The Camping Custodian
by Jess Luoma
When most people bring up "homeless people" to me as an advocate, typically I will hear some comment about the trash that "they" create or other statements about them "being dirty." Sadly, that comment is rooted in the first level of judgment that stops short of understanding.
It's true, if you go to a homeless encampment and take a walk around the hillsides (never have? we'd love to take you out!) you will find trash. Probably a lot of trash. It's also true that if you took a walk around my house, you'd find some trash. Luckily, when my two-year-old spills her obsession for shredded cheddar cheese on our couch, I can clean that up and throw it my trash. The difference here lies in proximity to a receptacle and the services I rely on to pick up my trash and recycling every week.
For the homeless in our city, this system is self, and sometimes, community-created and governed. Maybe you remember our dear friend and formerly homeless advocate, Michael Williamson. If you haven't gotten a chance, hear his story here. Well, he just so happens to come from the same family as our friend, Allen Cason. They're brothers, in fact, and both share a heart of gold and in their journey from homelessness.
After hearing Allen's story, I dubbed him "the Camping Custodian" because cleaning is in the fiber of his being and mingles itself with obsession and purpose. Allen and Michael's military parents taught them if they didn't clean to their standards they wouldn't get to sit down for dinner. To be honest, I wish my parents would have taught me this.
Through the loss of his four children, addiction, incarceration and homelessness, Allen has clung onto what still brings him any semblance of hope and purpose.
"I like to clean. I clean everywhere. I go to my friends' camps and clean. I hate it out here, sometimes, I do, but I feel real good when I say I did something today. I just didn't get high, I just didn’t sit in the park and drink, I just didn’t sit in the park and use. I did something today. Makes you feel good, you know? I'm just trying to keep the faith, you know?" smiles Allen.
Allen is doing a job most of us would not eagerly volunteer for (unless you're my five-year-old son) but one that benefits us all. Soil absorbs the toxins that litter creates and affects plants and crops. The contaminants cause health issues in humans who consume either the crops or the animals feeding on infected agriculture.(Conserve Energy Future)
Look at that vintage soda cup! There are some buried treasures out there. Unfortunately, the treasure that is within Allen is often stopped short of his outward appearance.
"I hate the way people look at me. Sometimes I go into a store and I know I'm different-- I'm body wounded from crack cocaine and street drugs. People look at me sometimes like I’m acting high, but I’m not high all the time."
"A lot of people have done stuff, but they never got caught. Now I think that they just forgot about where they come from. The world has changed so much."
Allen is admittedly an addict and when I asked him if he's ok with it, he told me he has gone through so much trauma and catastrophic loss in his life that he is afraid of what would happen to him if he stopped numbing his pain. For those of us in recovery or in a relationship with an addict, we know that drugs only bring destruction to a person's life. The process of recovery is both grueling and beautiful as it peels back layer after layer in a person's life. We want this for Allen. We want to walk alongside him as a beacon of encouragement and support when the day comes when he decides he wants more for his life. We want this for every addict we meet. We want the church to press past judgment and into compassionate understanding and a call up into loyal friendship marked by love.
We asked him what the world has lost that it once had:
"Hope. A lot of people know what's going on outside but they're not trying to change it."
When we go to church or read our Bible's we learn that Jesus gives us His hope. What then are we to do with that hope? Is it possible that we are meant to carry it for those who have none?
Though he is not quite at the point of recovery as his brother Michael, Allen is also an advocate for the homeless and youth.
"I try to help a lot of youngsters who are going through what I’ve been through," says Allen.
If Allen, who faces the struggle to survive on a daily basis, can carry hope for those in his life, shouldn't we as well? Perhaps it's true that the deeper the pain someone experiences in their life, the deeper the wells of joy lay.
"Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, 'God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.'" (Luke 6:20 NLT)