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I never again want to say 'never again'

I once did a study on homeless in Tucson, Arizona. I spent more than 15 months hanging around shelters, food banks, parks and any other location where one would find those our society would prefer to ignore — sitting in dirt, building an unspoken trust, befriending the destitute changed the core of who I am, permanently.

My goal was to document the stories of a random few so that we might understand who they are and from where they came; uncloaking homeless invisibility. If I give them money, and I often do, I first ask their name, followed by an inquiry as to how they are doing. They always appreciate the interaction.

I once saw a young man holding a sign that said, “Need socks and food.” There was no mention of a need for cash. I stopped, chatted with him for five minutes before I kicked off my shoes, removed my socks and handed them over. He put them on immediately. My wife, Kerry, told me she was proud of me, while most people passing by likely thought I was nuts.

Now for what I call the “cold side.” Yes, I have one of those.

Once, not that long ago, a niece of a friend asked if she could move in with us. She had some mental health issues, including paranoia. I ended up telling her she couldn’t live here. That was the last time I spoke with her. Now she lives in her car, homeless. I think of her often, saddened, no, embarrassed by my “cold side.” Never again shall I willingly ignore someone’s cry for help.

A month ago, while at Puck's on Main Street with some friends from church, I watched a homeless man enter the doughnut shop. John M. bought him a doughnut and coffee while I struck up a conversation. I ignored the fact that he was missing a shoe. He also showed us what looked like a dislocated finger. Even though I engaged him in conversation, I ignored his needing shoes and medical attention. Never again shall I ignore someone’s cry for help.

Recently I was given a chance to redeem myself. At the same doughnut shop with the same group of friends, our attention was drawn to a young lady buying herself a coffee. She was obviously homeless, the rags she called clothing hung tattered, stained and ripe with odor. I immediately remembered my promise to myself.

“What’s your name,” I inquired. She replied, “Crystal.”

She was drawn to me like a moth to moonlight. She opened her soul, pouring out all that was important to her. Her words made sense, but they were obviously scattered in what one would call an emotional storm. Crystal needed a shower, new clothes and most of all, serious mental health intervention. I asked my buddy John M. if he would drive us to a nearby shelter.

Along the way I explained to Crystal what she could expect from the mission. When I brought up maybe going to a hospital for evaluation, she suddenly became extremely concerned; panic consuming her. I easily calmed her down with words of encouragement … she trusted me.

As John M. and I pulled away from the mission, watching Crystal in the mirror, we looked at each other and smiled. We had done a wonderful thing for someone in need. Now, let’s pray that the system doesn’t let her down. For me, I never again want to say "Never Again."

— Richard Hunter lives in Jacksonville.