NORMAN — To better understand something, sometimes you have to experience it.
That's why two Norman pastors spent 10 days recently living as homeless people, camping out, eating at shelters, sometimes scrambling for a ride or a place to clean up.
On Oct. 30, Dusty Buff, pastor of Grace Church, and youth minister Philip Nguyen celebrated the anniversary of their small, nondenominational church on the city's east side, ate a communal meal with fellow congregates, then hoisted back packs, layered on clothes and set off for the woods.
“That first night, it just got so cold. We couldn't wait to trek into town the next morning,” Nguyen said.
The next two nights, the two slept on the floor of a shelter, but not wanting to take up space regularly used by other homeless people, they returned to camping, often sleeping between houses or behind someone's fence line.
If they wanted to clean up, they soon learned they had to get on a list. Food and Shelter provides daily meals for the homeless and has one shower that is available from 8 a.m. to noon for those who sign up.
“You fall into a routine. You know where you need to be to get what you need. A lot of time and effort goes into just getting where you know you need to go,” Buff said.
The two applied for jobs, only to realize if they walked the five miles to the job site and worked for eight hours, they would miss meals that day. Pay for the work wouldn't come in for another two weeks.
“So it's a decision-making thing. Do you take the job? And if you do, how do you eat until you get your first paycheck?” Buff asked.
Find shelter from cold
They did discover that hunger was not a problem as long as they showed up at the right place at the right time.
“No one in Norman need ever go hungry,” Buff said. “There are plenty of resources for that, and people are generous.”
Finding a bed in which to sleep was a different story.
“There are eight beds for men at the Salvation Army, and you can only sleep there five times in a month,” Nguyen said.
During the winter, Food and Shelter allows people to sleep on the floor, with space for maybe 45 bodies, “and that's pretty tight,” Buff said.
Homeless offer tips
Other homeless people offered the men tips: Grab a nap in a hospital waiting room, but move from waiting room to waiting room to avoid being thrown out for lingering. Look for an abandoned house. Use fence lines or houses as windbreakers.
Besides surmounting difficulties such as finding food and shelter, the homeless face depression and low self-esteem.
“Hope is so hard to come by, saying to yourself, ‘I can do better. I should have a home. I deserve a home.' This is the most pressing problem I saw, and where I believe we are failing on a broad scale,” Buff said.
Surviving is one thing, but living an abundant life is another, he said.
Buff and Nguyen set out to build relationships with homeless people.
“I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to know what kinds of things they faced. What obstacles were in their way,” Buff said.
Buff and other members of his church regularly volunteer at Food and Shelter “but I was afraid we were merely applying a Band-aid. I wanted to know what more we could do.”
The two weren't out to convert people or enlist membership for their church.
“Our church believes in going to where the people are, not saying you have to come to us,” he said.
No single profile fits the homeless person, Buff said. “Some are victims of tragedy. Someone they loved who they depended upon died. Some were victims of fire. Some are mentally ill. Addiction is a problem for others,” he said.
Most were not far removed from ordinary circumstances.
“Many people are one crisis or one paycheck away from being in a similar circumstance,” he said.
Nguyen and Buff hope to take their experience and turn it into practical help.
“There's no one-stop solution,” Buff said. “But what I am really passionate about is putting that hope in them, helping them make that transition into believing they can do better and that they do deserve better.”