A Girl Named Alex
I can still picture her long brown hair, her hollow eyes, her drawn face, her crooked and already decaying teeth, and the dirt surrounding each of her fingernails. Yet, when I looked at her I saw a beautiful young lady, created by God for so much more than she was experiencing. She sat on the corner of South Audley street, across from the Mayfair library in London, perched on a piece of cardboard and covered with a dirty white(ish) blanket. Her face was cast downward. As people passed by, she would occasionally look up, hoping that someone would see her, possibly showing her compassion and giving her money or inviting her to work for wages. As she looked up, there was a deep sadness in her eyes – a sense of knowing that to most people she was simply invisible. They didn’t want to look at her. Looking at her would create this awkward clash with the reality that there are so many people on the earth facing hardships that we cannot begin to understand and that we do not have the ability to easily help. It would cause them to struggle with the idea that there were hurting and lonely people out there, needing to be seen, needing to be loved……and that may come with inconvenience, interruption to plans, or an unforeseen cost. And honestly, I think some people were simply afraid to look at her, not knowing whether she meant them harm or was on drugs, or any number of other fears that war against compassion. The world today is a scary place and we often don’t know how to respond to this.
As we walked past, my heart ached because I knew I didn’t have anything to give her at the moment. My “go-to” in the US is to carry blessing bags or gift cards for food that I can give to people as the need arises. This addresses the “fear” that by helping someone out, we might be giving them money that would be used for drugs or alcohol, perpetuating potential issues. (I know, that’s controlling….but it’s a way that allows me the freedom to engage without fearing that I’m adding to the problem.) Anyway, we were in London and I didn’t have anything prepared this time. Regardless, I knew I needed to at least make eye contact and offer a smile, let the girl know she was not invisible – not to me, and not to God. So I made eye contact, smiled and walked past her on to the next shop. But I couldn’t shake her image from my mind, so I got a little cash and headed back to sit and listen to her story.
As I approached, she looked at me timidly, wondering what I was doing. I started to sit on the ground next to her and she moved over and graciously offered me a section of her cardboard. I introduced myself and asked her name. I think she was surprised and pleased, as a hesitant smile came upon her face. We sat and talked for a while. She was hungry for companionship. I asked her about her life and how she came to be in this spot at such a young age. Sweetly, she opened up and told me her story. I really. Have no way of knowing how much of it is true, but that doesn’t matter to me so much as giving her a chance to sit with a “friend” who is interested, even for a few moments.
Her name is Alex. She is 21 years old. Twenty- one…..my oldest son is almost 21 now. Yet her 21 years of life have been much different than his. She grew up in Serbia, but her family was too poor to care for her amidst all of the conflict and poverty in her country. As many Serbian families have done, her parents gave her up in hopes that someone else could better care for her. She was placed in an orphanage along with other refugees and had her basic needs taken care of. Until she “aged out.” Aging out is a funny thing. It makes perfect sense that at some point these children need to be able to care for and provide for themselves. Yet, there often exists some gap or break in the system that doesn’t always fully prepare them for what this looks like. From my limited knowledge, this seems to be a problem in the US as well. In fact, in the US 20% of kids who age out of foster care (that’s one out of every five kids) instantly become homeless.
Anyway, back to Alex’s story. Alex had just recently “aged out” of the home she was in. I don’t fully understand how or why, but upon her release from the group home, she didn’t have the proper paperwork to obtain a bank account and a regular job. She was pleased when she found an employer who would pay her cash for her work. For two months, she worked for him under this arrangement, but when the paperwork still had not come through, he had to let her go. From that point forward, she was on the streets, begging for money or work. She told me what a hard worker she was and how she willingly did all kinds of cleaning jobs for people when they offered. She felt good about being able to do this well. All I could think about is how likely she was to be picked up by a sex-trafficker and drawn into a life she never wanted. Young ladies like Alex are the perfect targets for these predators and it broke my heart that she had to face this reality and risk daily on the streets. The mother in me couldn’t help but warn her to beware of anyone promising her reward for this lifestyle.
As we talked, she shared about how some days she would have money to stay in a shelter. Other days she would have money, but the shelters would be full. And then there were days she would have no money and simply stay on the streets. I asked about her parents, if she ever heard from them or tried to contact them. Like so many refugee children, she had no idea if they were even alive. She was truly alone in this world. And this was her “normal.”
Even amidst all of this, she seemed to have a glimmer of hope. In one month, if all went well, she would have her paperwork in place to get assistance and to work. In her own words, “there are many people much worse off than me. I am young. I have my health. I am able to work. I know there is more for me out there. I know it.” I shared with her how God loves her and has so much more for her life. We prayed together, for her safety and provision…and for her to experience God’s protection and love.
Her image is engrained on my heart and mind forever. Across the street from where she sat is a beautiful courtyard and church. Inside that church is the most beautiful sculpture named “Homeless Jesus.” It is a sculpture of a hooded man lying on a bench. You cannot see His face, but His feet have crucifixion scars on them. They are the feet of Jesus. I am reminded of Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
I don’t pretend to have all the political answers to such complicated things as homelessness, refugees, drugs, alcohol, etc. But I can love. I can share. I can let people know they aren’t invisible. I can take them to the feet of Jesus and let Him begin a healing work. I can remember their names and pray for them often. And I can write their stories – the little that I know- so that others can get a window into their lives as well. And maybe, just maybe, by understanding and seeing others journeys, we will gain a heart for who God created them to be and the world will be a better place.