Trying to imagine what it's like to be homeless, hungry and at the mercy of strangers is an image most Americans can dismiss at will. Not so with Dr. Charles G. Hawkins Sr. who decided to understand the homeless by becoming homeless.
Wandering the streets for nourishment, chilled to the bone, dead on his feet while seeking shelter like vermin, the founder of the Memphis Day Shelter discovered first-hand what it means to be left behind in America, to be viewed as human waste stripped of dignity and worth.
As pastor of the Whitehaven Church of God of Prophecy and district superintendent for work in the Memphis area, Hawkins said his contact with the homeless had been confined to seeing a few of them standing in doorways and over ventilation grates during the winter.
"Suddenly, I found myself in daily contact with them as we provided basic needs of food, shelter, showers, use of phones and lockers, as well as laundry facilities," said Hawkins. "I found myself submerged in an atmosphere and culture that was totally foreign to me."
After about three months of daily contact, Hawkins said he was counseling a young man, explaining how easy it would be for him to become a productive member of society if he could just put forth a little effort to improve his life.
"You just don't understand," the young man said. "Everyday you leave your comfortable home, drive down here in your big car and drive back to your nice home and sit down to a nice meal with your nice family, and then you retire to your nice bed for a good night's sleep. Sure, we like what we receive at the shelter, but when the day is over, what do we have? Nothing!"
Hawkins was speechless. He realized he didn't understand what these people were going through and they knew it. The face of that young man, setting him straight, filled with desperation, haunted him.
Hawkins was familiar with the old Native American adage, "Never judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins." Having fought for his country in World War II, spoke out against segregation during the civil rights era and dedicated his life to the service of others, the Mississippi native decided to walk more than a mile in the shoes of the homeless. He decided to live like them for a week. Without telling a soul, not even his wife, Hawkins started to make preparations for one of the most challenging experiences of his career. Taking few people into his confidence, Hawkins was later advised not to begin his experiment in Memphis, being so well known, and not to go it alone. Taking this to heart, he selected St. Louis, Mo., and chose the first client of the Memphis Day Shelter, a man named Bill, who had been on the streets for four years. No one at the church or the shelter had any idea what Hawkins would do on March 27, 1987.
Excerpts from his journal reveal a harrowing experience of desperation and determination to understand what it truly means to be without home and hope in America.
Hawkins' transformation was so complete his own son did not recognize him when he left home for Missouri. He would take no money, no baths, no shaves as Hawkins, age 60 at the time, was let out in the center of the business district of St. Louis with his friend and guide, Bill.
"Even though I was wearing long thermal underwear, a wool shirt, an all-weather jacked, heavy shoes and long wool socks, I felt chilled to the bone within five minutes out in the street," said Hawkins. Within a few minutes, the pastor who is often mistaken for Billy Graham, said he was totally exhausted but had to continue to walk and walk and walk.
"I never realized there was no places just to rest," he said. "We finally found a Greyhound Bus Station. I soon learned that there were no seats available for people like us in the station. The same was true of the restrooms.
"I asked Bill why he didn't tell me they did not want us in there. He replied, 'You said you wanted to experience things the way they really are.' I never knew there was so few places just to sit down and rest," Hawkins admitted." I really never thought that I would have the uneasy feelings I was experiencing because I knew that I could pick up the phone, call someone and end the whole thing in a matter of minutes. On the contrary, I was almost ready to panic, even though I had only been on the streets for four hours."
Asking for help, they were directed to a church 10 blocks away that served meals. "They were getting ready to lock the door when we walked in," said Hawkins, who received a piece of bread, a bowl of macaroni and cheese, a bag of cornquistos and a cup of tea. This was just the beginning of hitting rock bottom and falling through to a level of desperation Hawkins knew nothing about.
Shelter and nourishment were just the tip of the iceberg for a man who was struggling with an incomprehensible hopelessness that could only be understood by walking this walk. In a column he later wrote, Hawkins said, "Something happens to the individual who must survive on the street. He begins losing his self-esteem and many times turns to crime or falls prey to any number of life-threatening situations."
His companion, Bill, even told him how he had been robbed, beaten by thugs, stripped of everything but his clothing. Bill spoke of homeless people who had been beaten, unclothed and sodomized, even murdered, according to Hawkins. "The trauma and cruelty that is part of this subculture was finally getting through to me," said Hawkins as each agonizing day crept along. "It's not just a matter of food and shelter, it is much deeper. In this environment, the value of human life depreciates rapidly."
Not only was his life's value in question, Hawkins felt the painful sensation of being an object of derision, as fine citizens chose to look the other way or through him rather than at him. "It was during our third day on the street that I began to sense the feeling of isolation these disenfranchised people experience that so destroys their self-esteem," he said. "It was as if I had become invisible, and even though there were people all around, no one seemed to see me except to express their dissatisfaction with my presence."
"I pray that those who read this book may afterward be more conscious of the many people who, for whatever reason, are struggling just to keep body and soul in tact," he said.
According to Hawkins, from the day he returned from his journey into the world of the homeless, he and others began work on a program to address the issues that contribute to the homeless problem. "Since that time, we have helped many families cope with some very deep-rooted problems," said Hawkins. "For me, the greatest tragedy of homelessness is knowing that one can pass from this mortal frame and no one will be there to mourn his departure."
If Hawkins can help it, that sad situation will improve, although he said he realizes poverty is something inescapable in this system, since Jesus Christ himself foretold at John 12:8, "The poor always ye have with you."
Still, Hawkins, now 81, said he was able to put out his book "at a minimum of expense in order that the maximum proceeds from its sale might go to benefit the many homeless of our nation."
To purchase a copy of this intriguing book, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.