Waiting


There are these things called wait lists. We hear about them all the time in the homeless services world. There are wait lists for Section 8. Wait lists for permanent supportive housing. Wait lists for new buildings being opened up. The term is as common as is the concept of a homeless neighbor. But today the word wait list sounds different to me. Tony was on a wait list for housing. I met him last fall, when someone from a local health clinic called my work to alert us to the fact that their very sick patient was also homeless. Tony was very polite when I met him, laughing that he couldn’t see his tattered social security card without his glasses. You could tell he was probably handsome when he was younger. He told me his story, and we connected the dots. He was from Downey and regularly attended the homeless breakfasts at Calvary Bellflower. He had participated in the folk lift certification classes at Kingdom Causes, so he knew the office where I worked. He explained that he’d been homeless for the last two years, and that he was suffering from poor health; he had heart disease and cancer – specifically, brain tumors. The timing of our conversation was perfect. We had just received word that we were going to be able to receive a limited number of housing vouchers for homeless individuals who were also currently struggling with health issues. My meeting with Tony seemed providential. We immediately helped him to apply for housing, submitting his application within the week. We were elated at the possibility of being able to help a neighbor in need by ending his homelessness.  But then that dreaded word surfaced: wait list. These vouchers were supposed to materialize quickly, we were told, but likely as a result of sequestration, the process slowed. We counted Tony as one of the lucky ones; his application was submitted just before the door slammed shut. The answer for him, unlike so many others for whom we submitted, wasn’t “no”; it was “wait.” And waiting is better than nothing. …right? And so, Tony waited. He checked in with his case manager faithfully every week, to which we responded that we were still waiting. The excitement at the possibility of housing diminished, as we sent emails, made phone calls, and pushed on systems that did not give way. On August 8th, 2013, while sleeping next to a friend, Tony died on the street of natural causes. He passed away quietly, resting on concrete. He was 51 years old. He was homeless. He was sick. He was on a wait list.

Waiting is an interesting thing. Sometimes we wait patiently, without perhaps even realizing we’re waiting – waiting for a change of luck, waiting for the seasons to change, waiting for life to perhaps get better. Mostly, I think, we wait impatiently. When will I lose that weight? When will I get that raise? When will I meet that special someone? My boss recently commented that perhaps we do not wait with enough anticipation, enough almost anguish for the arrival of what’s hoped for. He was referring to the stance of the church, waiting for its bridegroom Jesus to return. What should our waiting look like, he pondered? What would it look like to wait with hopeful anticipation, deeply desiring the arrival of something good for which we long? The conversation makes me reflect: what are the things that we are too impatient for – the fruits of change to be realized, things to be more comfortable for ourselves – and what things should we be more impatient to see come to fruition -  the arrival of justice in our cities, the realization of compassion in ourselves. Tony died waiting. I don’t know if he waited with patience, with hope, with dejection. And while he waited, we waited also. But did we wait in the right way? Did we pursue help for the helpless, to extent that we were able? I believe that we did. But what then, do we say, when all of our waiting, and all of his waiting, produces this result?

The only thing I can think of is a phrase that has never meant much to me before today: “Come Lord Jesus, come.” We are waiting for your Kingdom. And I know that next time I utter the prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” I’ll mean it even more than I did last time that I said it.