The boy didn’t seem to notice that his mother looked lifeless. She sat rigid at the table in the coffee shop, unblinking and lost in a deep stare. If I’d seen her on the streets and not sitting in this Starbucks just a few minutes after its doors opened, I would have thought her dead. But she was alive—just entranced by her depression. Or maybe reliving the horrific realities that brought her and her son to this moment.
I was traveling on business that day in Emeryville, Calif., and stopped for coffee with some business contacts as we walked toward the office. The place was already full of customers and every table was occupied, including a few with the obviously destitute.
One homeless man sat alone with a drink of his own. His face was lit by the sharp, orange glow of the new day angling through the windows. Once he caught my attention, I began filling in his backstory on my own. He likely slept all night out on the bay, where the temperatures dipped into the upper 40s, and he was finding his first real warmth in several hours from his steaming coffee.
This man was also oblivious to the business around him, but he was clearly with it and alive. His eyes blinked. He moved his hands around his coffee cup and he occasionally looked down at it and lifted it to his mouth to take a drink. I carried my coffee past him and waited at the end of the bar for my friends to pick their orders, and that’s when I saw the woman and her boy.
She wore a beige trench coat that showed the dirt from sleeping out on the streets. Her skin was deep-dark brown and her hair was pulled back and tucked into a pink hat that resembled a towel-wrap she’d spun halfheartedly around her head after bathing. I couldn’t guess her age, but I thought her to be much younger than she appeared.
Her son sat to her left, leaning over a drawing book. He was maybe 10 years old. He balanced himself with his left arm and made long, elaborate pencil movements with his free hand. I was glad he was occupied and that his attention was diverted from his mom. Her eyes were lifeless and dull like unpolished marbles, and her facial expression was locked into a combination of physical agony and a sick hypnosis. And she never moved, not even a slight lean, for the several minutes I observed her.
The boy continued moving his body with his pencil strokes, shifting to one side or the other and pursing his lips in concentration, but that did nothing to break up her stare. I was instantly haunted by her. If this had been my own city where I’ve done work with the homeless before, I might have felt less helpless. When I worked downtown, I carried packaged food, bottled water and Bibles to hand out. I almost never gave money and it didn’t occur to me to buy them another coffee so they could prolong their stay. I did nothing but look at them and wonder what would come next. Where would they go? Would they stay together? Did she have enough life left to care for the boy? I just didn’t know.
After a few minutes, my friends and I had our coffees and we stepped out into the new morning to get on with our purpose there. This moment I just described occurred about three weeks ago, and I still wonder about those two, mother and son. I read a headline today that said California is home to about half of the United State’s homeless population. I believe it. They are everywhere in San Francisco Bay area, lining sidewalks and pushing shopping carts. The warmer temperatures and relax law enforcement have to be the draws.
In scripture, there is place in 2 Samuel when David begins to feel uneasy that he is living in a palace and the Lord’s Ark of the Covenant, which he has just re-acquired in battle, is resting outside in a tent. When he determines to build a temple for the Ark, the Lord tells David, “I have never lived in a house …” I read this passage in 2 Samuel 7:6 last night and it reminded me of what I saw on the streets of my hometown when I would hand out food, water, and occasionally Bibles. The Lord has his hand on the homeless. He protects them and rescues them on the coldest nights when they couldn’t possibly survive on their own. Many of the people I met on the streets were Christ followers and more than once I stood silently while one of them preached their own street sermon to me. God puts his own roof over their heads—a veil of protection that deepens my belief in him.
All this time later, a thousand miles separating me from that coffee shop, and my thoughts still tell me to worry about that woman and her son. My faith, though … my faith, tells me something different.