The Danny Story
Lived: Alcove of Ben White/TX 290 overpass bridge.
Marriage Status: Married, 3 Children. Had not been in contact for 5 years.
Under A Bridge
Danny was a broken, hurting man. He was also a man with dreams, gifts, and love to give. Sometimes it’s just hard to see through someone’s brokenness and find their inner strength.
The first thing most people thought of when Danny’s name was mentioned wasn’t his appearance. It wasn’t his bag of cans for recycling. It wasn’t the grocery cart he pushed everywhere he went. It wasn’t even his ability to talk about old rock-n-roll bands for hours. It was his smell.
Here’s the thing: Danny had a stroke a few years ago. After the stroke, Danny lost the ability to control his bowels and bladder during his sleep. As clumsy Christians we weren’t sure what to do about the situation, so we all ignored the smell for weeks, loving Danny just as we would any other friend. There were meetings in which the leaders of the church brought up the situation and discussed how best to deal with it while maintaining Danny’s dignity. Sometimes you have to have really uncomfortable conversations with people you care for.
Surely Danny knew that his smell followed him, but he was homeless and crippled. Washing machines and showers are pretty rare in homeless camps, much less under bridges.
Tired, Poor, and Huddled
A famous poem written by Emma Lazarus and engraved upon the Statue of Liberty reads in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Danny was tired of living under a bridge. He was tired of feeling unwanted by the people that passed him by on the street, the police who hassled him, the highway cleanup crews who threw away his belongings whenever they made a pass through the area.
He was poor; he earned a dollar or two a day by collecting cans to recycle for a going rate of about 50 cents per pound. (Any idea how many cans it takes to make a pound? It’s a lot.)
Danny spent a lot of time being a “huddled mass.” Most of the time he wasn’t at ReWork he was under the bridge huddled in his sleeping bag, trying to stay warm in the cold wind created by the architecture of the bridge. (Trust me, the wind’s about 5 times worse in that alcove than it is outside.) At nights he slept with his legs hanging over the ledge of the bridge because to sleep parallel to the edge would mean a 15-20 foot fall onto the highway if he rolled in his sleep.
The first solution was to outfit Danny with adult diapers that he could put on at night and take off during the day. After several weeks, we came to realize this solution wasn’t working well. The smell continued and Danny was unable to get the hang of changing himself every evening and morning. So then the pastor of our church began taking Danny’s soiled clothes to wash at his house and bringing him to get a shower every Sunday before church.
After the first shower, which was proceeded with a haircut and straight-razor shave, Danny looked and talked like a brand new man. Sometimes when someone cares about you and sacrifices their time and money to ensure you can have pride and self-respect, it makes a big difference. That day Danny spoke clearly and loudly. He stood upright with a posture that would make an orthopedic proud. He became a big cheese, walking around to talk to everyone at church. And the smile on that man’s face could change a person’s priorities permanently. It could make a person understand the entire gospel in seconds.
Many homeless people become homeless because they exhaust their support networks. Many of us could have been homeless at one time or another. I think everyone can think of a time or two that they wouldn’t have made it through if a friend or family member hadn’t given their time, resources, or money to get us out of a tight spot. But some people don’t have those types of relationships. For some, it’s because their personality is so caustic people stay away. For others, it’s because they never had a home with people who cared for them. Still others, it’s just bad luck that separates them from the ones they love. The loss of hope is a horrible phenomenon. Without hope, any will to change is overridden by the knowledge that all is futile.
The Whole Story… Kind of.
Danny was released from prison five years ago. He said he was sentenced because he kicked a police officer while he was being tazed. We were never told the complete story and we never pried.
After leaving prison, Danny suffered a stroke, had a hip replacement that left him with a horrible limp, and ended up in a homeless shelter. Danny is a frail man, the epitome of the phrase “skin and bones,” and he was beaten and robbed by another man in the shelter. Along with all of his belongings, the other man took all of Danny’s contact information. By the time Danny came to our church, he hadn’t spoken to his family for years and had no way of contacting them. He knew no addresses, no phone numbers.
After a few Internet searches (which were made much more difficult by the fact that nobody has a home phone anymore and cell phones aren’t listed) we were able to find the number for Danny’s mother-in-law. He left countless heartbreaking, desperate messages on her answering machine for the next two weeks, never getting an answer or a call back. One day, his wife happened to hear one of these messages on her mother’s answering machine and called back.
The quest began to find someone to take Danny back into their home and get him reunited with family. His son had promised to send his ID and then later come pick him up, but that lead turned cold quickly. His wife seemed unwilling to take him back, and Danny wasn’t clear as to why.
Days went by and the temperature began to gradually drop. Danny was in everyone’s prayers and we legitimately feared for his life when the temperature neared freezing. We suggested shelters, alcoholics anonymous club/shelters, detox shelters, all of which were refused because he feared being beaten and robbed and he had no substance abuse problems.
As Nate was leaving ReWork one day, Danny asked to use his phone to call his wife. They spoke for about an hour, then Danny handed back the phone. When asked how the conversation went, Danny replied, “Oh good. She’s coming to pick me up tomorrow.”
Nate asked Danny what he meant, and he said she wanted to drive in tomorrow and pick him up at the church. He was going to live with her. The word began to spread through those who knew Danny- “He’s getting off the streets! He’s going to live with his wife!” We couldn’t believe it.
Now anyone who has worked with the homeless population for any amount of time knows that sometimes facts are skewed and things don’t always mean what they appear to mean. Nate called the number back to speak with Danny’s wife about what she had told him. Unbeknownst to us at ReWork, Danny had never come clean and told his wife he was homeless. She always assumed he was in a nursing home or outpatient setting of some sort. When she asked where he was sleeping that night and he replied “Under the bridge” she was faced with an urgent problem and made a selfless decision.
December 31st, 2011. 4:00 P.M.
The next day, Danny was taken to clean up and shower before his wife came. His wife arrived at the church first in a small car. She looked nervous and unsure as we greeted her and waited on Danny to get there. She offered us water and Gatorade that she had packed in an ice-chest for the 5-hour drive back to east Texas. We made small talk. We shifted our weight from side to side. We twiddled our thumbs. We picked at pieces of lint on our clothes.
Finally Danny showed up, looking as nervous as we felt.
As he stepped out of the truck and hobbled toward his wife, who he had not seen in over five years, tears welled in his eyes. “Hello sweetheart” he said as he stumbled into an embrace. The will to remain strong crumbled in his wife’s arms. The tears dropped down his face and he sputtered out, “I’m hurt. I’m hurt. I’m hurt.” All the years of weathering 100+ degree Texas heat, winter rain, curses and insults from people driving by his sign “Anything Helps- God Bless,” all the years of fearing an attack and robbery came out at once.
Danny got in the car.
And he went home.
And we all cried as we saw this man’s life change towards a new beginning.
Sometimes what a broken, hurting man needs to get back on his feet is a friend who will spend time with him. Danny was our friend. We sat and talked about old rock bands and hot rod cars, we ate together, we worked together. And we did one quick Internet search and gave him access to our cell phones once in a while. That’s all it took. Danny is off the streets and living with his family again. Renewal.
It will not be easy to rectify the relationships that had been devastated years ago. It will not be easy to work through the habits and coping mechanisms he’s adopted to survive life on the streets. But the healing began the second he walked into that car.
Written by Evan Solice, January 2012