It was almost like she was never there and yet I can’t get the image of her out of my head.

My son and I were spending the day running errands together and stopped for lunch at a Subway in a quaint town we both enjoy. The sun was shining, the sky blue, and we were getting along fabulously, which as of late has been a rarity. We parked and walked through the small parking lot toward the restaurant. As we approached I noticed a young woman sitting on the ground in the shade in front of the restaurant. Next to her is a Subway cup. I was evaluating her and i suspect she knew it.

Something about her immediately made me wonder if she was homeless. Which isn’t something I would typically wonder, for it isn’t something we typically see much of unless we are visiting downtown for some special event and then we are in the safe confines of our moving car. This was different. She wasn’t haggard and rough looking. She was young and unthreatening. She was right there in front of me.

As we walked past her I was conflicted on looking at her more closely. Maybe she was just enjoying the day. Maybe she was homeless. In either case was it any of my business? I offered her the half-hearted smile I offer strangers, but she just looked back with a hollow glance.

We got our sandwiches and selected a table near the windows at the front of the restaurant. Which would have been lovely on this picturesque day, but this girl was just on the other side. I say girl because as a forty-something I could tell she was young.

Now completely distracted by her presence, from the safety of our booth I peer out the window to take a closer look. I guess her to be 17-20. She wore a bright-colored fitted tank top and white crocheted pants – those pretty ones you’d wear to a club on a Saturday night. She was beautiful without any makeup. Her skin flawless with a deep even tan. She had no nail polish on. Her hair was not freshly washed. Her feet dirty. She had an overly full bag with her.  Much like the concrete she sat on, there was both a brokenness and a toughness about her.

empty sidewalk

She was too tan. Her feet were too dirty. Her bag too full. All of it seemed to confirm my suspicion and my heart sank a bit.

I  observe person after person come into the fast food restaurant to get their lunch. Every single one of them does what I nearly did, they look away or they don’t see her at all.

She furiously twirls her dirty brown hair around her index finger over and over again. She puts her head down from time to time and then returns to anxiously twisting her hair. Twist. Untwist. Twist. She isn’t looking at a phone or listening to music. She isn’t enjoying this summer day. I’m pretty sure is just surviving.

People come and go. We eat our sandwiches and get our double chocolate cookies from the bag. As I sit wondering if there is anything I can do for her a police officer pulls into the lot and parks. My son asks why the officer is there and I say I think he has come to talk to the girl. My sons asks why and I say that I think she may be homeless and that leads to an explanation of loitering. He tells me that he just figured she wanted to eat outside on such a nice day. If only that were the case.

Two ladies who were in the booth next to us leave and she bums a cigarette as they walk past. For the first time, she is seen and spoken to.

The police officer approaches her and asks her to leave. She appears to know the drill and without argument gathers herself up. She strips off her tank top to reveal a bikini top beneath and walks away. I can’t help but wonder if her attire indicates she is off to work the streets or simply wander them. What will she do for her next high or next home?

Then the officer came in to speak with the workers at the restaurant. He discouraged them from giving her anything as that will only encourage her to come back.  He was advising them to basically ignore her. My heart broke a little.  I thought how if it were my Subway I would want to feed her three meals a day.

So Much Uncertainty

I’m haunted by questions of how she got to this place. She should be working a summer job, thinking about college, and Snapchatting her friends about going to the beach. Surely she deserves a home and people who love her. Instead, she is walking this world alone with whatever demons travel with her. It must be terrifying and exhausting.

It feels entirely wrong to not have done something. Anything. Sadly, I felt uncertain of how to help her. With each bite of my lunch, I debated what to do. Do I offer her money? What if she wasted it on something to numb the pain? Who could blame her if she did? I wanted to stop the officer and ask him what her story was, but I figured he couldn’t or wouldn’t share it with me even if I asked. Maybe that was an excuse. Maybe I was afraid of the answer.

I wish I would’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and tried to connect with her. The pastor’s wife at church would’ve done that, she would’ve bought an extra lunch and gone out there with her children and sat next to her on the ground with her like it was no big deal without any visible hesitation. She would’ve made sure this girl got to see some light on the path ahead. She would’ve shown her some goodness. I wish I were more like that.

She Is Not Invisible

Despite the fact that I didn’t reach out to her my son and I are praying for her. Praying for protection. Praying that she feels loved by God in a way she has never felt before and that that feeling leads her on a new path toward a bright future. I wanted to feed her, tell her she was beautiful, and give her some hope. Maybe more than anything I wanted her to know that I saw her. Really saw her, not as loitering or unwanted, but as a someone wonderfully made.

This morning I reached out to the youth homeless shelter in the area and asked them what I should’ve done. They told me the best thing would’ve been to direct her to them, there they provide “a hand up, not a handout.” I provided her description and their outreach workers will be on the lookout for her and for that I’m grateful.