We had been standing outside our office building after just coming back from an outreach in the community, when we noticed a homeless man shuffling by the building with a blanket over his head and only flip flops on his feet...he is someone we know, who sleeps every night at the bus stop nearby.
We tried to engage him in conversation to convince him to go to one of the emergency bad weather shelters nearby, but he shuffled on past us. We went up to our office...it was nearly "quittin' time", then decided we should go back outside in the cold with our car and try to find this man to give him a ride to one of the emergency shelters a few blocks away...it was painfully apparent, after all, that he was one of "ours"...one of the hundreds of mentally ill that sleep outside day after day in our fair city.
We drove around several city blocks trying to locate the man again without success and could only hope he had made his way to shelter...the temperatures outside were set to fall into the teens and anyone left sleeping outside would surely freeze to death.
As we rounded a block to head back to our office, my partner spotted yet another vulnerable homeless individual parked in a wheel chair against a fence. She asked me to turn the car around to check on THIS man because she "had a feeling"...sure enough...this homeless Vietnam veteran with no legs and a chronic mental illness was alone in the cold with no place to go.
We tried to convince this gentleman to make his way to a shelter also, but his mental illness kept him from being able to agree to go...he was "afraid" to be trapped inside a building at night. We were not successful in our initial attempts and returned to our office to check our files on his history.
After reading our files, we decided we HAD to go back out to find him and, if need be, we would initiate a mental health "hold" on him and force him into a facility tonight...we feared he, too, might be dead by morning.
After multiple phone calls and making arrangements and consultation with local police, we went back to the site we had last seen him, only to discover he had vanished. My partner was not to be deterred...we continued to circle many city blocks, stopping police officers and pedestrians, in search of the man...no one had seen him since we left him. Even the Seattle Police Homeless Patrol did not know his location...they were busily scooping up the homeless and giving them rides to shelters as fast as they could.
Just when I was about to give up the search, an officer stopped our car and reported they had spotted our "subject" a few blocks away...there he was...wheeled back into the original spot we had first encountered him.
We once again begged him and pleaded with him to go to the shelter where we had secured a prearranged "cot" for him (courtesy of one of the largest and kindest homeless shelters in downtown...they were FULL, yet agreed to take this man in IF we could get him there)...he continued to offer excuses for why he could not go and all of his excuses fell on our deaf ears. We eventually had to let him know if he did not accept this shelter bed, we would be forced to commit him to a hospital...he then quickly agreed to our plan and began to wheel away.
My partner, still not trusting that the man's mental illness would allow him to stay in the shelter, decided we should follow him there since he would not let us give him a ride...I also believed he would not successfully make the 5 block trip through downtown streets on his own...wheeling his chair in the now frigid cold.
And this is when it happened...something I will never forget...an act of kindness and selflessness witnessed with my eyes. My partner decided to get out of the car and PUSH the gentleman the distance to the shelter to insure he arrived safely...he fortunately agreed to allow her to do so.
For five, long and slow blocks in the cold, my partner pushed and cajoled this gentleman all the way up the streets and around corners until she reached the downtown shelter...I drove the car following a police officer down wrong way streets at only 5 miles an hour until we reached the destination. It was like a surreal parade...a victory of sorts. We had succeeded in hopefully saving a life tonight...a life that might never be missed by anyone if he slipped away into the night because no one would be looking for him.
As my partner and I returned to the car, her reddened cheeks glowing with cold, I told her what an amazing sight it was to see her pushing this man down the streets...I commented on what a wonderful thing she had done and praised her for going above and beyond the call of duty (we were well past our usual quittin' time at this hour).
She turned to me without any hesitation in her voice to say matter of factly, "It was the right thing to do".
I hope that I am never too cold, too hungry, too tired, too busy, too overwhelmed, too caught up in myself, or too scared to pass up an opportunity to "do the right thing"...because, behind EVERY situation, every disease, every behavior, every seemingly "bad" aspect of a personality, is a PERSON...another human being...if we only will look past those things we find ugly or disturbing and truly see them. Because we need to really SEE each other more often...because it's the right thing to do...