The leading residents of the camp call it “transitional housing.” Established on the site of an abandoned smelter, the concrete foundations of the demolished buildings are ideal for motor homes. A discard pile looms over the camp, an acre of tailings piled thirty feet high that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to remove in a couple of years. That’s going to involve heavy equipment, and many of vehicles are situated so as to interfere with the work.
The regulations for official motor home camps prohibit vehicles more than ten years old. As I walked amidst them, I say those rusted and lying low on deflated tires. I doubt that some of them can be moved, even if a place could be found to hook them up to services.
Cher, the first of the residents, parked her motor home ten years ago. At the time, the owners were still local residents, but unpaid property taxes have put the land into the hands of the EPA. Once the pile is removed – extending the salt marsh owned by the Nature Conservancy – the lot will revert to state and local ownership.
It seems an ideal site for a homeless camp. A corrugation plant sits just adjacent, and the sewage treatment plant is across the street. City officials find the inhabitants unpleasant, and of course many of them have criminal histories. They’ve found reasons to disallow garbage collection on site, and trash has piled up over the years, creating a serious public health hazard.
I’ve been going out there with the local churches, standing watch as residents are fed lunch and sift through the clothing and food. Unfortunately, the foremost of the organizers had concluded that the camp needed to be cleared. He also had some theological disputes with me, and asked me to stop attending.
But I went out two weeks ago looking for Cher. I had contacted the sociology department at the University, suggesting that her experience would be valuable to those seeking to provide alternatives for our growing homeless population. She wasn’t there that week, and I was busy with other matters last week.
Yesterday morning, my thoughts turned to her again, but I waited until after lunch to visit. When I arrived, she was standing out on the sidewalk talking with a man who had pitched his tent just outside the lot. I sat down with her, and she poured out her troubles to me.
She had gone up to meet her man when he came out of prison, but he acted as though he didn’t know her. They had planned to move into a shared living arrangement, but after his probation appointment on Monday, he disappeared. Cher contacted the office, and they said that he was fine, but wouldn’t be seeing her again.
I told her about the university contact, but it became clear that she had more pressing matters. She felt that God had abandoned the camp, and wanted to move her vehicle out to Las Vegas where her granddaughter lived. She needed to repair the lights. It seemed clear that she needed a phone, but the last time she had signed up for one, it never showed up in the mail. I offered to drive her out to find the free phone kiosk. We bounced from the 99-cent store to Wal-Mart, and were headed out to a third location when she spotted the pop-up tent outside the Goodwill.
Unfortunately, the system said that she already had a phone, and would only allow her a SIM card. Hoping either that we could buy a cheap T-Mobile device at Wal-Mart or find a spare at the camp, she accepted their offer. Wal-Mart didn’t have any T-Mobile devices, so I dropped her off, promising that I would try to find something and drop it off to her Thanksgiving morning.
During our wanderings, we talked about Revelation. She had never read the book, so I summarized it for her. Regarding her situation, what seemed important is this: love came to Adam and Eve 7000 years ago, and the selfish personalities that had dominion over the earth for the prior billions of years know that they have lost the battle. That means that they have nothing to lose, and they have set out to make the end as painful as possible. It’s upon the poor that the burden falls most heavily.
As she gathered her purse, Cher thanked me, sharing that she was in a much better place than before I came by. It was almost alarming, being told that she refused to get out of bed when her daughter reported that I wasn’t with the service crew. But she needed to eat, and found herself pulled to the curb just before I showed up.
She is shifting her hopes to me, and I know that I can’t respond. It appears that a phone will run at least $200, and who knows how much it will take to get her vehicle road-worthy. Her social security check arrives on the 3rd, but even now she’s eating noodles.
And through her I see millions more.
Last time I saw her, I told her that I just wanted her to see herself as God sees her – as a bright light shining in the darkness. She shared that she had meditated on that yesterday morning. I shared the story of Peter on the water, and she admitted that she didn’t have much faith in herself, either – time and again she had sabotaged herself.
I don’t know that she can be rescued in this life, but as I drove away, a passage from Revelation came to me. It comes in the chapters that describe the suffering brought to humanity by tyrannical government, and the loving response of the Lamb. Chapter 14 ends:
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
Would that have any meaning to her, this abandoned American citizen, hoping that someone from among God’s saints will provide for her? When the body is abandoned, what strength is there in a promise of salvation for the soul? I have confronted that recently, I was moved to reject spiritual compromise. But while not rich, I have physical security and comfort. She has been without for ten years. What does that do to a soul? Can she still feel God’s hand reaching down to her?