First Encounter

I vividly remember the first time I encountered a homeless person. I was 10 years old and had taken a trip to Chicago with my grandparents. A man approached my grandfather and asked him for money. Immediately, my little, discerning self realized something was very “different” about the man. My grandfather later explained to me the man was homeless. As a young child, I felt such grief and confusion. My little tender heart broke for him. I simply couldn’t understand how someone didn’t have a home. Even then, at such a young age, I felt overwhelming compassion and mercy for that homeless man because I believed that everyone deserved a home!

I had no idea that encounter, with that homeless man, would forever change my life. Fast forward 15 years. I was invited to join a summer-long “mission trip” to South Carolina where I would have the opportunity to live in a homeless shelter and serve homeless women and children. A part of me was a bit fearful given the only experiences I’d had with homelessness were the man from Chicago and a few homeless people I’d seen living on the streets. As I developed friendships with the women living in that shelter and listened to their stories, I came to understand that I had a very na├»ve view of what it meant to be homeless and that I had developed some stereotypes of homelessness. I came to understand that homelessness is a complex issue—one that I’ve given my life to help end.

I still believe, as an adult, having worked with homelessness for nearly 15 years now, that everyone deserves a home! And I, along with my amazing team at Toby’s Place, work diligently to help create a “Home” for women and children who don’t have one. I’m honored to get to do what I do! The homeless women I encounter daily have become my heroes. Their stories devastate me, but they also inspire me and give me hope. Their stories devastate me because, too often, they are filled with tragedy. Their stories are always, ALWAYS, filled with abandonment and rejection. Their stories are filled with abuse—emotional, physical, psychological, and sexual. Their stories are filled with alcohol and drug use, and all the devastating ways they’ve tried to mask their pain. Their stories give me hope because, in spite of all they’ve endured, they still have the will to overcome. And our “Home” gives them the opportunity to do so.

I could’ve never known that an encounter with a homeless man on the streets of Chicago when I was a child would set the course of my life. I believed then that he deserved a home, and all these years later, I still believe it! And, I hope and pray that I get the opportunity, for many many more years, to help create that “Home” for those who deserve it most—the homeless!

Contributed by: Karri Heffron, Women's Ministries Manager


  1. This is beautiful! I have worked with many homeless Veterans. I've found them to be (as a whole) some of the most sensitive, funny, and intelligent people I've known. The majority of these people have issues with alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and lives in crisis. But...their illness does not define them! I've grown to love my homeless friends; I'm richer as a person for knowing them.


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