you will one day’ lessons. But I was wrong. My lesson would begin right around the next corner. “I see someone, Mom! But he already has on a blanket.” “Ask him if he needs another. Trust me, he probably will.” I did a U-turn right there. It’s DC, it’s normal. “Please be careful, Ebonie,” Mom’s voice said from the speaker. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.”
I clicked on my blinkers and stepped out of the car. With sincerity and hesitance in my voice, I asked the man walking flanked with the unmistakable grey hypothermia blanket, if he needed another blanket. “Oh, yes! Thank you so much!” To my surprise, he wasn’t an old man like I thought he was. He was young, probably no more than five years older than me. I handed him the items and couldn’t help but notice his hands. He didn’t have on gloves. I smiled and got back in my car. Not even a block down, I saw another grey blanket. I rolled down my window, “Would you like another blanket?” “Oh no thank you, I’m good,” he said. I smiled and rolled up my window. “I wonder why that guy didn’t want a blanket?” “I don’t know but someone else will,” responded my mother.
As I continued to drive, I felt a heightened sense of awareness. My eyes darted from corner to corner, store front to Metro entrance. “Oh! I see another person, Mom. But I have to circle the block to get to him. No right turns.” En route to my target homeless guy, I saw yet another homeless man. This guy was sitting on one of those low gates that surround trees or shrubbery. I pulled over. “Hold on Mom, I’ll be right back.” Since I was approaching him from behind I was careful to announce myself and what I wanted loudly and clearly. “Excuse me, would you like a blanket and scarf?” He immediately turned around and said, “Absolutely, thank you so much! God bless you.” Before I could turn around, I heard another voice approaching on my right ask if I had another blanket. “Of course, I do! Do you need a scarf too?” “Yep, I’ll take one of those too.” I watched the first man, take the scarf and wrap it around his head. Not bothered by how silly it may have made him look, he was just grateful for another layer of warmth. I was starting to understand why I was led to be outside in 19 degree weather.
Standing in front of Walgreens asking for change was the homeless man I was going for. “Hi there. I have a few scarves, if that would help you?” “Oh yes, it would! Thank you so much.” He also asked if I had loose change, but I didn’t. I hopped back in my car feeling good. “Where are you now,” Mom quipped. “I’m driving around again. Looking for people.” The clock read 9:30. I’d been out for 30-minutes now. “I see someone at the bus stop but he’s all covered up,” I said to my mom. I was all out of blankets but I had scarves left. I rolled down my window, “Hello! Do you want some extra scarves?” No response. I could see the wind blowing under the blanket covering them. “Hello!!!! I have scarves for you, do you want one?” Slight body movement but still no response. “Mom, what should I do?” I felt badly just driving off. Maybe I could just leave the items next to the person. “Yes, do that. But hurry up, you need to get inside.”
In my mind, I saw the person hidden under the blanket jumping up and yelling expletives at me for bothering them. So as I approached, I spoke loudly again. I placed the items next to the person, repeated what now seemed like an all out chant and jumped back. Then he started to rise from his slump. He was a little confused as he came up from under his blanket so I pointed at the scarves I’d left next to him. I began to see his face. “Hi! I’m sorry for interrupting your nap but I have these to keep you warm.” He was an old man. Cute and old. “What’s that?” I told him what they were. “Oh. Ok,” he said with his two teeth grin. He’d now taken his blanket all the way off. He was balding but with patches of what we’d call ‘good hair’ left. He also had many scars on his head which made me wonder the kind of hard life he’d been living. But I didn’t have time to daydream, I needed to get him some warmth. “Wait one minute, I have a hat for you.” I walked over to the car and grabbed a hat from the passenger’s seat. As I went to hand it to him, he sweetly bowed his head. I saw his hands shaking- mostly from age but probably also from the cold. I gently placed the toboggan like hat on his head. He couldn’t put the scarves on either. “Can you put them on for me too?” “OH SURE!” There I stood, wrapping an old homeless man whose life led him to a bus stop bench on the coldest night in DC in 20 years. “You’ll have to tie it now so it can stay,” he said. He was like a child, excited to have someone help him do the things he couldn’t. “Alright, I gotcha,” I told him as I re-wrapped his new warm garments.
By this time an officer had arrived with hand warmers. “Oh man, I was looking for those tonight,” I told Mr. Officer. “You going around tonight?” “Yes, just trying to help.” He told he to wait a moment and returned with a hand full of hand warmers. I felt like it was Christmas! YAY! We helped Old Friend get his hand warmers in his gloves and he was elated. “That your car,” Old Friend asked me. I told him it was. “What you doing?” “Just driving around looking to help folks.” “Oh, ok,” he said with that smile again. Mr. Officer proceeded to ask him if he wanted to go in the hypothermia truck. “Oh naw! I gots a meeting tomorrow. I was built for this. Been doing it for years.” In that moment I realized he was probably suffering from dementia too. My heart broke. The more the officer insisted he go, Old Friend grew more insistent he stay. I told Old Friend that he’d be warm tonight and make his meeting on time. He said no, thanks but thanked us for helping him. “Ok, well I’ll be back to check on you,” Mr. Officer said to Old Friend. “Oh thank you. I appreciate that. I do.” I proceeded to leave and let the officer do his job.
“Ok, Mom. I’m back.” I told my mom what had just happened and that I’d even gotten a stash of hand warmers! “Ok, it’s time for you to go in now.” “Ok, ok. I’ll call you when I’m in.” We hung up after 43 minutes. I took a few more turns before I got on my street to head home. I handed out the remaining hand warmers to those that I saw and even stopped at a group of construction workers to help them keep warm. They were very grateful.
I rode the rest of my way home in silence. I was in awe at what God had shown me in just under an hour. He sent me on a mission to serve: Alone and vulnerable yet protected by his grace and the comforting voice of my mother. The men I met tonight weren’t scary or weird or annoying, as we often think of homeless people. They were grateful, humble and kind. As I dressed Old Friend, I didn’t care about him being homeless and dirty. All that mattered was that he was warm. The feeling it gave me to wrap him up and put a hat on his head is indescribable. There hasn’t been a greater joy I’ve felt in a very long time. I know in these moments I wasn’t just serving ‘homeless people’, I was doing God’s work by serving human beings in their time of need. This is what true philanthropy is all about.
So now as I sit back on my plush couch, in my 74 degree apartment, life feels that much sweeter. Richer. And purposeful.