“Have you ever flagged down a cop and get them involved?” I inquired.
He grimaced at my words. “No. They don’t have time for us. Think we’re all drunks or crazy insane. Don’t get me wrong some of us are. Been dumped out on the streets when the Federal money ran dry. A lot of hurting former soldiers in the lot, that the VA can’t take in or care for anymore.”
I had certainly formed a similar opinion through the years about homeless people. It was too easy to fault the person for his troubles, when many other factors contributed. His words shed a great deal of light, opening my eyes to other possibilities.
At that point, I remembered where I knew him from. He often sat on the corner of Broadway and Evans with a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless, asking for spare change to buy food. I had handed him a few bills through the years, when I had extras burning a hole in my wallet.
“I’ve seen you,” I proclaimed. “Handed you money a few times in the past.”
He nodded with a half-smile. “I remember. Once you had a business card wrapped in the bills you gave me, probably by mistake. I held onto it. When you don’t have much, you keep everything. I dug through my stuff and found it, thinking I could locate you and ask for help.”
“Are you really a veteran?” Not sure why I questioned if he was, for there was no reason to lie.
“Yes. I fought in the first Iraq war. I was wounded, but still went back to complete my tour afterwards. I had mental issues that required help and made it hard to work when I got home. I received assistance for a while, but that ended and here I am.”
I shook my head in spite for his situation, his words heartbreaking to hear. I had the utmost respect for those who protect our country and the pain many of them go through during and after the battle.
“Sorry. Not the American dream you hoped for.”
If there was sadness or bitterness, he didn’t display it. It had been going on for so long, maybe he was numb to his situation.
“No, it’s more of a nightmare than a dream,” he stated with no emotion. “There are others out there like me. I did my duty for my country, but my country failed me, as it failed the others. It’s challenging, but I’m surviving.”
It was a shame to hear and see. The motto “We don’t leave our people behind” didn’t always apply once the fighting was over, even though the war still wages on in their being.
“You mentioned people bothering you, but not about your companions disappearing.”
He stopped to take another drink of water, savoring it, as if it were a fine wine before continuing.
“One day two men showed up in a fancy black SUV while the punks were screwing with us and ran them off, telling them in a convincing and aggressive manner to never come around again. They pushed them around pretty good. Scared the hell out of them. It was like a godsend as we were sick of the harassment but not strong enough to fight them off.”
My face contorted at his words. “A miracle?”
“Yes. They were all polite and apologetic. Seemingly feeling sorry for us. After several minutes of chit-chat, they mention they’re looking for a couple of strong men for jobs. Will pay them cash if they get in the SUV and come with them. I’m a little leery and have trust issues, so I said no thanks.” His eyes scanned downward, embarrassed at this shortcoming. “But a couple of the men are desperate and hadn’t had much to eat for a week or so. Their handouts had been trailing off. They go with them, leaving everything they own in the world behind and we never see them again.”
“Seems a long shot, they’d be given jobs and no longer needed to be on the street?” I proclaimed, uncertain what this meant.
“Exactly. That would be one miracle I can’t imagine happening.”
“Sounds like there were others.”
“Yes. The same men came back a few days later, claiming the two were working out great and had employment for more. There was some resistance this time, but they gave them crisp new one hundred-dollar bills as a lure. That kind of money is hard to resist. Three more were gone, never to be seen again. It’s happened three more times, this last time to my closest friend who couldn’t turn down their offer. The two men were experts at selling it, saying everyone they had taken before were now working, happy in their new lives and had been provided a place to live. I told him not to do it and asked for some verifiable proof, but he went anyway. That was a week ago and there has been no sign of him. There is no possibility he wouldn’t have tried to find a way to contact me. Something fishy is going on.”
“Any rumblings from other homeless in the area?” I inquired.
“I get around and talk, learning others are being approached—so yes. We’re always moving to keep from being bored and frozen. It isn’t hard to find us. We’re often standing on street corners, carrying signs. A few will ignore you, while others like to chat.”
All of this seemed extremely odd and difficult for me to believe. Luring people away to do what? And to go where? Could it all have been in his mind? He said he had mental health issues after coming back from the war. Was it possible it was all in his head?
“Is there anyone that can confirm your story?” I asked.
“You can come down to our habitat and ask around?”
For some reason, I didn’t trust his word, at least completely. And I wasn’t sure I could trust others within his group of homeless people.
“Anyone else? Maybe someone not part of your community.”
He glared at me, a bit perturbed I was questioning him. He thought for a minute before answering.
“Pastor Sam at the Mission we go to, just off Broadway, a few blocks south of here.”
I leaned back in the uncomfortable chair, arms crossed, thinking about it for a few minutes. I had no pressing cases, or as a matter of fact, any cases right now. If what he said was true, then I was curious about what was going on. At the very least I could lend a pro-bono hand in solving the mystery.
“What is the name of the place where Pastor Sam works?”
“The Mission of the Invisible Souls.”
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