My surroundings could have been taken straight from a well known Christmas song:
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.
My husband and I had planned a weekend away. I wanted to go to a real city to do some Christmas shopping. Minneapolis is far from what I would consider a real city. I wanted a place where people filled the streets, regardless of how cold of a bite the air contained. I wanted to see city streets and stores decorated for Christmas. I wanted to hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as they pulled carriages of people taking in the joy of the season. We had originally thought New York City would be our destination. Some day I still hope that will happen. This year, though, the $300+ per night hotel room prevented such a trip. We decided to go somewhere very familiar, but had never been to at Christmas time. We left Minneapolis on a Friday bound for the Windy City–Chicago. Although I have lived in the Twin Cities area for over fifteen years now, I would not be able to give a visitor directions from Target Field to US Bank plaza. I have no idea how to maneuver the habitrail known as the skyway system. Yet, if someone stopped me on Chicago Avenue in downtown Chicago and asked me how to get to Sports Authority on LaSalle Drive, I could easily get them to their desired destination. If someone asked me for restaurant recommendations in the downtown Minneapolis area, I could give two or three recommendations. Downtown Chicago? Don’t even get me started on the vast number of amazing restaurants to choose from!
We arrived late on Friday, took a shuttle to our hotel since driving a car in that area takes longer than walking anywhere, and headed out to my favorite downtown Chicago eatery–Ginos East Pizza! It was an exceptionally warm night for December. As expected, the sidewalks along the Magnificent Mile were packed with Christmas shoppers. Every tree was lit with twinkling Christmas lights, and storefronts joined in the festivities with decorations. As we walked to dinner, a familiar and always sad sight, soon appeared–the first homeless person, sitting or standing on the sidewalk, holding a cup and usually a sign explaining how they ended up begging on a busy city street. It never gets easy to see. I know there are many who are skeptical about some of the claims made by the homeless. My own husband has been known to be one of those skeptical ones. He once heard of a homeless man who, after begging for money, walked a few blocks away, got in his fairly new Cadillac and drive away. I am not naïve enough to believe that something like that isn’t possible. Having a son who lived in Chicago for several years, though, and actually got to know several of those who lived on the streets, I know that homelessness there and in other places in our country is a very real issue.
As we continued our way down Michigan Avenue, my eye caught sight of something I had never seen before. Sitting on the lap of a woman in a wheelchair, was a cat. The cat was bathing itself as cats often do. As we got closer I saw another cat, this one much smaller and most likely just a kitten, curled up next to the bigger cat. Neither of them tried to jump off the lap of the woman as she held out a cup to those who passed by. Her sign said that her name was Jaimiee and that she and her two babies had lost their home. I didn’t get to read the rest as people pushed from behind to keep walking. If you know me at all, you know that I am, and have always been, extremely sensitive, especially when it comes to animals. As we ate dinner, I thought about the woman and her “babies”. I wondered where they would go for the night. I silently thanked God that the weather was unseasonably warm. I fought back tears as I thought of the three of them alone and outside. I wondered if they were hungry? I fought back tears as we walked back to our hotel. All night my sleep was disturbed as I couldn’t get them out of my mind.
The next day we headed out to do some Christmas shopping. As the afternoon wore on, the sidewalks were impassable with people and the streets were gridlocked with traffic. Horns sounded every minute as it seemed no one could move even when the traffic light would turn green. As a crowd of us pedestrians stopped at a corner to wait for the walk signal, I noticed everyone stood to one side. As the light changed and we started to move, I looked down and saw why. Sitting on the sidewalk just to the left of the main flow of foot traffic was a man who appeared to be in his thirties. He never looked up at any of the people who walked by. He stared only at the ground. He held a cardboard sign, much like Jaimiee’s that said he had lost his mom to breast cancer and had lost his job and savings taking care of her. He didn’t hold a cup in his hands; instead, his cup sat next to him on the sidewalk. Again my heart broke. As we walked along with the flow of people, sure enough we came upon Jaimiee and her two babies again. This time, both cats were curled up in a tight ball, sound asleep on her lap. A block or so down was a lady without a sign. She was holding a cup and had a sleeping toddler wrapped in a blanket on her lap. Another few feet brought us to a young woman with a small dog wrapped up and sleeping on her lap as she begged for change. Another woman asked passing people for groceries–she made it a point to say she didn’t want money but she needed groceries.
By the time we got back to the hotel that night, my heart was heavy with sadness. How is it in a city where one can find stores that charge $720 for a pair of shoes (yes…I actually found a pair of woman’s dress boots for that price) and $249 for jeans that came in size 2T (a size a child would outgrow in less than a year), there are people who just want groceries? Or people who have children and pets that have nowhere warm to sleep at night? In cities big and small across America–one of the wealthiest countries in the world–people sleep in cardboard boxes and eat only when they can find someone generous enough to give them food. Criminals in prisons are better cared for than that. I admit that guilt was prevalent in my own heart that weekend as well. I found myself praying often through the night that God would provide for those people on the street. I wondered how such an issue could be resolved? Is there an answer to homelessness and poverty? I know some people choose to be homeless and some are homeless as a result of mental illness, but I am also positive there must be many who want desperately to be free from that situation, yet they lack the wherewithal to make it happen.
We left Chicago early on a Sunday morning over a week ago. Not a day has gone by that I don’t think about Jaimiee and her two furbabies. I have prayed for the three of them, that God would provide a home for them before the cold weather arrives. My one regret was not stopping to talk to her–to pet her kitties, to hear her story, to give her a hug and to try to help a little. I know God sees her, and all the people like her, not only in Chicago but across this nation and the world. I know his heart breaks for them. And, for one of the few times in my life, I have found my heart breaking for what is breaking the heart of God.