Walking through the valley of the shadow of death with Jason

The valley of the shadow of death…

It was the day before Christmas Eve and I was feeling pretty good because I was able to help "Jay" and "Pete" check into the Long Beach Rescue Mission, an overnight shelter that does admitting from three to six and takes anyone up to 30 days. It seemed like things were going well when I left them there at 3 o’clock. "Jay" seemed ready for this decision because of his recurring back pain that lands him in the hospital every two months or so. “Thank you Lord, things are going to work out.” I prayed as I drove off. I had no idea how much things would change over the next few days.

I met "Jay" on the river bed just over a year ago. "Jay" is a stocky 25 year old who was raised in Lakewood by his alcoholic mom and an abusive father. Since high school he’s been in and out of trouble, always struggling with authority, thanks mostly I think to his abusive past. Through the past twelve months I have truly come to love "Jay". He is a person of peace, a man who can make anyone feel welcome. He is a quick learner, remembering concepts that I have briefly mentioned to him along the way, even when he wasn’t sober. I’ve had the joy of seeing him make some really good choices, first to check himself into a 10 day detoxification program, and movingly accept Christ’s sacrifice for his sins. I’ve seen him make some bad choices too. Choosing not to stay in the rehabilitation program that he was blessed to get into (they only reserve a few beds for guys with no ability to pay) and choosing to go back to the streets rather than give sobriety another hack.

After his latest three day stay in the hospital two weeks ago "Jay" made a commitment that he would not go back to the riverbed. Seeing this commitment to a positive change I got him a hotel room for a few nights with the understanding that he would go down to the Rescue Mission on Friday when he could more independently walk. He and "Pete" missed the bus and didn’t end up getting down there last Friday. Instead he ended up back behind the Liquor Store owned by Rodney the Armenian. The following Tuesday when we brought lunches out to the homeless neighbors we ran into him back in his usual location in front of Michael’s Pizza and encouraged him to come to the Christmas dinner a small group from the local church was hosting at the Kiwanis Club. He was cordial and even saying, “You’re my best friend!” and “These guys are the best.” He was a great help in getting 25-30 homeless folks out to the Christmas dinner. I told him that I would be out of town on Thursday but that I would come by on Friday and take him to the shelter. “Okay, I’ll be ready.” "Jay" replied as my bus pulled away.

Friday afternoon he was there sleeping behind the liquor store when I showed up to give him a ride. He threw some stuff together and hopped in my orange ’79 Volkswagen bus heading for Long Beach. He talked a mile-a-minute, definitely in a good mood. We met Patrick at the shelter, he had taken the bus from his Methadone clinic directly to the shelter with his weekend’s worth of dosages. They checked in and I rolled off, feeling good about the whole thing, like maybe God had delayed the arrival of my son so that I could do this with the guys.

Christmas Eve I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize… sure enough it was Jason saying he couldn’t take the way that they treated him there and he was back in town by the liquor store. I tried in vain to talk him into giving the shelter another go round and suck it up, to tough it out. There was no convincing him though. “I’m done with the shelters. They treat you too much like an animal or a convict.”

I was frustrated… to say the least. Why won’t he just stick it out? Is it really the systems fault that this guy is on the streets? The amount of time that I have put into helping Jason is not making any difference. Have I just “passed the buck” by bringing "Jay" to the shelter? Are the shelters around here really as oppressive as he makes them out to be? There are 89,999 other people like "Jay" in Los Angeles County, helping one person at a time like this cannot be a sustainable way to solve the problem of homelessness.

First thing that comes to my mind is that I should go out and find him.
“Save him again. No, that wouldn’t be right, that would only serve to demonstrate to "Jay" that no matter what choices he makes, I will be there to pick him up right away. Leave some distance, give him a few days to hit bottom.” I think to myself. “I’ll go check on him next week sometime.”

Yesterday was the day to check in on him. He might be uncomfortable enough to get some help. So after hitting a few golf balls with my brother-in-law we cruised over to Rodney’s Liquor Store to find "Jay" and give him his musty sleeping bag and blankets that he left in my bus when he checked into the shelter four days earlier. "Jay" was there, this time when we pulled in though he was not his usually friendly self. (even when he is drunk he’s usually pretty cordial) This time we found him cussing at Rodney and daring him to call the cops. He was fumbling with his zipper and the puddle on the sidewalk looked to be fresh. I got out of the bus and approached "Jay". He was more drunk that usual. His eyes were dark and tired. An empty vodka bottle and a can of malt liquor were over in the corner by the cane the doctor had prescribed for his back pain, pain he was apparently trying to medicate with alcohol.

Rodney was behind the counter and seemed to be on the phone with the police. When "Jay" saw this became more and more agitated and began to talk about hurting himself. “Let the cops come. I’ll kill myself right here.”
He brandished a box cutter and quickly shoved it back in his pocket.
“ "Jay", don’t do anything stupid. Let’s go talk someplace.” I tried to reason.
He turned and threatened Rodney again. Rodney’s threat to call the police must have been convincing enough to scare "Jay". He turned to me and ordered, “Take me to Lakewood or I’ll kill myself right here.”
“I’ll make a deal with you. You give me the razor blade and I’ll give you a ride.” I offered instinctively.
"Jay" turned his back to me and then turned to hand me the box cutter. I opened it to find that the blade had been removed.
“ "Jay" give me the razor blade.” I demanded.
He opened his mouth to reveal the hidden blade and then threw it on the ground at my feet.
I closed the door of the bus with a prayer, “Lord, help me to know what to do here.”
As we pulled out of the drive way "Jay" fumbled with his bag to remove a bottle of Boone’s, a cheap fruit wine that he had doubtless purchased from Rodney earlier in the day. In between deep droughts from the bottle "Jay" began to talk about how he was tired of life. “I’m done. No more shelters.” Recounting again how they had mistreated him. Paranoia began to set in. He began to curse and threaten my brother-in-law and me with death if the cops were to show up.
Another prayer, “Lord, I don’t know what to do!”
We pulled to a stop on Palo Verde just north of South Street, and I turned to see "Jay" in tears. He was incredibly agitated and talked about how he wanted to end it. In my Social Work classes along the way we learned that people usually just want someone to listen to them, and that unless they have actually thought it through they’re likely just trying to get attention. “Have you thought about how you would hurt yourself "Jay"?” I asked. He had four different ways that he could do it and I began to get scared. I have never seen him like this before.
“Lord, I ask you in Jesus name to protect "Jay" from any demonic influence.” I prayed aloud.
“That doesn’t work” "Jay" replied, “I spent nine hours last night in Bible study and nothing happened.” “Some people just get f----- in life. Your friends did when you were a kid, and me.” Jason was referring to the story I had told him about my friends who died in a fire when I was a teen. He could remember things I had told him months ago, but he was clearly in a bad place mentally.
“What do I do Lord? I can’t just leave him. He’ll hurt himself. I can’t call the police because he’s threatened to pretend he has a weapon so he’ll get shot.”
I remembered that LA County has a number that you can call from any payphone so I decided to pull into the Sav-On Drugstore parking lot and try the number. It doesn’t work. “What next?” I try a few friends, Eric, Aaron… no one’s within reach. I try DW and he is there I briefly let him know what’s happening and he gives me the Suicide Prevention line and says he’ll be right over, we’re right in his neighborhood.
"Jay" in the mean time is starting on his next malt liquor and continuing to threaten my brother-in-law if we were to call the cops.
He showed me his arms and said, “I’ve messed up again.” You could see where he had injected something into his arms recently.
When DW showed up "Jay" again got agitated and tore the beer can apart with his hands threatening to hurt himself with it. Still on the phone, I was trying to communicate with the counselor on the other end of the line while I tried to contain "Jay". When "Jay" headed into the drug store I passed the phone off to DW who continued the conversation with the counselor and I followed "Jay" inside.
He was at the liquor cabinet eyeing the beer and hard liquor. My imagination was running wild as he made threats to the store clerks and other customers. Would he go off inside, would he hurt himself with something in the store?
Finally after talking him out of stealing a bottle of vodka we went back outside and after only a few minutes trying to keep "Jay" calm the sirens began to wail. He gave me a look that said, “You’ve betrayed me.”
He stormed off to cross the street but stopped to turn and curse me.
I slumped down at the curb watching "Jay" attempt to hitch a ride from passing traffic and then continue on across the street, helpless.
As I watched the police, firemen and paramedics pull up I watched helplessly, feeling as though I had indeed betrayed a friend yet weary from fear and anxiety. DW, Jeff and I circled to pray. “I don’t know what to pray God. "Jay" is yours. Take care of him.”
The police officer came over to tell us that "Jay" would be admitted to Lakewood Regional Hospital, but it didn’t seem like he was suicidal to them.
There was nothing else we could do, so we drove away, confused, tired, and wrestling with hopelessness.
At the dinner table my cell phone rang. It was a local number that I did not recognize, it was Jason. He was calling from the hospital to tell me how mad he was that I had betrayed him and that he would not be talking to me ever again.
“ "Jay" is yours God. Take care of him.”
A day later and "Jay" is back on the streets and surviving and I am healing from his verbal punches. I know that I did the right thing, calling for help. I know that "Jay" doesn’t really mean all of the things that he said and that he was dealing with demonic oppression brought about by heavy drinking and drugs. Now I have to remember the grace that God has shown me. I have my own habits and sins that I continue to go back to. I have my own frustrations, perceiving inactivity from God when my own disobedience has gotten me where I am. Lord help me to forgive and to demonstrate your grace to "Jay".