Greg Milo and Jason Horinger don't view their homeless outreach as a once a week mission. They have made it a lifestyle. They give the local homeless they meet in the woods, under bridges and near train tracks, their phone numbers, and Horinger even invited some to his wedding.
"When they're standing on the street corner flying a sign, people look through them or past them or just give them money," said Horinger, director of Service and Outreach at Hoban High School. "Like Greg said, in a very distant basis. We go out and start conversations. It's about developing those relationships. It's about talking to them, letting them feel like an individual for that part of the day. Then doing that on a week to week basis."
This past fall I journeyed out into the city and woods with the teachers and students after school. I arrived home around 10 p.m. that night with my eyes opened a little bit more to the reality that many people across our nation, and in our world, are living every day.
Haunted by the past
One of our last stops made one of the greatest impressions on me. It was to a small home with many different people, cats and dogs living in it. A large dog stood on top of a table, cats roamed around everyone's ankles, Halloween decorations were scattered and people came out of the woodwork.
One man, I'll call him "Charles", approached me with a limp. He stood there with a cane, his big toe wrapped up in a cast. Shortly after introducing himself he began showing us different scars all over his body. This man had tried to commit suicide by crashing his car into a pole. He said he tried about four to six times, but did not die. All he was left with was scars.
He broke all of the bones in his face and this was all over a broken relationship. He was so devastated when a girlfriend broke up with him that he tried to end his own life. This was 20 something years ago and he is still dealing with the aftermath. The purplish grey circles under his eyes show the strain from all of the pain he has had in his life.
Traveling to the Tent Cities
Also disturbing and eye-opening were the men living in tents. They call them "tent cities" and most people are there due to addiction, mental illness and/or tragic circumstances. I couldn't believe my eyes that night, knowing that I would be leaving to go home to a nice, warm bed while these men would be sleeping out in the cold.
Even more horrific, I wondered how they would handle the winter. Most of them don't seem to have a problem with it. They say they stay bundled up and light a fire.
"It's alright, I can get used to it. You get some thermals and stuff to put on and stay warm," one of the homeless men new to the tent city said.
"They (the homeless) were tryin' to get us to spend the night (in the tent city) and we kept sayin' we would but kind of chickened out," said Milo, a social studies teacher at Hoban.
The most important aspect of all of this is the relationships that are formed. Many of the homeless men who once had no one to turn to, now have people they can call friends.
Robert and Perch, two of the homeless men, even attended Horinger's wedding this past summer. The men laughed together, recalling how Perch wore his cut off jean shorts. "It's just kind of morphed into this," Horinger said. "It's developing a pattern and lifestyle of helping, just reaching out. We're hoping the kids embrace that idea and take it beyond Wednesday night." And they have…
Alex Wills shared a story about driving downtown with a friend one day. "We saw like five people in the scorching heat just sitting on the corner," Wills said.
"I felt extremely guilty for having my own car, when they have no car and I'm in high school and they might need that car to support their family," he continued. He and his friends ended up getting some cans of ice cold soda to brighten their day. "You go out and want to do it, due to the inspiration," he said.
The inspiration being his humble role models: Milo and Horringer. "You don't even really feel like you're helping people. I feel like I'm getting more out of it sometimes," Wills said of their giving.
"Most of us for obvious reasons don't go the extra mile to maybe find out who they (the homeless) are, where they are or anything about the poverty level or anything like that, and that kind of ignorance is allowed to carry on," Horinger explained. "All too often people are scared of the unknown."
Throughout all of this I was just amazed at how the students and staff at the high school befriended these men and women, fed them, talked with them and connected. It was truly inspiring to see.