I was completely unprepared for the street retreat in every way. Which I guess is kind of a good thing. I went out there with a limited working knowledge of what it means to be homeless– in my mind I always assumed it was something like camping or following The Grateful Dead. That is: not ideal, but also, kind of an adventure with opportunities for plenty of good times.
Some of my friends loaned me warm clothes (of which I personally own very little) and Mobile Loaves & Fishes issued me me a backpack and a sleeping bag into which I put the few items I had on me (phone charger, extra pair of socks, chapstick, etc.)
Our first night of the retreat was one of the worst nights for weather we’ve had this year in Austin. (Obviously we don’t get weather like they do up in Chicago or New York, but for a brand new street retreat-er and a notorious Cold Wimp, it was daunting). We’re talking chilly rain and temperatures that quickly dropped after dark to the low forties/upper thirties. Our group consisted of three women, eight men and one ten-year-old boy. Mobile Loaves & Fishes dropped us all off at Zilker Park right before dusk so we could walk as a group into Downtown.
Almost immediately upon reaching Downtown our group split up. After locating the “Safe House” (behind the gate at St. Mary’s Cathedral–it was still outside but covered and locked for those of us who wanted to stay there) the group I was with headed out to look for something to eat. Nate Schleuter and his son (who had been on several retreats before) told me about Veggie Heaven–a small vegetarian restaurant that feeds the homeless. We took a volunteer from San Antonio named Diamond with us and went down the The Drag (next to UT) to find it.
The owner of Veggie Heaven feeds the homeless because one night as his wife was leaving the restaurant, she was attacked and the guy attempted to rob and rape her but two homeless dudes stopped him and beat him up and helped her get away. The Veggie Heaven owner is Buddhist and the experience with his wife as well as his own beliefs is what moves him to put food out in small containers on a table near the door that anyone can walk in and grab if they are hungry. It’s very simple fare–but it’s hot and it’s free. (PLEASE–even if you’re not vegetarian, make it a point to go down there and patronize that place: Veggie Heaven).
After that we sat around on the ground for a while and it was weird. It was weird because we didn’t have anywhere to go and we didn’t have anything to do and it felt… really wrong. I’m used to always doing something or having some agenda. It was weird to just be sitting there outside without anything to do. (Lots of homeless guys walked by and grabbed food from Veggie Heaven whil we were sitting there). But the longer we sat there the colder it got and we decided we had to figure out where we were going to stay for the night. We wandered around a bit looking for a dry spot that was out of the way. At this point I headed back by myself to St. Mary’s where a couple other folks were going to be staying. Diamond, Nate and Nate’s son went off to find another place out of the rain. (They ended up camping under a bridge).
Once I was back at St. Mary’s, I got in to my sleeping bag and laid there, trying to sleep. But it was really, REALLY cold. Once you’ve stopped moving, that’s when the chill sets in. The sleeping bag I had was crap. Some nice person had donated it to Mobile Loaves & Fishes thinking it would be put to good use, but it was truly of no help against the elements. I huddled in the bag all night, trying to keep out any cold air, even though I had to turn constantly because the concrete was agonizing to sleep on.
Here’s the thing about being homeless. You never really get to sleep. (Unless, of course, you knock yourself completely out with drugs or alcohol.) The level of discomfort I experienced that first night of the retreat was unprecedented (and I have twins). I never slept for more than a few minutes at a time. I laid there on the ground with my hips and shoulders aching trying to move as little as possible. There was all kinds of noise–cars and garbage cans and shouting all night long. When I finally got up around 6am, I looked like this: