Ties That Bind

“Old Shoes” © R.L. Herron

Thursday night was bitterly cold. Henry shuffled into the warming center about eight o’clock. He was drunk, just as he was every week, and wearing every dirty bit of clothing he owned.  

No one knew if he had any family. On the rare occasions he was sober, he wouldn’t talk about them. In his usual condition, he couldn’t talk at all, at least not in understandable sentences.

But he came to the shelter regularly on Thursday night, to get whatever passed for a hot meal. I suspect it was one of the few warm meals he got all week.

It was never much.

There wasn’t enough funding to adequately prepare for fifty or sixty men, but we heated whatever we had and served it to them, trying to give back some measure of the dignity their status in life had stripped away.  

Like the others, Henry received a thin, clean blanket to use for the night. There were no cots, just plenty of floor space. Men might have to curl up under a table and sleep on the floor, but at least they didn’t have to huddle outside in a cold doorway.  

Henry’s name wasn’t really Henry, but that was what he wanted to be called this week, and we always humored him. No one was sure of his true identity. For the previous two weeks he had insisted he was Italian. Last week he had been Gino, and the week before that Luigi. It was always changing.

Last month his name was Okande Williams, which might be closer to the truth. A slight black man, about as passive a soul as any of us are ever likely to meet, he might have been forty-five. But years of living on the street had made him so worn, thin and dirty he looked much older.

When they opened the doors he stumbled in, tripping over shadows as he made his way to his favorite spot. He had been coming to the shelter long enough to know there was a heat duct opening into the room on the other side of the wall. Because the duct wasn’t visible on this side of wall, he could stay warm without having to fight for such a valuable space.

He didn’t stop at the kitchen to pick up the grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of tomato soup that was the evening’s meager fare. He was too drunk. He just shuffled past and waved dismissively when someone shouted “Hey, Gino, where ya going?” We had to tell them he’s Henry this week, but he didn’t stop for that name either.

One of the other guests for the evening called out to him, “Hey, Henry! Or whoever you are, better tie those shoes, man, or you gonna trip!”

Henry stopped and looked down at his feet and his dirty, mismatched shoes. Putting a hand on the wall for balance, he bent slowly forward from the waist and reached unsteadily for his laces. I didn’t see him fall, but I heard the loud thwack.

Henry lay face down on the cement floor, bleeding from his mouth and nose. One of his teeth was beside him in a pool of blood. The room erupted in a pulse of noise and then grew silent.

One of the shelter caregivers called for emergency assistance and within minutes there were flashing lights outside. The EMS crew brought in a gurney, but Henry refused to be taken to the hospital.

They gave him a swab to staunch the bleeding and left, shaking their heads. There was nothing more they could do, and Henry wasn’t in any pain. Yet. The next morning would certainly be different, but for now he was quiet. Henry had passed out in an alcoholic haze.

It was then I noticed one of the other guests propping his own blanket under Henry’s head. Another found a bucket and mop to clean the floor. A third man tucked a cheese sandwich, wrapped in a plastic baggie, into Henry’s pocket. One of the women from the kitchen came out and thanked all of them.

A fourth man, bending over Henry and gently lacing his shoes, looked up at her. “We all tied together ma’am,” he said. “Whether we likes it or not, we all tied together.”


This is taken from a real life incident. My wife and I occasionally volunteer in a warming center shelter that feeds some of the unfortunate, homeless souls in the area. On cold winter evenings, it also offers a warm place to stay for the night. It’s not in a very “nice” neighborhood, and a lot of folks wouldn’t consider going anywhere near it … but that’s where the need is.

3 Responses to “Ties That Bind”

  1. Arlene Pierce Says:

    Loved it Ron.


  2. John Parry Says:

    Well done Ron.

    There but for fortune…..

    Regards – John


  3. Lori A. May Says:

    Hi Ron,

    Great photography, as usual. Your images are beautiful and your stories are touching. Keep up the great work. It’s a pleasure to visit this blog.

    LA May


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