A Christmas Story
This is a Christmas reflection written several years ago by Will O’Brien, a member of the Project HOME community. As we look to this year’s Christmas celebration, and as we are preparing for this year’s Homeless Memorial Day, it seems worthwhile to share this.
It was just a few days before Christmas. My work day was frantic with preparations for an annual event I help to organize: Homeless Memorial Day, a gathering of several hundred folks to commemorate homeless and formerly homeless persons who died this past year and to recommit ourselves to working to end homelessness. I was in charge of the program, so was frantically tying up last loose details, communicating to the various speakers, musicians, poets, ASL interpreter, and others to ensure that all knew their assignments. I was also trying to finalize key talking points for the main speakers, coordinating with media messaging efforts – plying my humble skills of organizing, propagandizing, and agitation.
As if the day weren’t sufficiently stressful, my work was interrupted by persistent calls from Billy. I had known Billy some twenty years, from the early days of Project HOME, when he stayed in our early emergency winter shelters. He is a long-time and much-scarred veteran of street life, fighting battles as well with addiction, mental illness, and bouts of incarceration. But he is also one of the sweetest persons you will ever meet.
But at the moment any such sweetness was subsumed in desperation. Billy is terminally ill and starting to mentally decompensate. He had spent the night on the streets (not necessary, because he has a place to stay). He had been beat up, he said, and was calling for help. (I should mention the temperatures were fairly frigid.) He wanted me to get the outreach workers to come get him. I tried to make sense of his description of where exactly he was – a daunting task since he is increasingly hard to understand – locked in a bathroom stall in an out of way spot near the riverfront. I conveyed the somewhat vague directions to the outreach teams, who set out to find him.
Several hours, several phone calls, increasingly frantic, punctuated by crying, swearing; “F*** the outreach teams! Call 911! I don’t want to die here!” And here I am trying to finish details to remember those who died homeless,..
Our ace outreach worker, Sam Santiago, popped into my office late in the afternoon, letting me know that the drama had come to a relatively benign conclusion: They finally found Billy, who was barely conscious, not in good shape, and they managed to get him to the hospital. It was close,…
A Christmas story? Maybe. Not the limply happy ending, but the dark edges of it – like the refugee family, the weight of imperial oppression, the family scandal, the precarious birth while trying to survive on the margins. The very darkness which the light pierces. The harsh world into which the fragile infant is born with the daring proclamation of peace and salvation.
The Homeless Memorial Day service went very well – moving, challenging. And Billy Hope called today from the hospital. He was grateful for my help.
Join us for this year's HOMELESS MEMORIAL DAY, Wednesday, December 21, 5:00 pm, at the Thomas Paine Plaza, Municipal Services Building, 1401 JFK Boulevard, Center City Philadelphia