FEATURE STORIES

Untouchables


by Andrew Brunsman
February 2010

 

Modern science tells us that we can’t travel back to Biblical times and walk with Jesus. We will never be able to sit with Jesus at the Last Supper or hear His teachings as He speaks to the masses.

Though we can never go back to this time, I have discovered an environment which allows me to teach and learn from the prostitutes, drug-dealers, thieves, and pariahs of our society, just as Jesus did. I have found an opportunity to not only give life lessons, but to learn life lessons from those around me. I have learned the beauty and wisdom of the least of His people.

It’s not so much the people that keep you away from Our Daily Bread, it’s the smell. The scent is one of urine and beer mixed with body odor. The smell is in the air, on the streets, and covering the people. If you can get past the odor, then the opportunities for life changing experiences are possible; they happen on a regular basis in more ways than you could ever imagine.

Though the stench is nearly unforgettable, the activity going on inside the homeless shelter proves to permanently find a spot inside peoples’ memories. The smell is what most people who walk past Our Daily Bread remember, unless they walk inside and see the guests. The people of Our Daily Bread make a mark in your memory much more than the smell.  

A mural smiles brightly at your face as you walk through the front doors at Our Daily Bread, and though the people are definitely in need of some type of help, it is not obvious that everyone is homeless.

The atmosphere is steamy on some days as the heat from the kitchen mixes with the scent of the people to create a tangible sense of the supply and demand of the organization. During the early hours of the day, street walkers come in, get a quick wink of sleep, eat a plate of food, and then scurry back to their street corners to earn their daily wage.

People are down here for all different purposes and from all different walks of life; some are formerly incarcerated individuals, drunks, drug addicts, and players of the system, while others are just castaways of our society with no place else turn. No matter where the people of Our Daily Bread come from, or their stories for being where they are, they all have one thing in common: a need for something.

One woman, Jane, is a girl about my age from the east side of Cincinnati. She has long dark hair which needs to be washed, but always wears clothing which is in style and clean. Her parents come down every once in a while to convince her to move back home and come back to them. She is very pretty and athletic, but one crazy night of partying in high school led to a drug addiction which was so strong that it severed all the ties to the old life she once knew. She never graduated high school and is sleeping with people for money, a whole ball of talent just dwindling away each day.

Everyone makes his or her own choices in life, but it’s hard to believe that this attractive young woman wants to be sitting in a homeless shelter every day trying to get a couple hours of sleep in a place where she won’t be harassed or assaulted. Drugs do that to people, though. They turn good people bad and bad people into lunatics; the “grip” is why Jane says she’s here every day. She thinks she needs the drugs to live her life. For her, a need of illegal street drugs has caused her state of homelessness and has most likely dictated which direction the rest of her life will head.

Her scratchy voice is audible outside the doors of the shelter, “Five sack, five sack, anyone got a five sack?” Addiction is a terrible sickness which causes such an overwhelming feeling of need that nothing else in the world matters to the person it has its hands on.

*    *


Now, Rusty is a man who is at Our Daily Bread for a variety of reasons, but he truly might be the worst smelling person I have ever come in contact with. I speak to him and serve him something to eat frequently; every time I gag uncontrollably. I have always chuckled at the thought that he is the real-life version of Pig Pen from Charlie Brown. 

Many people at the shelter itch and scratch as if bugs are crawling all over their bodies from drug use, but Rusty has actual bugs crawling throughout his unkempt gray hair and dirty beard. He is a walking ecosystem of insects, body odor, and depression.  

Nonetheless, Rusty has something to teach me. He helps me be more compassionate for others. He waddles around in a dirty bubble coat which no one can tell what its original color was. He is different than Jane. Rusty has no family or friends and is trapped within the city of Cincinnati with only boxes and blankets to shelter him.

Rusty is one of the most friendly men at Our Daily Bread and I have discovered his need for companionship. I talk to him everyday and I realize that he loves people and loves telling stories.

Rusty is a people person, but not many people want to talk to a man with critters crawling all over his body. Rusty does odd jobs around the area to earn money and I have found out that he spends most of his earnings on crack-whores from the neighborhood to keep him company after the shelter closes.

Everyday I ask him how he is, and he smiles a rotted-tooth smile saying, “I’m here and alive, that’s about it.”

Rusty comes to Our Daily Bread not only to eat, but to be able to talk to people who won’t judge him. Rusty needs people around to be happy, so he comes to the shelter everyday to fill his need. When the shelter is closed, he makes due with a woman who will give him attention, even if it comes with a monetary value.  

*     *


Prices cannot be put on everything we need in life.

Dominic is four-yearold boy who lives in the Over-the-Rhine area with his mother and older sister Sharlene. Their father is in jail and their mother seems to lack the skills necessary for nurturing children until adulthood. Dominic lacks discipline and is used to doing what he wants to do all the time. He comes to the Kid’s Café at the shelter after school three days a week for crafts and activities as well as to eat dinner and improve his socializing skills.

Dominic is at Our Daily Bread because he was born into poverty; he needs a father figure. Though Dominic has an extremely extensive vocabulary for a young child, his favorite word is “no”. Everyday I ask him to help me with something he simply looks at me, shrugs, and says, “No, Andy,” very nonchalantly.

Dominic is in the program because he needs discipline; he needs someone to show him what the right choices in life are. He is very emotional and often talks about his hopes for his future. For his birthday he told me he wanted a mask and a gun. He says he wants to be like his dad when he gets bigger.

His dad is in prison for life. Many people need things like money which can be given at anytime to someone; others need something much greater and so complex that it can only be passed down through a created sense of respect and a relationship.

Dominic has a big smile and eyes so brown they almost look black. I like knowing that I have the ability to fulfill Dominic’s need. I am visibly making a difference in Dominic’s life. His mother has told me that he is not as bossy at home and has actually begun listening to instructions; he has finally started realizing that life is not all about him.

Dominic doesn’t talk so much about being a little gangster anymore, but has instead turned his attention to wanting to be a lawyer. “Andy, when I’m older I want to be a lawyer!” He has learned from me and it’s a wonderful feeling. Dominic has a need for someone to look up to in an environment where many young males end up in jail or prison. Dominic needs someone to show him the right path; he needs a chance for a bright future. Dominic helps me better understand the vicious cycle of growing up in the ghetto and I help him realize that there is a way to break that cycle; to be more than just a statistic.
                                                                        *     *

Though young children like Dominic often times have their futures decided by their environment, others like Jane thrust themselves into the slums for their different addictions and personal motives.

Fred is a man who is at Our Daily Bread for reasons all falling on him. Fred is in his late fifties and went to high school in northern Ohio. He loves football, and that love, along with his six-foot-four, athletic frame earned him the chance to play football for The Ohio State University.

Fred sits with me as we drink coffee everyday at Our Daily Bread wearing holey clothes and a rosary. Fred has replaced his love of football with a love of God. I hear him in my head even after I leave the shelter, “When God is all ya got, then ya got something great.” Fred is at Our Daily Bread because he needs redemption. His football career was cut short and he explains, “The only thing I loved more than playing ball was driving fast cars and finding loose women.”

Though football could have given Fred the opportunity to have all the cars and women he desired, he decided he would take the easy way to fame. Fred quit playing football and began dealing drugs. He is never clear about which drugs he sold, but when prompted about what drugs were involved in his demise he says, “It wasn’t the grass, the grass don’t mess you up like the other stuff does.”

Soon after he left the Ohio State University, Fred came to Cincinnati and began selling drugs in the slums and ghettos. He had no real job and soon had a son. His son works at Our Daily Bread. Fred comes here because he was not there for his son when his son was growing up and needed him most. Fred couldn’t be a father because he was busy running from the FBI and spending time in and out of jail cells. Fred comes here everyday even if he knows he will only be able to say a few sentences to his son. Fred is longing to make up for time he wasted.

When I was first introduced to Fred, he offered me some words which I will never forget, “Time is the only thing in the world that once it’s gone, ya can never get it back.” Fred motivates me to do the right thing even though the glamorous things in life can sometimes be achieved in an easier, though shadier, way. Fred is one person at Our Daily Bread who had the chance to make it in life, and he knows all to well that the downward spiral he began falling down forty years ago was no one’s fault but his own.

Now, when I think of Fred, I think of myself. I came to Our Daily Bread a little less than two years ago as nothing more than a confused college student who had a covert addiction to pain medications and a roommate who was strung-out on heroin. I needed an extra credit for college, and noticed Our Daily Bread’s name in an email from my service learning advisor.

Personally, I came to Our Daily Bread looking to atone for my sins. I look back at my life and know that though I have always done my best to be a good person, there was a period of time where my demons were running my life. Our Daily Bread saved me from my ball and chain which had been grounding me for so long.

After my first day with the guests of Our Daily Bread, I realized that my issues were nominal and in all honesty, all faults of my own. I started taking pain pills because I wanted to be free from the pain of a torn elbow. Later I realized that it wasn’t just my elbow I didn’t want to feel; I wanted to be numb to the world. The homeless shelter has never made me feel more alive, and I am proud to say that I have touched no pills since I started my efforts there.

I realized through talking to guests of the shelter that I have all the tools to live a life where I can make a difference; I was just using them in the wrong way. Never did I think that people who slept in boxes and smelled of stale urine would teach me so much about living a good life. I never imagined how the lives of others could guide me so strongly in the right direction. I understand now that though my issues were hidden from plain sight, I am no different than the wonderful people I interact with at Our Daily Bread everyday.

I was once a drug addict, a pariah of our society. It was by throwing myself in with others who had taken the same path I was on that I learned what I was throwing away for my need. I realized that I was not that different from the guests of Our Daily Bread. Everyone has his or her problems, but it is how one deals with them that defines the person they are.

You learn the most in life from people who are similar to yourself, and at Our Daily Bread, I get the chance to learn from many people who have faced the same issues I am facing now.

I realize that, though people look up to me at Our Daily Bread as a volunteer, I am there to help myself just as much as I am there to help others. The only difference between me and the guests of Our Daily Bread is that I have a home to go to when the shelter closes.

Every step we take in life can be for the greater good or the dire evil; Our Daily Bread accepts everyone, no matter which steps they take. Jane, Rusty, Fred, Dominic, and I are just as much the same as we are different; we are all at Our Daily Bread because we need something.           

When you serve another person, you get to see the face of God. God is in action in Over the Rhine and you can do His work every day at Our Daily Bread. Everyone is just as much a teacher as they are a student. Always remember, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people.”

Andrew Brunsman

Andrew Brunsman is a senior Communications Studies major at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

He writes about his experiences serving at Our Daily Bread, a facility and community providing nourishment to many needy people. Andrew also writes for and volunteers at Our Daily Bread where he sits on the Board of Directors.

He is also a Guest Services Manager at The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, a supportive home for families and their children receiving medical treatment at Children's Hospital Medical Center.