Bitter Cold on the Streets of Philadelphia

On the last couple of Thursdays, volunteers have called me to see if we were still going out to serve, since it was Code Blue in the city. I explained on each occasion that, yes, we would be going. Many of the people we serve are not fully homeless. They live in rented rooms, but have no place to prepare food. Some of them have to choose between rent and food for the month or week. Many we serve are the hardcore of the homeless who refuse to go in to shelters due to fear for their own safety or fear of being picked up on an old bench warrant, or just not wanting to admit that they are that homeless and dependent. Then there is the cold, hard truth, that even with the expanded capacity and outreach of Code Blue, there isn’t enough space for everyone to come in from out of the cold.

It’s a sad state of affairs. There are lots of heated, vacant spaces, if we only had more compassion. Train conductors used to be allowed to look the other way and let homeless ride and sleep on the subway all night, maybe without collecting a fare. Now there are cameras and they’d lose their jobs. The trains are running. It costs nothing more. It hurts nobody. It saves lives. We all descended from poor and homeless people at some point. Now we are afraid of them, so we don’t let them ride.

Those of us serving were well bundled up with layers. We served about 50 people. I thank God we had blankets and new socks and some clothing to give away. We served hot, thick hamburger and cabbage soup, spicy tagine, spaghetti, and hot chocolate, along with our usual complement of fruits, eggs, sandwiches, etc. We gave just about everything away! Somebody even left a huge bag of foil wrapped chocolate coins on our front step along with a cash donation. It was a joy to share those as a special treat on such a cold night. The cash helped someone stay out of the cold in a room. We were freezing and so ready to get back into cars with heat, by the time we left, 45 minutes after we arrived. My hands are still cold and stiff more than 12 hours later, even though I was wearing gloves the whole time (since they got frostbit in 1969). But we got to go home to heat and basically unlimited hot water, coffee, microwaves, tea, etc. We left these people, our brothers and sisters, on the street to try to survive more sub-zero, windy, Code Blue days and nights in a city whose main concern is that they not be seen in public.

May God forgive us.