Daniel's Long Walk: A Christmas Story
On Thanksgiving this year we had a full church and, as is our habit, everyone spoke on what they were thankful for. Took 45 minutes and no one complained. When it was my turn I said that this year I thanked God for leading me to my friend Daniel and the friendship we share. Why is that? Let me tell you a story about my friend, Daniel.
I first noticed Daniel more than two years ago, at Sunday Mass in St. Therese. He would sit on the left, five rows back next to the side aisle. He walked with a limp, sometimes a cane. His clothing was obviously used and worn, rumpled and sometimes, stained, though he invariably wore a suit jacket and what looked like his one, all-purpose tie. He carried himself slightly hunched over with a slow, shuffling gait. Usually he was several days unshaven and his thin brown hair was clean but, often, as unkempt as his appearance. He kept to himself, sitting always off to the side, and, while enjoying the welcoming greetings of others, saying little in reply.
As time went by I became more curious about this apparition before me each Sunday and asked one of our nuns if she knew anything about him. She told me that he had, until recently, lived in the neighborhood but that she thought he might now be homeless. So, I started talking to him before or after Mass and found out his name was Daniel and that, indeed, he had lived with a couple of roommates in the neighborhood until they were evicted for not paying the rent. After living on the streets for a while, Daniel went to the City Union Mission where he slept at nights.
When I started talking with Daniel he had been sleeping, day to day, at the Mission for about a year. He had several jobs there to earn his keep. His main job was to hand out the baskets containing each man’s possessions which were turned in and locked up every night to try to prevent thefts (which, of course, still took place). Daniel would be up by 4 am every morning to start this process, after which he would eat his breakfast, then spend some time in chapel perhaps, before leaving for the day by 7:30 am. The rest of the day would be spent on the street mostly, though he often had errands to run such as going to the health clinic for care and to fill his prescription needs. Sometimes he would go to a library where he would read. He would need to return to the Mission each day between 3:30 and 5:00 pm, when the doors were closed. This information came slowly and haltingly as we spoke each week.
I asked Daniel how he got to St Therese each Sunday. He would catch the bus at 10th and Troost at 7:45 am and ride it to 58th and Troost where he would walk about 10 blocks to church. He would get a bus pass each month from the transit office which allowed him to ride for half fare. He had a small Social Security Disability monthly pension which was enough to pay for the few things he could afford such as bus fares, prescriptions and his most precious and vital possession, a cell phone with an inexpensive, monthly data plan. He carried everything he had and needed including clothing either in a large bag or backpack which he had found in his daily travels.
Time went on until one cold Sunday Daniel told me he had been robbed that week at the Mission. The thief had taken his money and bus pass from where he had been keeping them at night. I asked Daniel how he had gotten to church since he had no money or bus pass. He had walked - more than 50 blocks with a bad ankle and cane – on a cold morning to get to Sunday Mass on time. I asked him why he didn’t just go to another church. There were, after all, at least 4 or 5 closer ones. Daniel said that he did not want to go to another church, he wanted to go to his church.
And that was when I knew I needed to do something. Actually, I was being told to do something. I listened and asked Daniel if it would be all right to give him a ride Sundays to church. He agreed and I began picking him up at 7:45 am each Sunday. But that got us to church very early so we decided to go to breakfast first. We kept this schedule for all the Sundays I was in town from then on. Gradually, we learned more about each other – our ages (Daniel is 59), our ailments, our histories. Daniel had worked steadily most of his life in low paying jobs mostly in restaurants. At some point, Daniel had suffered a serious fracture of his ankle which, it seems, had not been adequately repaired leading to his unemployment and disability. He had been married to a disabled woman, but they had eventually split up when, I believe, Daniel could no longer care for both of them.
Things began looking up for Daniel. With some help from his case worker at the Mission, his SSI income was reevaluated and increased. He received a substantial back payment. He started planning to buy a car and find a place to stay.
Then, another fateful disaster struck. He was scammed on the internet and his windfall payment ended up being wired offshore. The Mission case worker became concerned about Daniel’s ability to handle his money. He wanted Daniel to appoint a designated payer to receive his SSI payment and pay his monthly expenses. Daniel was firmly opposed, not trusting anyone with the small amount of money he received and not wanting others to make decisions for him on how his money would be spent. The Mission and Daniel were at an impasse.
I received a phone call from Daniel the day after Christmas last year. The Mission had kicked him out on Christmas eve for some minor violation. They told him he was banned for 90 days, but, if he got a payee they would reconsider. Daniel spent Christmas eve and day in an abandoned garage on vacant land at 54th and Prospect. The weather was cold and looking to get colder. Carolyn and I were leaving town to spend Christmas in Columbia with Susan, Bruce and Ben. Daniel said there was a cheap motel across the street but he did not have enough money to stay there. I came and got him and rented the motel for a week until he would get his monthly SSI.
Thus began our search for housing for Daniel. We found Kansas City Rescue Mission which operated similarly to the City Union with one important difference – everyone had to pass a breathalyzer test each night before getting a bed. After several nights, Daniel decided he would return to the abandoned garage. He objected to being tested because he had never drunk alcohol or taken drugs and felt he was being called a liar. I argued with him and lost.
We kept applying through a number of agencies and programs to obtain housing that Daniel could afford while Daniel returned to the garage with holes in the roof and walls, and without heating and electricity. The winter kept getting colder. And then Daniel met a woman who said he could live with her if he helped out with expenses. In less than a month, she beat and robbed Daniel. He was left penniless and without identification.
We began the process of reconstructing Daniel’s identity. New license, new social security card, new bus pass, new phone, new bank card. Sounds easy. It wasn’t, particularly when you don’t have a permanent address. Without any of these you are invisible, you do not exist. And you can’t apply for housing without them. In March the commercial property owner discovered that Daniel was living in the wreck of the garage. He seized Daniel’s cot, sleeping bag, propane stove and clothing and told him he could not live there, not to come back. Finally, Daniel relented and returned to the Rescue Mission. We continued the housing search. In April Daniel received a letter (at the church’s mailing address) from the Housing Authority saying that as a disabled, homeless person he could qualify to receive subsidized housing. The process required filling out a number of forms on several different but precise dates which, if not strictly followed and adhered to would result in not receiving approval or assistance. The greatest hurdle Daniel encountered was proving his disability. Although being approved for and receiving SSI income for a number of years, Daniel had to present medical proof of his disability. And Social Security either didn’t have or couldn’t release to us the evidence it relied on to establish his disability entitlement. After several setbacks, a woman doctor at the health clinic signed a letter vouching for Daniel and his disability.
With this the housing quest finally took flight. Several suitable apartments were found, but there was one final hurdle to overcome. To succeed, Daniel needed a designated payer so that his money could be budgeted to make sure that expenses like rent and utilities were timely paid every month. Daniel met with the agency that provides this service and agreed to go forward with a payer agreement.
Daniel has been in his own apartment since September 1st and getting along very well. He managed to furnish his apartment with several items he gathered during his wanderings and kept in a storage locker. He goes to St. Therese Senior Center almost every weekday and has made many friends. And tomorrow I will pick him up at his apartment in time to go to breakfast before continuing on to church and Mass.
I feel very lucky to have met Daniel and to have him call me his friend. I have received much more from him than I have been able to give in return. He has shown me that with little material goods, bad circumstances, in the face of physical dangers and social indifference, a person can keep his own sense of dignity and worth, can brave the impossible, can stay warm and kind in a cold and sometimes cruel world.
My wish for you this Christmas is that, in some way or manner you will find your own Daniel to show and light your way in the darkness and the cold.
Printed with permission from Bill O'Neill and Daniel.
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