The Grace of God

The Des Moines River flows about a third of a mile east of our house. Between the house and the river is a street, a recreational trail, and a levee. On the other side of the levee is a housing development. Well, not really. There are several homeless camps up and down the river, and by my estimate the population of homeless residents is growing at an exponential rate.

We walk on that recreational trail as much as possible. Stephanie will walk between two and six miles a day, and I’ll walk two miles three to five times a week. Sometimes we walk the first mile together; sometimes we don’t. After the first mile, homeless camps are nonexistent.

Walking together on a very nice day last week, we noticed a pile of what appeared to be trash along the trail. I jokingly told Stephanie I was going to rummage through it and see what I could find that we might be able to use. I didn’t see Stephanie’s eyes, but I’m sure they were rolling.

I turned around at the one-mile marker to complete the two-mile circuit while Stephanie went on to cover a few more miles. When I approached the pile of “stuff” along the way back there were two people standing around it. The man was loading things up in a wheeled cart that resembled a modified garbage cart. The woman, in pajama bottoms, an open coat that seemed buttonless, and rings coming out of her nose, mouth, lip, ears, and maybe other places I couldn’t see, hollered at their dog who was coming out to greet me.

“She won’t hurt you!” The woman let me know that the dog’s bark was way fiercer than its bite. The white mixed-terrier was carefully checking me out and moving around in a circle seeking my backside. The woman came closer and picked up the dog. I set my fist out for the dog to smell, and we became friends instantly. The woman began talking about the dog and then dogs in general and I thought she was going to pull out a PowerPoint from the trash to go along with her presentation. I had to interrupt her.

“Is that ‘stuff’ yours?” I asked. She told me it was, so I asked the inevitable: “Are you moving.” Again, I was correct. I didn’t find out where they were moving to or from, but I assumed they had been ejected from the land owned by the Tai Dam Village. The Village is owned by the immigrants that were welcomed to Iowa by the late former Governor Bob Ray. The land north of our neighborhood was purchased by the Tai Dam People[1] because it reminded them of their homeland.

One indication that led me to believe they were kicked off the property was the new addition of “No Trespassing” signs displayed along the western edge of the trail. The eastern side of the trail is managed by the Army Corp of Engineers, Rock Island Regulatory District. Both sides of the trail have adequate forest that provides some shelter from the elements for homeless residents.

The homeless camps off the trail north of our home appear to be extremely secluded and neat, compared to the homeless camps off the trail south of our home. The southern camps are littered with trash, often strewn about in an area that could consume half of an acre. The homeless are not scary per se, and most keep to themselves. Those living north of us will often nod or say hello. Those living south seem to be more reserved, and if you say anything at all to them, they seem to hurry off.

An intersection south of us is a busy one, with two main thoroughfares of the city meeting. Most days you will find at least one person standing on the median with a cardboard sign informing you that they are homeless. Sometimes they will indicate that they are a veteran, “anything will help,” and “God Bless.” During peak hours of the day, you may see three people panhandling at a position on all three medians.

It’s a sad world, but many of them appear to be reasonably content. However, the evidence of depression is overwhelming. You’ll notice that sleeping is the way of life. When you do spot someone outside their tent, or cardboard house, every possession they own is stuffed into a bicycle baby trailer being towed by a bicycle; an act to indicate that they trust no one! It’s the one reason they are not willing to spend the night in a shelter.

What’s the point here? Homeless people are criticized by ‘normal people’ who basically don’t understand why someone would want to sleep in a tent in the woods when the temperatures are below freezing, and in some cases, below zero. Why don’t they get a job?

Many homeless people do not want interference from the outside. Mental health, physical health, and the lack of financial stability are factors that keep these campers from socializing with the rest of us. Authority and authority figures may be frowned upon, but those I have come in contact with have some of the most respect for just about anyone who communicates with them, and doesn’t shame them with indignity, police included.

My religious upbringing has brought me to accept them for what they are. “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in.” I’m not going to take a stranger in, but I really am beginning to see the homeless as a real part of human life.

“But for the grace of God, go I.”

[1] In 1975, when the Communists took over Laos, the Tai Dam fled to Thailand to seek asylum.  From Thailand, 12,000 Tai Dam were resettled in France, Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Led and encouraged by Governor Robert D. Ray, the citizens of Iowa sponsored 1500 Tai Dam as refugees in 1975-76.  Since then, our population in the United States has grown to 10,000.  Eighty percent of us remain united in the state of Iowa.

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2516 Lynner Dr.

Des Moines, IA 50310

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One Response to The Grace of God

  1. Terry Murtaugh says:

    Intriguing story about the homeless, Thanks for sharing. Your perspective is darn accurate in my opinion, on the hard-core homeless. I do believe, however, the growing homeless population is a national disgrace. Im starting to believe a graranteed income may have to be considered. I’m active with a new local nonprofit called Gracing Spaces, motto is “Give hope; end homelessness.” Our clients are mainly victims of domestic violence, and others coming out of shelters.
    Keep up the great writing.

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