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Homeless, from Chicago To Manila

Posted on | August 7, 2009 | 1 Comment

At various points in life, all of us are convinced that we have seen it all. A week and a half ago, I went to visit some friends at their office in Makati. While outside of the building smoking a cigarette, I came across the most unusual and extrodinary person that I have met in a long time.

Joe is a man of about 55 years. He served in Vietnam (two tours) and returned to a country that was ill equipped to receive him. While spending the last decade homeless in Chicago, Joe became very religious while gradually losing his sight and saving money to buy a plane ticket.

He was sure that if he could make his way back to South East Asia,  he could start a new life by monetizing his English skills. He is now homeless on the streets of Metro Manila, asking for pesos instead of dollars. I did not take notice of Joe’s approach, its very typical to find US citizens retiring in Metro Manila. I’m sure many of you are related to an obsolete child that fled to Florida to spend their convalescence, Manila is similar but slightly cooler and less expensive. The smell of someone who was in desperate need of a bath is what first alerted me to Joe.

Can you direct me to a church .. any church? he asked while eyes like a mole struggled to peer through, then over thick reading glasses to meet mine.  I really need to find a church. Unfortunately, Makati’s central business district offers every other comfort but a church. I politely told Joe that his chances of finding a nearby church were slim and suggested venturing to one of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Unabated, Joe continued our conversation.

I’ve been here for a little over a year. I’m trying to find a job in a call center or a school .. but they are really strict about having a proper work permit. I was sure I’d find something in my first month .. man, they are really strict.

To work for any Philippine based company, you must have a valid visa and work permit. Much like America, this means you’ll need to be married and naturalized or sponsored by a company. I could tell that Joe had already reached the stark and depressing conclusion, neither scenario was likely to unfold. Even in The Philippines, nobody was going to marry or hire a displaced, emotionally fragile and blind veteran. This was the point in our encounter that I fully realized Joe’s plan and predicament.

I asked Joe if he had sought help from the US embassy, he had. He told me that he was on a several month long waiting list for assisted housing. I knew that the embassy had a program to help displaced citizens re-patriate, he did not want to go back.

It doesn’t snow here, it doesn’t get cold. If I can just find a churh, I’ll be fine, I’ll be able to get something to eat and a place to stay. In order to get help to go back [to Chicago], I need to have an address there.

I took the hint. I checked to see what was in my wallet, 500 Philippine Pesos (about US $10). I told him that I’d buy him lunch and handed him the bill. I double checked to make sure that he was able to differentiate the currency given his sight, he said yes and began to cry.

May I please pray over you? Its the only thing I can do that might have some value. I want to give you something in return. I am not particularly religious, but I’m not put off by the concept. I agreed and in the space of ten minutes, Joe had blessed every sentient being that I had ever come in contact with.

I’m not going to go to that McDonalds, they are too expensive. I’ll walk out of the city and buy some food from one of the street vendors and find a place to stay for a couple of days. Thank you for your help.

The remarkable man then vanished into the oncoming crowd. Its been a couple of weeks, I have not seen him again. As a foot note, a cheese burger at McDonalds is about thirty cents US. Spent wisely, the money I gave him could provide for basic needs over the course of a week.

From the experience, I came to my own stark realization – had I met him in Chicago I probably would have crossed the street. Spending time abroad does something rather inexplicable to you, it removes callouses that you never knew existed.

The next time you think that life has presented you with unfair, bizarre and insurmountable circumstances .. remember that there is a Vietnam veteran homeless in Manila who is happily rid of snow. He did not get his dream job in a local call center, but he’s not in danger of freezing to death. What you want in life is truly different from what you need.


One Response to “Homeless, from Chicago To Manila”

  1. Kalyan
    August 31st, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    Totally makes sense. What we want is totally different from what we need. Touching. Amazing.

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