Voices from the street in the time of COVID-19

  • Written by Deacon Frank DiGirolamo
  • Published in Commentary

For the past seven years, I have walked the nighttime streets, alleys, parks and “jungles” of Seattle with the Operation Nightwatch ministry team. I’ve probably met well over 1,000 of our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness, and I am privileged to call many of them friends.

Last week, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly and radically transformed our society, I packed some sandwiches and water bottles, put on latex gloves and a surgical mask, and went out to see more than a dozen of my friends living on the margins of our community. I wanted to hear how this global health crisis is affecting them and to learn from their insights.

Sadly, people living on the streets are accustomed to crisis. It’s common to hear stories of trauma, abuse, estrangement and the loss of loved ones. 

For instance, I regularly visit with a grandmother who used to live in an affluent neighborhood before she became a victim of domestic violence and lost all her family and work ties. “It’s far better to live on the streets than to live in that fancy house with an abusive spouse,” she tells me.

And yet despite these trials — or perhaps because of them — my friends on the street tend to have amazing faith and spiritual sensitivity, and often a great knowledge of Scripture. I’ve been the beneficiary of many a late-night mini-sermon, and some of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard have been uttered in the darkness of these meetings — modern-day psalms of both lament and praise.

The uncertainty and precariousness we all feel these days is nothing new to my friends. They are used to living day to day, trusting that the Lord will provide — usually through the help of strangers and regular donors they know.

With painful irony, this pandemic and the terminology that has sprung up around it have thrown into sharp relief the daily existence of people experiencing homelessness.

“Social distancing”? They get a wider berth than 6 feet from most people.

“Work from home”? What a dream for someone with neither.

“Stay Home, Stay Healthy”? Healthy is a relative term out here, and compromised immune systems are the norm. The average age of death is 54, a full 25 years less than the median resident.

Getting through this current crisis will require new levels of selflessness and social solidarity, and those living on the street have much to teach us.

A longtime friend inspires me with his sense of the common good. His favorite saying is “I got it? You got it” — meaning everything he has is for his friends as well. What a refreshing contrast to the scenes on the news of people hoarding food and toilet paper.

I asked another friend what she would like to say to the (currently absent) downtown workers. She said, “Tell them that if they lose their jobs and become homeless, we will help them learn how to survive out here. They will be scared, but we will welcome them and help them.”

It is an honor to share what I’ve heard from my friends. Is it just me, or can we hear Jesus speaking through them?

Deacon Frank DiGirolamo is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Seattle.