(The blogpost below is a reprint from September 2015)
Let me start off by saying that what I am sharing with you here is not in any way about sensationalizing what we did. I am not here to create buzz for business. This was completely an experience for myself, and about becoming a better me. And I was there to help my Pastor find his lost friend. In doing so, I found out some things that I now feel that would be good to share with the world. I went into this planning on not sharing this experience with others. But now that I am on my way home, I feel it would be a shame to not share my experience with others because I think it can help make the world a better place. I know I am a better person for it. And to change the world, we start by changing ourselves.
A few months ago I was sitting in church listening to a guest pastor talking about money in his sermon. He had my attention, because I have always had money on the brain. He talked about the role money plays in our lives, and I found we believed much the same. Near the end of his sermon, he mentioned he was putting together a trip to SanDiego to live on the streets with the homeless for a week. I turned and whispered to Melissa, “I’m going.” Not that she didn’t believe I wanted to go, she just knows I’m a pretty clean guy and and I don’t even like touching door knobs in a bathroom. So to give up everything even for a week and live in the bushes on the ground, begging for food… Really?
I am sitting now on the airplane heading back home to Virginia. The last several days, I lived a life I had never thought I would. After all, I worked so hard all of my life so that I could live the good life. I have the nice home, fancy cars, this and that. Success has always been a driver for me, but I will admit that fear of failure is always slightly present in the depths of my mind. So to step into this completely opposite space was overwhelming. What I found on the streets was far more profound than success versus failure. I found a new me.
So I went out there looking for a few things. I wanted to help my pastor and new friend, Will Cravens, to find his childhood friend who has been homeless out there for a year. He wanted to go search for him by living inside the homeless world. We spent the days out there searching for Ed, showing his picture around. But I also had my own selfish reason to go. I wanted grounding. I wanted to remind myself that there are people out there who are struggling, who need help. They need love. Many of us walk by homeless people and we judge and condemn. “Why don’t they stop being lazy and go get a job?” I know I have. And I went with the hope that I could connect with at least one person that I might instill hope to get up from there and get a new lease on life.
One of the things that is important to me is that I want to understand people. I want to be able to relate to where they are coming from, how they got there. I want to experience it, to live in their shoes. I think that is the only way to truly have a real connection and gain understanding, and to have a chance to be of help. I knew this would be hard, and it was.
If you will walk with me as I recount (some of) my journey of these past several days, you can understand why I feel I am forever changed. We began first thing Monday morning by checking our belongings into a hotel. We had no money whatsoever. I left my phone behind as well. I went completely off the grid. No calling or texting my fiancé or my son. No idea how we would afford our next meal. No food came with us. I had a backpack with toothbrush, a couple shirts, a sleeping mat, sunblock, and a journal and pen. We vowed to live like they do. This was liberating but scary. We had to fit in and not look like cops, because we needed them to trust us if we wanted their help in finding Ed, and not feel threatened. We also did not want mistrust to create a dangerous environment for us. So I grew a beard, grew out my nails and got them dirty. This is out of my element please understand.
We made our way to OB, Ocean Beach, where Ed has been sighted in recent months. Obviously, we walked everywhere. I have never walked this much in my life. We began showing Ed’s picture and explaining our story. I was very glad to be well received by the homeless people we met. Some were really nice, some were funny, some were scary, and some had lost their mental faculties. Pastor Phil from the Episcopal church where we went and served, and got a free meal on Wednesday, told us this. “First they lose their home, then they lose their valuables, then they lose their dignity, then they lose their minds.” As he said this, we nodded. I saw this in the people we befriended.
The first thing on my mind as we got out the door on our first day was where we would get money to feed us. I always have plenty of money, so this really hit me. As we walked, I was stopping to get onto my hands and knees looking for change under soda machines. You wouldn’t believe how pumped I was to have found my first dime, then another dime and quarter. When we got to OB, we had forty-five cents. Being honest, half the time that day I was thinking about money and how we could get some. We had to eat, and I did not want to look through trash cans for scraps. Anyone who knows me, that was not an option. But after this week, I do see how some people get to that place where they resort to that. We began begging by sharing our story of looking for Ed and that we were living penniless. We met some people who liked what we were doing and gave us change, and some even gave us paper money. When we bought our first dinner with our begged money, we felt good that we made it happen. While eating our burritos, I even begged a college girl to give me the pepper spray off her key chain so we would have some sort of defense should we need it when we went into dangerous areas. Let me say this — begging is not my thing. I’m used to giving and donating to the needy, but the tables turned and asking for help is very humbling. I now know how homeless people feel when they have to do this. It’s horrible. I know you might get used to asking, but only once you’ve given up much of your dignity.
That first night we were sleeping by some cliffs on the sand. We were told it is relatively safer there. But the combination of hard ground, bugs, and fear of someone stealing our stuff or shanking us… Left us not sleeping easy. A cop came to move us along, but after we told him our story, he was more understanding and did not write us a citation. It began to rain lightly, so we moved about a mile away to a park and found some bushy trees to shelter us. Sleep didn’t go very well. This goes for every night. The second night was worse because the heaviest rain San Diego had seen since 2004 came, and we spent the night trying to stay rolled up in tarps we used some begged money to buy so we could stay semi-dry. Pastor Will thinks God was testing us and knows we can handle it.
We went a few miles over a bridge to an area to get lunch being served by Salvation Army during the rain storm. Under the gazebo we all gathered to stay dry and eat, a good 20 of us. Some were talking to themselves and were certainly mentally ill. Some kept to themselves. And some were pretty friendly. Ray, an older Mexican Indian who we met the day before and stopped to play his guitar for us, was there and livened the morale. And him goofing around with us helped others trust us. Another guy put down his metal baseball bat after a while and later when he heard our story, he said he loved what we were doing and told everyone else to pray for us. That was so cool. We were gaining trust and making some friends. We spent time hearing their stories. Everyone has their story. Because of the connections, I found that I was willing to shake the hand of someone who was quite dirty and otherwise I would have never wanted to be near. That was a breakthrough for me. Then shaking hands and even hugs happened more easily.
Even though the homeless and the police told us not to go into the river bed, a huge jungle stretch beneath the bridges, because of the tweakers (meth heads and drug addicts) and the violence that happens there, we went anyway because we really wanted to find Ed. Will wanted to go in there, and Steve and I were not going to let him go alone for sure.
I really found my best self on this trip. When we went to get a meal on Wednesday from a church, we went early to see if we could help with set up or to serve in some way. So we helped with a bunch of things and let all the other homeless eat first, then we grabbed a meal after the line was done. We weren’t there just to take, we also wanted to serve as well. No others did as we did, but maybe our example was noticed. Who knows. But I thank Will for his servant leadership example, and I know that his inspiration moved me to be a good servant.
I will never forget Ray, the friend with the guitar. He had such a good spirit. He sings about his past girlfriend who died and his lost loves. We said he’s a hopeless romantic, and he corrected us and said he’s a hopeful romantic. When we saw him at Mission Beach park on Wednesday, he brought out his guitar and sang us a song in front of the news reporter Brea who was filming our story to get the community to help us find Ed. The lyrics I remember said “Now that you know what it’s like to live like us…” He saw that we got it.
My last night there I did spend some time with one guy who still had a sharp mind, and seemed to be clean. He might drink a little but he didn’t seem to be lost in addiction. He had college degrees, had once lived in a million dollar pad in NYC, and lived in Milan. We had intelligent conversation. He’s the only one who I told what I do and about my success (nobody else knows) and I promised to help him if he emails or calls me. We will see if he does, because I would love to see him get back his dignity that he told me he’s lost. But it was great to hear him say he is ready for a new chapter in his life. I liked him, and I consider him a friend now.
One guy who all three of us agreed was one of our favorite new friends is a guy we called Bill Marley because he always had on a Bob Marley shirt on. He was always so happy and outgoing. He was the life of the party, except there was no party. But you get it. He made us smile. When Salvation Army pulled up with the food in the down pouring monsoon rain, he was the one who ran out and brought it under the roof for everyone.
There is so much more to recount, but some we can just let me have that as mine. I just wanted to share some of this life changing experience with you. While I know you cannot really gain the same as you would if you lived it, my hope is that it stirs something in you. I certainly do not share this essay as an attempt to preach to anyone. Actually it is me putting my thoughts into writing so I can reflect, and so I can keep this alive inside of me forever. I’ve always been a good person. But I think this trip made me someone I like more. Will, Steve and I will be lifelong friends after this. And I do hope to go back to San Diego again next year to say hello to some of these new friends. While we didn’t find Ed on this trip, I think that the homeless people who saw us looking realize that they are not forgotten and that they are worth looking for. Many choose to live on the streets, and that’s their choice. But at least they can know people care about them.
~ Brian Carruthers
POSTSCRIPT (Aug. 21, 2017): I just got the news that Pastor Will’s homeless friend Ed was found alive! Since this post was on my old blog site, I wanted to repost and again share my experience.
Brian Carruthers has helped thousands of business associates to become successful business owners and get out of the corporate world rat-race, and begin to spend real time with their families and doing the things that are really important to them. Brian is one of the top trainers in the network marketing industry and actually does what he teaches.