As soon as I opened the front door, I wanted to gag. The smell was beyond awful. It always was. And, like always, I did my best not to let my it show and failed miserably.
His dark hair was tangled and matted. He had on four shirts, none of them thick, and socks for gloves. The outermost shirt was brown, like his skin. The dirt on the exposed parts of his body--not to mention his clothes--was glaringly layered. It was hard to tell the difference between clothes and skin. He was shivering in the 20 degree cold.
"I shouldn't have bothered you," he said dismally, turning to go.
"No bother," I said bravely, still holding the door open. I was trying not to shiver despite being barefoot, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. Thankfully, the snow had stopped and the wind had died down.
"Come in. Warm up by the heater." He paused, looking back. I locked my eyes on his. "Please," I said gently, smiling. "Come inside."
His dark eyes slowly measured me up and down. The stranger licked his lips nervously. Then, he glanced up and down the street. I knew what he was thinking. Everyone who came thought the same thing: How did I ever end up here?
Like so many times before, I reached out, took his hand and gently pulled. One shuffling step at a time, the stranger moved through the door. The stench was worse close up. It always was.
"My name is Donald," I said, shaking his hand.
"Jose," was he replied curtly, but he shook my hand in return.
I lead him to the heater in the corner. The heater was ysed to warm the massive front room by convection. On winter nights, we used ducting fans to draw extra heat to the sleeping quarters. He got up close, started warming his hands, and quickly unbuttoned his jacket and backed away from the heat.
He scanned the sparsely furnished room. An overhead sign said "Clothing Room." He looked at me. I nodded. He went inside. He quickly chose two pair of jeans, two t-shirts, two flannel shirts and a coat that barely fit over his filthy clothes. He looked around uncertainly.
"Socks," I asked helpfully. "Or underwear?"
He grabbed three of each. As we left the room, I handed him a small duffle bag. He smiled slightly. I knew he would. We headed down the hall to the dormitory.
The building was actually a small warehouse, with thin walls knocked up to make a kitchen and dining area, a few bedrooms, each holding 8 beds, and the main front room. So, dormitory was a generous term. But, it was dry, and relatively warm. And, that's what counted to the homeless who stayed here.
I stopped at the shower, handing him a washcloth, towel and soap.
"You must bathe before sleeping, Jose." He looked in the bathroom, then looked back at me suspisciously.
"The door locks from the inside," I said reassuringly. "When you come out, I will have some soup for you. Leave your dirty clothes on the floor, I will wash them and get them back to you tomorrow."
He tested the door knob. Looked up and down the hallway. Then, he rushed into the bathroom, tightly clutching his duffel bag of "new" clothes. I heard the lock click. Then I heard the water start.
Twenty minutes later, Jose emerged smelling clean, and wearing his new clothes--all of them. He watched me put his old clothes in the washer while noisily slurping some thin soup.
"Bible Study is at 7, Breakfast at 7:30. Your clothes will be waiting for you after breakfast." I pointed to the doorway on the right. "Your bed is the one by the door with fresh sheets and blankets."
I led him to the door. "You can stay as long as you need to, so long as you're looking for work. If you find work, once you can afford a place of your own, you'll need to move out."
"How much," he asked, suddenly suspiscious.
I nearly laughed. Everyone asked that question.
"No charge," I said, smiling easily. "God loves you. We don't charge for that."
He closed the door. I went back up front and checked our sign: "Center Street Mission, A Light In the Dark for you."
I latching the door and headed to bed smiling. The light was still on.
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