Several of us in northern California had a truncated night’s sleep a couple of nights ago, as we weathered a brutal winter storm that brought tree-toppling wind gusts to Sacramento. A friend of mine heard me call it a “storm” and insists that I’m losing touch with my Midwestern roots, but that’s a story for another day.
Today, I wanted to share that I, too was restless and unable to sleep that night, as many of my colleagues reported that they had been. But it wasn’t the wind or the rain that kept me up: it was thoughts of my homeless neighbors. Where did they seek refuge during this week’s storm?
I’d walked up upon an encampment the evening before the storm hit, as I stole a few minutes of cardio between Zoom appointments. A group of neighbors were huddled under the Watt Avenue overpass, near I-50 in Sacramento. They’d started a fire, and I’d called 9-1-1. I was sure that an ordinance was being broken, and I was thinking at the time that it was more of a bonfire than a source of warmth in preparation for a pending storm.
I still think that it was the best thing to do, as a big fire under a busy overpass during the evening rush hour near roadside vegetation that has been unseasonably dry doesn’t seem to be a great idea.
As I type that, I’m thinking that I’m trying to convince myself of that. Maybe there’s something else that I could have done.
For over three decades, one of my favorite inspirational songs has been Shirley Caesar’s “Peace In The Midst Of The Storm” from her incredible Live…In Chicago album, recorded with Rev. Milton Brunson & The Thompson Community Singers. I always heard the song as the metaphor that the songwriter intended.
But the other night, hours after I’d called 9-1-1 to report a fire, I found peace and security enough to fall asleep. I rested in a warm, dry bed as relentless sheets of rain and gusts of wind hammered a sturdy home that could handle everything that Mother Nature could dish up. I’d literally been given peace in the midst of a storm.
The next morning, as I surveyed the downed branches and debris in my front yard, that peace was interrupted. I was haunted by faces I may never see again. What happened, I pondered, to those folks that sought shelter, huddling around that fire under that bridge?
Later that day, I watched local news footage of Sacramento’s Mayor Steinberg self-righteously ranting about the county not opening any warming shelters for our homeless neighbors. The county responded in kind, claiming that they didn’t have the authority to open warming shelters prior to a request being made by city officials. Both the public information officer behind that missive and Mayor Steinberg wrapped up their workdays soon after the exchange and went home to warm houses just like mine.
Last year, I wrote a few features for an agency that’s committed to providing affordable housing for our neighbors. I’m planning to continue that work, if not for that agency, for another. Or I’ll write a check to one of those agencies,. Or maybe I’ll pause, and ask whether someone needs assistance, before I call 9-1-1 on a neighbor who’s trying to keep warm under a viaduct. If you’ll allow me to borrow from Pastor Caesar’s song, they’ve been windswept. They’ve been battered.
And they need our help. Finger pointing between government officials isn’t going to shelter or warm anyone.
The next time a gale comes up — and it’s only a matter of time before one does — I’ll certainly pause for a moment of gratitude about having a piece of peace in the midst of the storm.