This homeless boy-man had walked out of the woods, out from under the tree he’d been sleeping beneath, in search of a new life. What did he want?
When I contemplate what made Jesse-Ray tick or where his life might go, my mind takes me back to the shimmer and shine of the morning we met, an emotionally searing moment that seems sharper and more poignant with time. I met Jesse-Ray on Saturday, the day following his first night at the safe house. I usually came home weekends as I worked in Blacksburg, Virginia, about an hour away, where I kept a small studio apartment during the week.
We knew almost nothing about him; the staff at the Bluefield Union Mission had told Hal few details. At that point, they knew only that Jesse-Ray had been in foster care and now was seemingly without resources. We also knew nothing about teen homelessness, which is more common than most people think. I hadn’t expected anyone homeless to be so young.
After we had our morning coffee, Hal went next door to check on things. Under our original plan, Hal would not have stepped foot on the property, preferring that his identity as landlord was not known to anyone staying there. But because Jesse-Ray was an aged-out foster child, Hal had disclosed his landlord status to Jesse-Ray, and he couldn’t resist knocking on the door to check on Jesse-Ray’s needs. When he returned, he said that he’d spotted only junk food in the safe house kitchen, the typical white-bread- and-sugar products that get donated to charities like the Bluefield Union Mission and are handed out to those who might otherwise go hungry.
I quickly whipped up an omelet to bring over to Jesse-Ray. Though I agreed with keeping our distance from the Bluefield Union Mission’s lodgers, I went next door with Hal. We did not wish for the operation of a safe house to complicate our lives. We were to be landlords only. We were not anyone’s keeper. The mission’s staff was supposed to check the lodgers in, keep them supplied with food and toiletries if necessary, and let us know when they had checked out. Our role was to be limited. We were not ready to take on an aged-out foster child of our own.
Or so we thought. Clearly, something about Jesse-Ray had already touched Hal.
I remember the moment I saw Jesse-Ray as clear as day.
He had light skin, light brown hair, brown eyes, and pants that scraped the floor. The epithet “big galoot” sprang to mind. He was bigger than Hal, and Hal wore extra-large sizes and shopped in big- and-tall specialty stores. Jesse-Ray’s manner was reticent, hesitant. He seemed a little shy.
He swallowed the eggs as if he hadn’t eaten for days as he stood at the breakfast bar that Hal had built. Confusion permeated his expression, but he attempted to be personable. He looked us in the eyes as we conversed politely. He flashed a smile of even white teeth. His round face made him seem almost cherubic. He was a good-looking galoot.
Once he downed his food, he shuffled over to the kitchen counter to where his grimy fabric Bob Marley bag lay. It held what I later learned were pretty much his sole possessions: swim trunks that doubled as underwear, a pack of wet wipes, a gold ring, two cotton kerchiefs he called “gang flags,” a crumpled grocery-store bag that constituted a wallet for his driver’s license and his drug-smoking pipe. That was all.
He told us a little about himself. He had been sleeping outside, under a tree, and then he had moved inside a crumbling, abandoned house. He had been homeless for weeks, maybe months. He had survived without heat during the winter, through freezing temperatures and occasional snow. It was February, and the blustery days were only just ending.
He told us that he had been a foster child. He had worked in a coal mine. He had a father who was not currently in the picture. Jesse-Ray had also been involved with selling drugs, but he said he had turned his back on that life. He had walked into the Bluefield Union Mission looking for food, shelter, and help.
Physically, he reminded me of the young men on my mother’s side of the family—large, shuffling Midwestern farm boys with a laid-back manner, a good heart, and an eye for a story. Hal and Jesse-Ray were both big guys, more than six feet tall, and it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine that Jesse-Ray could be Hal’s grandson.
Standing in the kitchen of the safe house, Hal and I locked eyes, making an instant decision about this person who was now our tenant, even though we knew little about him other than that he had no home, no family to turn to, and no belongings bigger than a box of tissues.
“You can stay here,” I said. “Assuming that the Bluefield Union Mission agrees, that is. We’ll ask them to let you live here until you can get your life in order. Hal and I have just three rules.”
Typically, Hal and I would have talked before announcing such a big decision. But I had read agreement in Hal’s eyes. Even if we had stopped to confer, I doubt we would have changed course. Without giving much consideration to how complicated things might get, we were already on our path. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to set minimal rules at the outset. I knew the odds were good that Craig would agree to allow Jesse-Ray to stay longer than the usual three days. I also suspected, rightly, that no one at the Bluefield Union Mission would have time to craft or enforce rules, even though taking on a young person with a questionable background and history of drug use would seem to be a situation that cried out for rules. That job would be left to us. Hal looked on approvingly.
“No alcohol or drugs,” I stated. “You have to work. And you have to go to school.”
Relief hit Jesse-Ray’s face, but his next words stunned me. “This is the first time in ten years I haven’t had to worry about the roof over my head.”
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