This week I participated in the annual Veteran’s Stand Down here in Wilmington. The Stand Down is a convention of providers who serve veterans and those experiencing homelessness together in one location. Organizations hand out information about their services and attendees expect plenty of give-a-ways. People offered free hair cuts, there was a mobile shower trailer, and health screenings (HIV/HEP C testing), along with breakfast and lunch. I went to represent my job with the SOAR program and to meet people in need of Social Security disability help. I shared my space with my friend Randy from church, who came to represent our church’s Hope Center. The Hope Center is my organization too! The Hope Center is day shelter/respite space for people experiencing homelessness. As Randy set up, he showed me his give-away… cigarettes!!! (Our table was next to the American Heart Association–needless to say, they were a bit shocked!) Randy had put a few cigarettes in ziploc baggies and I just happened to have books of matches as my give-away (people experiencing homelessness who camp outside, use matches in their camps). Without planning, Randy and I made a good team of wants… or was it needs?
As we began to hand out the cigarettes and word got around the convention, our table was the most visited. People expressed surprise followed by deep appreciation for Randy’s give away. As Randy and I discussed how he had made his hand-out choice he said, “I’ve never been asked by a person on the street if I could spare a mini tube of toothpaste or a clean pair of socks.” I am guilty of handing out mini toothpaste and socks! I am quickly learning that what I think the homeless need, is not what they necessarily want. We historically as the church, have not been good listeners. How bold we are to just hand people things and make assumptions about their true needs…and we less often respect their wants. How many times have we truly asked and then responded authentically?
In the homeless community, cigarettes are a commodity and a currency. They are peace makers, deal sealers, and creators of community. As a former smoker, I was always surprised by the uncanny comradery that was created among the few smokers that had slipped out and found a secret space during a wedding, funeral or other event. Sneaking back in, smelling of smoke and pleasantly sedated with nicotine, we were bound to each other through long drags and slow exhales of smoke. I recall a time when my vegan/animal loving girlfriend treated me to a ticket to a holiday fundraiser for Farm Sanctuary in New York City. The event was “star-studded” with animal lovers and we were mere minions quietly watching from the sidelines. We slipped outside in the cold New York night to share a quiet smoke and were joined by a thin, attractive, dressed-to-the-nines young woman from LA. She asked if she could bum a cigarette. Sure she could… As we smoked together, she confessed about her husband’s struggle with drugs, their problems with money and his dying career. She shared with us how hard these things were on their relationship. In our five minutes together, she poured out her heart–a confession of sorts to two strangers made instant friends and trusted confidants through an addiction to nicotine. When we went back into the event… we spotted our new friend standing proudly beside one of the “stars”– we secretly shared in her truth with a subtle nod of our heads and a slight smile on our lips.
Now the American Red Cross, who was beside our table at the Veteran’s Stand Down, would argue that we do not need cigarettes. But what if a need (craving/desire) for a cigarette could create a point of entry into someone’s life? What if sharing a smoke with someone or honoring someone’s choice to smoke birthed a trust, a confidence or a created a safe space? What if a cigarette bridged a gap, spanned a barrier or broke down a wall? What if a few long, slow, deep drags of a cigarette, while hiding in a tiny space away from the all-seeing world became like a confession booth and offered a moment to speak one’s real truth? As the Stand Down event continued, what became apparent was that real relationship was being formed around UN-smoked cigarettes still securely packed in their baggies as Randy had placed them. Many friends who were experiencing homelessness not only came for a free handout that they really wanted… but stayed to talk, laugh and share friendship in long drags and slow exhales of hope.