I have not seen him since we moved from our former home. That was eighteen years ago. Nonetheless I still think about him and wonder how he is doing even though I suspect that he is no longer alive. It would be miracle if he were. He was a homeless man who spent his days near the entrance to our neighborhood. He sat on the median constantly flipping the pages of a tattered magazine, seemingly unaware of what was going on around him. Yet he managed to somehow survive year after year.
I never knew his name, but some people took to calling him Flip, a name with a double meaning depending on whether one was being kind or making fun of him. His skin had come to resemble leather from sitting in the sun all day long, even on the coldest days of winter. Most of us in the neighborhood stopped to give him money now and again. The manager of the gas station near his post mentioned that he often came inside to purchase food and drink with his donations. He also said that the man slept in back of the store near a dumpster. He stored blankets and changes of clothing back there. In the winter he always seemed to have a new jacket to wear.
I thought it was kind of the manager to be so matter of fact about having a vagrant live on the premises of his business. I suppose he understood that most of us worried about Flip and felt a tiny bit better in knowing that he had a place to sleep at night. We guessed that he also used the restroom inside the store although that was never actually addressed. Nobody ever mentioned wanting to run him away from the front of our neighborhood. Instead we all seemed to have adopted him in some ways even though I never heard of any attempts to find him a permanent home or a better place to sleep. Perhaps we all understood that his state of mind was such that he would never agree to leave his post for a better situation.
I always wondered what Flip’s real name was. I wanted to know if he had a family somewhere that was looking for him. I was concerned about what might have placed him in such a terrible dilemma. Because he did not talk or indicate that he realized what was happening I don’t suppose anyone ever asked him many questions. He simply survived from day to day.
I recently heard a segment on NPR that featured stories of homeless folk. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most of them suffer from mental illnesses. They also suffer from countless health issues. Rarely do they receive the medical care that they need. In some places like Austin, Texas, groups of doctors have decided to regularly visit homeless encampments to provide checkups for the populations. They develop teams that provide medical, dental and psychological assistance. Each team travels regularly to certain areas and the results have been extraordinary.
One of the men that they interviewed was a veteran who suffers from PTSD. At one time he had a good job and appeared to be adjusting well to civilian life until things began to unravel. First he lost his job and then he began drinking to ease his depression. Before long he was a full blown alcoholic who even experimented with drugs. He walked around in a perennial haze, losing everything including his home, his car and his family. Life on the streets became his reality until the team of doctors encountered him and began to treat all of his problems.
Now this man attests to the success of the medical outreach. After a year he is clean, sober and healthy right down to his teeth. The medical team helped him to find a job and a home as well. They continue to visit him once a month to insure that he continues to progress. With all of the support systems he feels happy and normal once again and looks forward to a bright future.
It’s unfortunate that programs such as the one in Austin are not copied all over the country. The nameless people that we see under bridges, on street corners, and living in tents are not just nuisances and yet we mostly look away when we see them. Sometimes we even view them with disgust as though we would feel better if they did not exist. At the very least we should do our best to at least try to help them to reclaim their lives.
I do wish I knew what happened to Flip. I know that all of us should have done more for him, but fears and a lack of knowledge about what might work prevented us from helping him to become well. I’d like to say we did our best, but maybe we should have advocated for programs that do more than just give handouts. I hope that all of the Flips in our nation one day get the services that they need. The Bible admonishes us to minister to them. I wonder what we are waiting for and why we have not made this a priority.