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Homeless For The Holidays

While holiday traditions celebrate family and friends, commentator Rawlins Gilliland shares how Christmas became the catalyst for him to reach a mentally lost and homeless soul.


On Christmas Day 2004, I took my new puppy Honey to run in the Trinity Forest behind my home, and as we romped in the icy frost that morning, I thought about the homeless hermit I had heard for years lived in the woods close to our path.  The sadness I felt, knowing he was alone and cold on Christmas morning, launched my determined attempt to reach "that man" I came to know as Charles.

Seeing him walking up the hill daily, I tried in vain for years to offer him a ride.  Then in the blizzard of February 2010, he finally stepped into my car and thus began my actual relationship to a fellow man I have alluded to in commentaries since 2005.  Efforts to improve his lot in life have become a balancing act; maintaining my boundaries while learning his, keeping promises to us both. 

Charles is a tall once-handsome balding blond born on September 5th, 1956 in central east Louisiana.  He is obviously mentally impaired while at the same time coherent and intelligent.  It is confounding when he tells me stories in great detail.  But it’s heart wrenching and maddening when he undermines life-transformational options as he did when I pursued medical exams necessary for him to receive disability, which he clearly deserves.  We were finally able to get food stamps, a blessing especially on weekends when the soup kitchen he walks to, seven miles away, is closed.

Taking Charles last December to replace his dissolving leather shoes challenged my breaking point.  After making his choice, he alternately tried on the sizes 9 ½ and 10 for three hours; repeatedly re-wrapping tissues around each boot before placing them back into their boxes exactly as they were before.  At one point, he raged into a meltdown that hurt my feelings and another time I yelled.  Amazingly, these episodes helped us sense the other’s limits, and with that, our mutual trust grew. 

Finally, my dogs and I began following Charles down the winding hillside trail to his grotesque remote campsite, packing out the enormous bags of aluminum cans he collects to sell, a process that leaves my car smelling like a sports bar.  After this ritual the other day, he called the thirty dollars his "Christmas money", whatever that means to him. 

Last Christmas Eve began at 4 a.m., I on the starless night bridge cupping my hands to call down into the woods to take Charles to the mission shuttle when selected homeless stay Christmas Eve night at the Hyatt Hotel.  Waiting together in a parking lot for that transport bus in the predawn dark on one of Dallas’s deadliest corners was not a Hallmark Card commercial.  But when he handed me an envelope that held a Hallmark card, I knew what it meant to be Santa’s humbled guardian angel.  In it he wrote in a scrawling juvenile script the following; “We are friends now two years.  I guess we are friends.  I never had a friend.” 

Merry Christmas.

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.