By Maureen McNair
I met the homeless man I will call Angelo in a moment of synchronicity. Angelo, who was so gracious, considers his life a success. I want you to meet him too, at least virtually. Here are the events that converged to bring us together and what he shared about himself. County Public Health closed down another food pantry in Chula Vista for a couple weeks because that pantry has an outbreak of Covid-19. Again. Pantries cover for one another, so last Monday, I drove over to a donor of the closed pantry to pickup 185 pounds of free frozen meat. Our clients at the South Bay Food Pantry will be thrilled to receive such a bounty the Saturday before Christmas!
I drove over to our pantry to store the frozen meat in our freezers. When I arrived, a man who appeared not to have showered or bathed in several weeks stood in a parking place in front of our pantry. While a volunteer is at the pantry brieﬂy everyday to record refrigeration and freezer temperatures, the pantry is never open on Mondays for food distribution. But, when I saw the man, I introduced myself and asked if I could give him some food.
Angelo introduced himself too. He said he had been to our pantry once before, maybe a month ago. He told me he thought God had sent me because he was so hungry.
Pantry volunteers create special bags of food for homeless people. All the food is either edible and stable without refrigeration or has a pop top lid. We pack the bags with pop top cans of Vienna sausages, chili, soup, granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, and whatever else we have on hand that seems suitable. I gave Angelo as many bags of food as his cart would hold.
But, Angelo did not eat right away. Instead, he asked me if he could help me unload my car. I wish I could have accepted his help. But, the room at our pantry with the freezers is so small that six feet of physical distancing is not possible. Volunteers either go in there alone or with a member of their own household.
Angelo seemed quite clear headed and stayed to talk. I recall from training with the Interfaith Homeless Shelter that volunteers should not pose personal questions to homeless people. So Antonio initiated the topics of our conversation.
He gave me a tour of his shopping cart which was stacked with small suitcases and sundry bags.
The small suitcases were neatly organized and sorted with used clothes for men, another with used clothes for women, and a third with used clothes for children. He said he collects the clothes so he could help other people. Quite often, homeless people wear the same article of clothing until it is worn out. Then, they throw it away and put on something else.
Even though he was hungry, Angelo said he was going to wait to eat the food I gave him until he returned to his encampment and could share it with the other people who lived there.
Angelo repeatedly told me how grateful he was to God that he had things to share with other people. He showed me the “Faith” medallion he wears around his neck.
“I consider my life a success,” he said, “because I have ways to help other people.”
Angelo had a lot to say about what gives his life meaning and how his acts of generosity make him “feel warm and fuzzy.” He is not angry at his circumstances, but only sees blessings from his God for his own life and his ability to do things for others.
Angelo’s attitude showed me the lesson Viktor Frankl wrote about in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl wrote.
One of the other things Angelo said he likes to do is cook in the homeless encampment. He asked me how he could get one of the frozen pork roasts I was unloading.
He said he had a heavy metal grate which used to cover a city water drain. He uses it as a grill. He scrubs the grill clean with rocks, then heats it until it is red hot to sanitize it. He uses wood from pallets or found furniture — as long as the furniture does not have any kind of varnish on it — and lets the ﬁre burn down so he can roast meat slowly. Angelo gestured to some of the surrounding plants and says he gathers edible plants to use for seasoning. He says he lets meat cook slowly so it cooks from the inside out.
Even though I do not eat pork, his meal sounded delicious.
Of course, I do not know whether Angelo actually cooks such ambitious recipes in a homeless camp or if I listened to an aspiration. I told him that since his shopping cart was full, we would give him a roast if he came back to the pantry on Saturday.
However, I did offer Angelo one other item. I wanted to give him shelter with modern ﬁxtures like indoor plumbing and electricity. But, what I had to give him was a bottle of hand sanitizer. He accepted it with gratitude. He said he needed to cut his ﬁngernails before he cooked the meat and then would use the hand sanitizer. He said someone in the homeless camp usually has a bottle of vodka and that is what he uses to clean his hands.
And so we went our separate ways, me as grateful for his open heart and willingness to share his good attitude as he was for receiving the food.
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