Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 20, 2013

JOSHUA BALL: Finding hope in homelessness

Joshua Ball
The Independent

ASHLAND — Noah Jones never dreamed he would be begging for a morsel of food, but that’s the harsh reality for the 18-year-old father.

The wear and tear of the street is evident, as much of his body is covered with homemade tattoos. Life on the streets is tough, real tough.

I spent most of one evening walking the streets of Ashland with no wallet, no money, no communication devices and, albeit for a matter of hours, no hope.

Like last month’s debut of “In Their Shoes,” I wanted to target epidemics in the region to bring a face — and a story — to the issue.

I’ve been blessed. I’ve never been homeless, hungry or gone without. Many of the people, on and off the record, I spoke to never thought they would be where they are, either.

“Imagine begging for food to survive; imagine not knowing where your next meal or your next change of clothes will be,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be here, and I think people think we all want to beg and be burdens on society.”

I didn’t get that vibe. Jones is a father of a 4-month-old he never sees, and he has another child on the way.

I’m not here to judge. He wept when talking about his child. “I want to provide for my child,” he said. “I’d give all I have (food stamps) to make sure my son is taken care of.”

How can you take care of a child when you can’t take care of yourself?

So, there are casualties far beyond the park benches and alleys these people call home. There are children and families who are affected, and so is society.

My experiences on the streets showed there’s a need for mental health services. Life has dealt these people a devastating blow. In many cases, they feel the casualty of a world that is unforgiving and insistent on placing stereotypes on them.

“I want to work,” said Austin Childers, 28, who has been living at the Salvation Army shelter. “I don’t want to be a drain on people or society. I want what everyone else wants: a home, a vehicle and a family.”

Walking the streets of Ashland, I felt scared, isolated and somewhat of a drain. However, at the shelter, I felt safe, wanted and was offered hope through an inspirational message from Pastor Gary Arrington of Garner Baptist Church. Following a meal served by members of his congregation, Arrington spoke of the rich man who is indeed poor.

“Grace: It’s what God gives us but we don’t deserve it,” he told those as they ate baked spaghetti, salad, bread and red velvet cake.

Following the devotional, Arrington shared a hug with a young man who showed up during dinner from Ironton. He was a former minister.

At night, looking down dark alley after dark alley, I, too searched for light, as it signifies much more than direction and guidance, but also hope.

Let your light shine.

JOSHUA BALL is a freelance writer. His ongoing series “In Their Shoes” appears occasionally in The Independent.