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How quick we all are to judge from appearances. We see a homeless person, for instance, and usually assume a bottle must be at the bottom of it. We don’t think about a changing job market with machines replacing man, unfair employment policies, unaffordable medical attention for physical infirmities − and a host of other reasons. We assume there must be families to help, yet there may be none – or they’re the kind who turn their backs on even relatives who fall on hard times.
One of The Salvation Army tenets is never to judge – a tenet that was forcibly brought home to me when I accompanied one of our teams on their recent winter feeding drive to take hot soup and blankets to Johannesburg’s homeless communities. As our shelters are already overflowing, we cannot take in more.
It was late afternoon and the wintry sun gave no warmth when we met up with Johan* (60) and Robert* (46), two of the numerous homeless people, black and white, we helped on our drive into the bitter night. Trying for warmth, Johan was wearing every piece of the threadbare clothing he has. Trained as a fitter and turner, he’d married, was blessed with a daughter, and enjoyed a good life − until automation replaced the need for human skills in his field and he was retrenched.
Untrained for any other job, Johan turned to pig farming. After seven years he sold the farm to finance the university study of one of his three grandchildren. Since then he hasn’t been able to find work. And the irony is that his family has turned their collective backs on him.
Day after day he prays that generous motorists stopping at ‘his’ traffic lights will put enough money into his paper cup to pay for a meal that day. Often he can’t. At night he sleeps on the ground in the doorway of a building. Recently his ID and pensioner’s card were stolen − an inconvenience for us, a tragedy for him.
A life for a life
What would your reaction be to a convicted killer? Would you think that maybe there’s another side to the story? After all, there have been numerous known cases of people being wrongly convicted, spending years behind bars, treated as lepers, scorned by family and friends, then being proven innocent.
Robert could be one of these. He was a raw, young 22-year-old, passionately loyal to his family, when his father was murdered by three young thugs who attacked him for no reason. Robert, a panel-beater and spray-painter who boxed as a hobby, went to the leader’s fl at (none of the trio had been arrested), and in his grief and anger punched the lout. He fell, broke his neck and died. Alone and with no money for a smart lawyer who would have probably proven his innocence, Robert was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Three years ago he was released for good behaviour.
So, 20 of the most vital years of this man’s life were stolen from him. And he’s still paying for an accidental death. Because he is now marked as a killer, a jailbird, no one wants to employ him. At 46 Robert is still young. Yet he has been homeless for three years now. Few know that those who do commit ‘crimes of passion’, as they are recognised in France, virtually never commit another similar crime.
Robert goes from door to door looking for piece work, which earns him on average R30 a day − not enough for food and even a sleazy shelter. He also begs for food. “Some people are generous, others shout and swear at you and chase you away, yet others won’t even acknowledge you,” he says.
Both men, who have become friends and look out for each other, still count their blessings despite their hardships. They expressed deep gratitude to The Salvation Army for the nourishing soup, thick blankets and warm socks we gave them. “God is good to us,” they chorused.
These are just two of the dozens of men and women we met that night, each with a heart-rending story to tell. Helping the homeless in this way is just one of The Salvation Army’s humanitarian projects. The needs throughout the country are enormous, the suffering unimaginable. However you can help us do God’s work will make a difference. Bless you.
PS: Thinking of the homeless, just think: there but for the grace of God, go I.
*Names have been changed to protect identities