Over twenty years ago, Beliefnet reader Robin M. Jennings spent five years living on the streets of Anchorage, Alaska. Beliefnet asked her to share more of her experiences after she posted messages in a Beliefnet dialogue group about homelessness. Here's her story.

On June 15, 1977, I wrote a letter to Mother Teresa about my desire to help the poor in India. By first helping the poor in India, I felt I could later help those suffering on the streets of downtown Anchorage where I lived.

After writing the letter, however, I began to fear my timing was wrong and that I didn’t have enough credentials—I wasn’t holy enough, that’s for sure!—to help the poor in India. I was also not free to go to India and I couldn’t see what I had to offer because I came from a very different culture. More importantly, I began realizing there was more of a pressing need to help those living on the streets of Anchorage... In the end, I threw the letter into the wastebasket.

Around this time, I lost my job and my father took my children and left Anchorage; my mother refused to offer hospitality. I still had my unemployment insurance to draw from, but it was under $200/month. The day I drew my last check, I became officially homeless. I found myself one of those I had always wanted to help—penniless, hungry, and cold. In the next two years, I struggled to achieve "normal" goals and failed miserably. I couldn’t find another job and was left behind by old friends, relatives, and others who might have helped.

One day, at my brother's graveside, I had the impression that Jesus was there with me. It was not just a thought or a feeling; it was a deep and profound change within me that I sensed. I resolved to honor Him with my life and to follow Him wherever he might want me to go. I must have prayed thousands of rosaries in the five years it took to work out my purgatory here on earth. My hope was to bring, in some way, the presence of Christ into the homes of the hurting. Always, I came back to my promise to Jesus, which was to go out and see how His people were doing and try to make things better.

I was homeless from 1979 until 1984. During those five years, I lived a life of prayer and personal penitence. I went from spot to spot as many homeless do. A few times I slept out in the open, mainly from exhaustion, not choice. I took my showers in the old City Gymnasium where I had used the locker room as a girl. I got kicked out of hotels, put in the local mental hospital, and shoved through doorways. However, my "homelessness" was a matter of description in some ways. I spent a great deal of time in prayer and worship in the Catholic churches of this city. I even ended up "living" in the multipurpose building of St. Patrick's Parish on and off for 2-3 years.

In 1984, during one of the times I was in the hospital, my doctor said to me: "Robin, I have seen you several times and I would like to help you. I know that you are on a spiritual journey and I respect that, but it's nearly fall and will be cold soon. Will you let me help you?"

He told me that there was a fund for which I was eligible where I could have a bed in a boarding house with people who could not take care of their own needs. I thought about my way of life, how hard it had become and how it was not likely to get better. I decided to trust my doctor and take his offer—I became a resident of the City of Anchorage again. In 1994, I was finally able to buy my own home, where I presently live.

When we hear or see someone who is homeless, we immediately think of his need for a home. I came to realize that a daily problem I had was how to best use the 16-18 hours I was awake. A truly homeless person has no floor to sweep, no car to wash, and barely any laundry. Every day became a MacGyver episode—a constant experiment. Some of the experiments didn't work out well, but I soon learned how to avoid trouble through prayer. But, because of the kindness and professionalism of one man, I was rescued from the cold. I remember a prayer I used to say: "I am safe now, and comfortable--I am riding in the Armchair of God!"

After I came off the streets, I became a volunteer for the Red Cross and The American Cancer Society. Right now, I am not directly helping anyone; instead, I am allowing myself to be helped. I have counseling 2-3 hours/week, and I meet with my spiritual advisor one hour/week. I am also trying to create a coherent picture of the last 25 years of my life, to write about all the things that I have done, including stories of the homeless whose paths crossed mine. As I grow older, it is increasingly important to me to keep certain goals within range. In the near future, I hope to find a niche where I can do something charitable and meaningful, such as volunteering at a new shelter/residence that recently opened by the same woman who started the “Bean’s Café” soup kitchen. I am waiting for God to give me a nudge in the right direction.

While on the streets, I stopped being a spectator, watching the homeless and commenting on their plight. I was one of them, with no more distance than a foot or two of air between us. Knowing this made all the difference in the world.

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