Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Compassion

Walking in the Shoes of the Homeless: An Interview with Jack and Elizabeth Shepherd
by Jan Johnson

In early winter, 1990, Jack and Elizabeth Shepherd left their home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to begin a missionary journey. Jack's mother agreed to be their forwarding agent and two pharmaceutical companies supplied them with syringes and blood strips to help Elizabeth manage her diabetes. To what strange, new culture were they going to spread the gospel message? The homeless of America. How would they travel? Walking.

Q: PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT YOU'RE DOING.

A: JACK: We're on a missionary pilgrimage to care for the poor, the homeless, the health stricken, much as Jesus and the early apostles did. We are homeless and we live the way the homeless live. We are eating what they eat. We preach a simple gospel as Christ did -- to love God with mind, body, strength and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Part of our mission is to bring awareness of the homeless to people in the United States and all over world. Through press, radio and films, we try to educate the public about the estimated 13 million homeless people in our land.

Q: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THIS?

A: ELIZABETH: We were working in a treatment center where we saw people struggling with drugs, alcohol and other social living problems. Many could not be treated because they lacked certain skills, such as being able to read and write.

A: JACK: I had spent two and a half years on the street because of my alcohol and drug addictions. When I got into recovery and accepted Christ as my Savior, I knew God was asking me to become a counselor or a minister. When I worked as a counselor for Jackson's Department of Public Assistance and Social Services, I began to see the complexity of the homeless problem.

Finally, I had everything -- a car, a new truck, a beautiful wife. Through foster parenting, I even had a son. But something inside was going haywire. I was empty. I felt like it was time for me to say, "Ok, God. What are you asking me to do?"

I got this idea of walking around America counseling the homeless and raising awareness. When I talked with several counselors, friends and clergy about it, they all agreed it was what God wanted me to do, but I was afraid to tell Elizabeth.

A: ELIZABETH: At the same time, I was reading The Road Unseen [a book by Peter & Barbara Jenkins about their walk across America]. When Jack found out, he told me that he had to go on this walk and I was welcome to do whatever I wanted.

Part of me was afraid because I worried that I'd never get another job at a treatment center with only my short three months experience. Another part of me did not want to miss the adventure. I read the part in The Road Unseen where Barbara Jenkins heard a sermon and the gist of it was, "Go with this man." I felt that my Christian beliefs led me to the same conclusions.

A: JACK: After I told Liz, I rededicated my life to Christ and determined to walk and talk the way that I saw that Jesus and the apostles had done. I decided that it was ok to live an unorthodox life compared to other Americans. In the year and a half we've been doing this, we've traveled 45,000 miles through 35 states, and parts of Canada and Alaska.

Q: HOW DO YOU FEEL THAT WHAT YOU'RE DOING DIFFERENT OR BETTER THAN THESE COUNSELING ROLES?

A: JACK: It's different in the sense that we're not getting paid! It's better because we don't have to work among complicated systems that look good in theory, but don't work in practicality. We answer to God. [Jack is also a licensed minister now.] I don't have staff people telling me not to waste time with certain people. We can speak the gospel as we feel God is leading us to.

A: ELIZABETH: There are a lot of people who will work in treatment centers, but there aren't people who will do what we're doing. Yet it suits us so well. At the treatment center, we spent little time together. Now we spend as much time together as we want.

Q: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SPREADING YOUR IDEAS TO PEOPLE WHO AREN'T HOMELESS?

A: ELIZABETH: We pass out flyers that have our press release printed on one side. On the other side is a declaration of awareness of homelessness by various government officials and a recognition of our efforts. [They have letters of support from several mayors as well as the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas.]

A: JACK: Usually we go downtown to a park and I'll ask if I can pet someone's dog. [Jack was a dog trainer.] Then I start sharing our ideas. If they look at me like I'm nuts, I thank them for their time and move on. If they seem interested, I hand them a flyer.

We also use news media. When we stopped at a truck stop ten miles outside West Yellowstone, Montana, a young man kept staring at us. We were exhausted from seventeen miles of walking.

Finally the young man said, "You're the ones. You're the ones walking to Alaska. I'm from Lobo, Wyoming. My father read the story about you at the breakfast table yesterday and he cried. He's never emotional, but he was glad to hear that people still care about people." The young man offered us a ride to West Yellowstone.

Q: HOW DO YOU MINISTER TO HOMELESS PERSONS?

A: JACK: When we come into a town, we use the first eighteen hours to find shelter and work. We also find out what's available to help the homeless, the poor, and those needing health care. We find out about the political climate and contact the media.

Then I walk among the homeless and ask them point blank, "Do you want to be here?" If they say yes, I say, "That's odd. I've yet to meet the individual who truly wants to be homeless."

If there's a problem with drugs or alcohol, we tell them where free help is available if they want it. If they're troubled by schizophrenia or mental illness, we tell them about the free clinics in their town.

The basic message is this: You don't have to be homeless if you don't want to. There's help available, but it isn't going to be easy.

In Seattle, I saw a person lying in a doorway, who had wet on himself. I sat down and said, "Hi, How are you?" He looked at me like I was crazy.

I asked him when was the last time someone stopped and said, "Hi" and he said, "Maybe three weeks. Usually they just pass me by like I don't be here," meaning that he was invisible.

We got to talking and I asked him what was wrong with his neck. He told me that he had been shot with a 22 caliber gun. He was an illegal immigrant so he couldn't go to the hospital. One of the other guys had doctored him up the best he could.

Then the guy started crying. He pulled a whistle out of his pocket and said, "My name is Miguel and I have nothing in this world. But you are my friend for life and I want you to have this. Anytime you are in this area and you need Miguel's help, you blow on this whistle and I come running." Miguel gave me a lot more love than I gave him.

Q: WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE HOMELESS?

A: ELIZABETH: It's degrading. It's scary. For me, the most difficult thing is wondering what people think of me. I've talked to other homeless people who feel that way too.

It's an empty feeling. At times I wonder if I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life. There are times I don't know where we're going to stay. I have faith in God that He's going to give us a place, but I wonder. If we do get a motel, will it be clean? Why can other people have houses and security? Why can't I?

Yet we have so much that most homeless people don't have. Several friends have said to call collect if we need them. We go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and we go to churches. We have a little bit of the security that having a job gives you because we have this purpose of ministering to the homeless and raising awareness.

I wonder how a mother with four children who is homeless figures out where to get busses, where the busses are going so she can get to work, and then how to pay for child care. It's an incredible challenge to survive.

If you're not sleeping in a house with an iron, a washing machine and a shower, how do you go to a job interview looking presentable, even for a dishwasher job? The guy with the house and clothes is going to get that job. Many have only a fourth grade education, and can't read. Homeless people feel hopeless about getting any job they apply for.

A: JACK: Sometimes I get discouraged and wonder, Am I crazy? I should just get a job and go back to everyday American life. Then God's Spirit is within Liz and she says, "Let's go on a little farther." That picks me up and we get going again.

Q: WHAT IS INCORRECT ABOUT TYPICAL STEREOTYPES ABOUT HOMELESS PEOPLE?

A: JACK: Our society tends to blame homeless persons for not following the mythical standards of the American work ethic. The homeless do work hard. They spend eighty percent of their time surviving -- looking for food, water and shelter. The welfare department is usually on one end of town and the unemployment office is on other end of town. Once they get those things taken care of, they're going to qualify for emergency food from an agency on another side of town. We've set up a complicated system that expects the homeless person to travel forty or fifty miles in one day.

When I was homeless, I felt that everyone else had a right to be a child of God, but I didn't. They could go to church and pray and expect good things to happen, but I couldn't.

If you wake up every morning in your cardboard box and people look at you with hatred, fear and a condescending attitude as you walk down the street, the tips of your shoes become a nice sight.

Q: DON'T YOU THINK WE SOMETIMES IGNORE THE HOMELESS BECAUSE WE FEEL SO HELPLESS?

A: ELIZABETH: I feel guilty too sometimes. Even though I'm homeless, I at least have a backpack and friends. I fear what they're thinking of me. I have to ask God to help me overcome this and to love them. It's also my pride that wants to be separate from them because it's so scary to think of being in their state.

Q: WHAT ARE SOME SOLUTIONS TO HOMELESSNESS?

A: ELIZABETH: Resources need to be close together or a shuttle service could be provided between them. The homeless need public facilities, bathrooms, shelter and laundry facilities. It would be ideal to have a bathhouse where people could get these services free, if they cleaned it and worked for it.

It's not good to give people things because they lose their sense of purpose. If someone always fed you and took care of you, you would feel inadequate. It's important to involve them and give them a sense of responsibility.

A: JACK: Another solution is awareness. We have to admit that in the United States we have an estimated thirteen to eighteen million people on the streets. Children are starving and going to school malnourished. In 1990, we spent seventeen million dollars to count the homeless and we still couldn't find out. So we're paying people a bounty of $50 a head to give us the social security number of a homeless person.

Q: WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP A HOMELESS PERSON? OFFER THEM A JOB? SMILE AT THEM ON THE STREET?

A: JACK: Do not take a homeless person home. Most people aren't qualified to ascertain if the person is harmful. Don't give them money either. Most of those asking for money are buying booze and drugs. Find out what the churches and government agencies in your area offer and direct them there. Offer them a smile and treat them with dignity and respect.

If a person asks for money and you feel safe, offer to buy them a hamburger. They may tell you they ate not too long ago. If so, they weren't going to use it for food anyway.

Q: HOW DO YOU SURVIVE FINANCIALLY?

A: ELIZABETH: We have painted houses, picked up boulders, picked apples, driven an ice cream truck, worked as a manager for a motel -- whatever we could find. We don't outwardly solicit funds. People hear about what we're doing and hand us a twenty dollar bill. Most of the donations are small although we do have a couple of friends who give us bigger amounts on occasion. We never know exactly where it's coming from.

A: JACK: Last year, in Weiser, Idaho, we looked for work for a week and couldn't find anything. We had three dollars between us (often, it's just fifty cents). We asked God to take care of us, especially because Liz needed some medication. (We didn't have anyone sponsoring us for her medication at that time.) That night someone sneaked into our tent and left twenty dollars on my sleeping bag. Those miracles happen.

When we get down to fifty cents, I have to remember that I've been fed for today, I have clothes for today, I've had a hot shower today, I have a place to sleep tonight. It's bringing me closer to God because I see that everything has been provided.

Q: WHAT ARE YOUR LONG-TERM PLANS?

A: JACK: We hope to find the faith, courage and strength to walk around the United States in 3 years [ending in 1994.]

Some people have said, "I'd give anything to do what you kids are doing. I tell them that all they have to do is away everything they own and start walking and talking. They say, "I could never do that."

We have given up what society holds dear. We went through the process of grieving the loss of the material world. Now I see that we've been freed to do the work God has called us to do.

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Jack and Elizabeth are also quoted (with my thanks!) in chapter four of
Growing Compassionate Kids.

UPDATE April 2003: Jack and Elizabeth now live in Kingman, Arizona, where Jack claims they are “old and fat.” Jack has a semi-truck business and Elizabeth works at the county jail, providing educational assistance to juveniles. They also work with the homeless on a one-on-one basis, glad to be involved in God’s causes. This article is reprinted with their permission.

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