They are homeless. They are without a home. They don’t carry a key. They have nowhere to go.

I saw one of them walking down the side of the road as I was driving to work. As I was coming from my home. They don’t have a home, which doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have a car. But they probably don’t.

We don’t say they’re carless. We just say homeless and let the word speak for itself.

I worried about having time to run home before I went to the homeless shelter. Actually, here it’s called a cold weather shelter. We protect them from the cold winter months, but come the end of March—fend for yourself. I whispered with some of the other volunteers about whether we were just prolonging the inevitable.

I decided not to run home after work, but I brought everything from my home that I would need. You can only carry so much in a bag, and you can only have so many bags on your shoulder. If you don’t have a home, you probably don’t have enough stuff to worry about having too many bags to carry. You have nowhere to make or store food, so that isn’t a concern. And if you don’t have money for a home or a car, chances are you can’t afford much else.

I let them all get their dinner first. I tried not to stare or to feel like I was any different from them—just trying to fill up after a long day at work. My bowl of macaroni in one hand and my water bottle in the other—I passed on the hot dog and beans…Why did I pass? If I really was hungry, it wouldn’t matter that I hated hot dogs. You would hope I wouldn’t pass.—I tried to pick the right table. Someone who wanted to chat or wanted company. I picked the wrong table and felt like I was in the middle of a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear.

A husband and a wife—or a boyfriend and girlfriend, I’m not sure. They had a young boy in the middle who was tearing apart his hot dog and yelling incoherent words and throwing any little toy piece that wandered into his tiny, snotty hands. She couldn’t tell him to run off to his room so that Mommy and Daddy could talk. This was their space and their time. And I was in the middle, trying to blend in. These people were tired and stressed after a long day—no wonder they were irritable.

One woman couldn’t sleep, so we offered her some ear plugs from the bins and bins of stuff people donated—one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. She assured us that the ear plugs couldn’t possibly drown out all the thoughts in her head.

We sorted and sorted through these towels and sheets and random toiletries as the children ran around playing catch and picking up the miscellaneous pieces from board games. One of the volunteers brought his son who ran around with the kids, but soon it was time for him to go home to bed.

The hours ticked on and he had to go home for bed—but these kids didn’t have bed times. There’s no lights out or bedtime stories. The parents didn’t seem to notice what time it was. It was a Friday, but still…the hot dog destroying, toy stealing, screaming young boy wanted to know where his friend went.

“He had to go home for bed.” He said it and instantly regretted it.

The best part about kids is that they just don’t notice. He didn’t start crying that he wanted to go home. The other little boy didn’t choose to not play with him because he was homeless. They just played. There were balls and games—so let’s play and be friends. We are exactly the same.

That night, I turned the lock on my apartment and realized how good it felt to take a shower and lay in my bed. No one had to escort me to the shower or limit how much hot water I used. I had trouble falling asleep because I realized that I could have gone to a handful of homes to sleep that night.

At least a handful, if not a dozen people would have opened their doors for me and welcomed me with open arms.

I wonder now what I actually gave these people—what did I help them with? I didn’t give them a home or fix their misfortune. I’m not sure I even gave them wisdom. But I did smile.

As I saw the man walking down the street smiling, I realized I gave them my smile. Maybe that’s enough for now.

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