In retrospect, one of the moments that changed my life forever was meeting a homeless man in NYC named Hugh Souther. Even fourteen years later I remember the night with relative clarity, and I remember with certainty his full name.
I was in college participating in a program called “Midnight Run” that took students from the quiet little campus of a relatively small Rider University in suburban Lawrenceville, NJ to an evening of traipsing around New York City with a purpose of checking on the people sleeping outside on the streets and delivering hot beverages, sandwiches, blankets, socks, and clothing.
It was January, and it was cold and windy. When we stopped outside Hugh’s campsite, he took us up on our offer of hot beverages and a sandwich, and we talked as he sifted through the clothes. He was a nice man, and while I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation, I remember he found a raincoat and started talking about how important raincoats are. He said that a raincoat was even more important than a sleeping bag because a raincoat could keep you dry. He explained that when you’re living outside, the last thing you want is for your clothes to get damp. That’s how bacteria grows, and that’s how you get sick. He tried on the raincoat and it fit. He was quiet for a minute. He took the raincoat off and put it back in the pile. He told me that he had friends to keep him warm and to help him stay dry. He told me to give that raincoat to the loneliest, most isolated person I found on the street. He said they would need it more than he did.
Later that night I came across a woman sitting on the steps of some church. Her feet were bare, and she sat rocking back and forth on the cold cement. When we tried to talk to her, we couldn’t make sense of what she said. In retrospect, she probably wasn’t talking to us. It may have been drugs or delusions; maybe she was wrapped up in her own thoughts, talking with “ghosts,” or reliving a moment that she couldn’t seem to let rest. At any rate, she was mentally not in the same space we were in. We left her some food, some socks, a pair of shoes, and the raincoat.
That night was significant to me because it was the night that solving the problem of “homelessness” stopped being about helping strangers who sleep on park benches and shake cups full of change like in the movies. That night, “homelessness” was about people including Hugh Souther who was too generous to take a free raincoat and the woman with no shoes who was facing some serious demons in the biting wind on those ice-cold cement steps. The fight to improve life for these folks became personal to me that night; and that mission has taken me places that I never dreamed I’d go. Hugh Souther, I don’t know where you are but please know that I am eternally grateful to you.