What You Do For the Least of These Strangers . . .

Author: Walton R. Collins '51


HERE’S what Bill Hahn ‘62 did between 5 and 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening in late March in his hometown of Cleveland: He let himself into an outbuilding on the grounds of Conversion of Saint Paul Shrine and began loading a van from a storeroom crammed with hooded sweatshirts, flannel shirts, heavy pants, knitted caps, gloves, socks, boots, scarves, blankets, sleeping bags and toiletries. Then he wrestled a large pot containing the steaming contents of 24 cans of pork and beans over the van’s tailgate. He hoped he calculated right and had enough supplies to see him over the next seven hours of his rounds to Cleveland’s invisible homeless, the ones who live under bridges and over city heating grates and along remote stretches of railroad track and in shadowy downtown doorways. Like every city of any size in this country, Cleveland has its share of such people; at least 2,000 of them, Hahn estimates. On this night he would scout out a few dozen of the 2,000 and do what he could to ease their hunger, offset the bitterness of a still-wintry night and, most importantly, offer his friendship.

HERE’S what Bill Hahn did between 6 and 7 o’clock that evening: He pulled the van up to the Volunteers of America Center, where a crowd of shabbily dressed men immediately crowded around. “Do you have any pants?” asked one. “What size?” Hahn responded. “34 or 36, either.” “Let me look.”

In the ensuing half-hour Hahn distributed nearly a dozen pairs of pants, half a dozen shirts, several jackets and seven pairs of paratrooper boots, much of it military surplus goods channeled through VOA. Eventually, he had to fend off the petitioners. “Sorry, it’s time to rock and roll,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve got to deliver this stuff to the people under the bridges.”

Before leaving, he went inside the VOA building and picked up 60 brown bags containing baloney and cheese sandwiches, and a note that said: “Bill, there are two guys staying in a black pickup truck in the parking lot of the recycling center next door. Please stop and see them.”

HERE’S what Bill Hahn did around 7:30 that night: He peeled the van off a well-lit city street and headed down a dark bumpy road beside a bridge spanning some railroad tracks. Pulling up next to a concrete bridge abutment covered with spray-can artwork, he got out of the van and shouted: “Duane, Jimmy – are you here?” He crossed one set of tracks and rounded another abutment where two men sat on battered lawn chairs close to a small fire. Duane and Jimmy sported wild beards and several layers of mismatched clothing and they were glad to see Hahn. They turned a plastic carton on end for him to sit on and urged him closer to the fire.

“What do you need?” he asked. Jimmy answered without hesitation: “I need a rich wife who can cook pork chops.” Laughter echoed through the shadows, momentarily drowning the rumbles of traffic on the bridge overhead. “How about some stew and a sandwich and maybe some blankets?” Hahn asked.

For the next 20 minutes the three chatted companionably around the flickering fire — the way they might have chatted if they’d been seated in a living room next to a fireplace. Duane told a story about a man he once knew called Boogie, so called “’cause he said he was born to boogie.” When the weather turned cold, Boogie managed to get himself arrested, and he went to court. “But the judge says, ‘case dismissed, get out of my courtroom,’” laughed Duane. “And Boogie’s like, ‘Aw Judge!’ See, he’s tryin’ to go to jail. So he took a piss right there in the courtroom, right in front of the judge, who said ’That’ll be 10 days.’” Duane dissolved in laughter and so did Jimmy. “You two ought to be on television,” said Hahn between guffaws of his own; “they ought to follow you around with a camera.”

Hahn never hurries away after distributing food and clothes. His intention is to offer more than creature comforts on these nights. “Developing friendships is the core purpose of what I do,” he says. Jimmy and Duane are his two of his friends.

HERE’S what Bill Hahn did around 8 o’clock that night: He drove to a neighborhood used car lot to see two more of his friends: Ralph, a defrocked alcoholic priest, and his buddy, Ray, who live in a van parked in the lot. Ralph was not at home, but Ray was glad to accept two bowls of stew. “Save one of those for Ralph,” said Hahn, setting it on the truck dashboard. Did Ray need any pants? Yes, size 34. “Got any socks?” asked Ray. “All I’ve got is these little footies,” said Hahn, “but I’ll leave you a couple.”

HERE are the kind of people Bill Hahn, who runs a successful Cleveland business selling ribbons and toner cartridges for computer printers, befriends. They are not just homeless; most are mentally ill as well. Too poor to be of much interest to dealers in hard drugs, they mask the pain of their lives by drinking beer and sniffing glue. Glue sniffing has the unfortunate side effect of destroying brain cells at a galloping clip, and so some of the friends of Bill Hahn have regressed to a mental age of 10 or less. “These people,” he says, "are the lowest functioning mentally-ill segment of the homeless population. They are not capable of fending for themselves, and they have been trashed. We stopped loving them, we rejected them, we threw them out of our lives.

“They stay on the streets. They commit suicide. They get beaten. They starve. Because of a variety of mental disorders ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to bipolar to depression, many of them are clinically fearful of society. We have inflicted upon them the cruelest and harshest of all punishments known to man: We stopped loving them.”

For Hahn, the words “friendship” and “love” are synonyms. The material goods he delivers on these nighttime rounds are almost incidental to his goal of showing these people that somebody loves them. As he runs this route two to three nights a week, he gives out almost as many hugs as sandwiches. And gets lots in return.

HERE’S who Bill Hahn visited about 9:30 that March night with the wind blowing cold off Lake Erie and a crescent moon shining thinly through the overcast: He ducked under a spaghetti tangle of city bridges and exit ramps into the “bedroom” of Lori and Tony, who spend their nights sleeping on the ground and relying on their full wardrobe and a couple of thin blankets to keep them from freezing. Before burrowing into her lair at night, Lori prays to the Blessed Mother, whom she can see in the lighted stained-glass window of a nearby Greek Orthodox church. “At one point,” says Hahn, “the pastor started turning off the window, so I called him and said, ‘Would you mind doing me a favor, would you keep a light on?’ And I explained, ’There’s a lady who prays to your window.’ He agreed, and now Mary appears to Lori every night about 8 when the window lights up.”

When Hahn hailed them, Tony first yelled “I’m not here,” and Lori echoed, “Neither am I.” Then, recognizing their friend, they sat up to greet him. After distributing stew and sandwiches and a few blankets and jackets, Hahn settled in for a 20-minute chat, during which Lori called attention to the fact that there was baloney in the sandwiches. “Tomorrow’s Friday,” she said, “can you bring some tuna?” Hahn assured her he would. Noticing he had a companion with him, Lori asked the newcomer’s age. “Seventy-one,” he replied. “Okay, here,” Lori responded and began singing in a strong and not unpleasing contralto the 1940s ballad Moonlight Bay: “We were drifting along/On moonlight bay/You could hear the voices singing/On moonlight bay. . . .” As the song echoed under the concrete bridges, Mary, across the way, smiled down from her lighted window.

HERE’S what happened to Bill Hahn that started him thinking about the invisible homeless: When his son, Will, was a senior at Marquette University a few years ago, he had a delusional episode and had to leave school. He was diagnosed as suffering a schizoaffective disorder, and after scouring the psychiatric landscape his parents concluded there is no real cure. “I wondered,” Hahn recounts, “when my wife and I are dead, what’s going to happen to Will? Inevitably, his illness leads to the streets. Virtually every mentally ill person does not believe they are mentally ill, and they’re not going to go back to get their drugs when they run out, or interact with a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Psychologists are irrelevant because you cannot engage in verbal therapy with one who is delusional. And the professional psychiatrists are merely drug monitors, that’s all they do for a living. Nothing happens to help the patients.”

That was the start of Hahn’s mission. It took a few years and some other inspirations before he began his nocturnal rounds a year and a half ago, but that was the start.

HERE’S what Bill Hahn would like to see the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland do about the homeless: He’d like the church to buy hundreds of two-person domed tents and pass them out to the people now living under bridges and in doorways. The tents, he says, would replace the cardboard boxes, random sheets of torn plastic, rags, soiled blankets and other scrap materials that now provide a semblance of shelter. This, he says, would “demonstrate that we love them.” What really appeals to him about this scheme is the visibility it would give to homeless persons who will not go to shelters. He believes his friends suffer most from being invisible, and he has faith in the innate goodness of people to respond if they can only be made to notice.

He would like the tents and the trucks that deliver them to carry diocesan identification so “people will know that we Catholics mean business about mitigating and solving this deplorable sore in our society — that all are, in fact, invited to the table. People would see the tents and some way, somehow, have their hearts broken by observing them and have Jesus flood them and radiate out from them and inspire others — sort of a Ponzi scheme for Christ.”

The diocese has not yet committed to this idea, but Hahn says the bishop supports his ministry and recently gave him a larger truck to replace the van he’s been borrowing for his rounds. He also gets support from an array of social-service and other city agencies, including Volunteers of America, which provides the nightly sandwiches and the surplus clothing; CARE Alliance Agencies, which furnishes the van; the United Way; the Saint Vincent de Paul Society; Catholic Charities; several Catholic parishes; Cleveland’s police, fire and emergency medical departments; and a lot of private citizens who respond to his parish pleas for food and clothing.

HERE’S what else Bill Hahn would like to see happen to make an encouraging statement to his friends: He’d like to see a class action suit filed on behalf of the deinstitutionalized homeless. He traces their plight back to the early 1980s, when the nation’s mental health facilities were closed wholesale as the psychiatric profession discovered new drugs that controlled most behavioral problems and the federal government stopped funding facilities. The suit, as he envisions it, “would be facilitated through a name legal organization, but the author of it would be the Catholic Church, and the purpose would be to put federal, state and local governments on notice that an action has begun against them for their misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance connected with deinstitutionalization and cutting off federal funds to all the long-term mental health facilities in the United States, thereby releasing hundreds of thousands of patients into society without providing an effective — those are the key words — an effective alternate means of care. Because an outpatient basis for caring for the mentally ill . . . it’s not working, it cannot work. The government is the father of the activity that caused this. It has to be righted. It’s wrong.”

HERE’S how Bill Hahn’s rounds ended: About midnight he stopped worrying about having enough sandwiches and stew and blankets; it was clear they’d last. By then he had distributed food and a lot of warm clothing to, among others, a man who sleeps each night huddled in a doorway a few paces from a downtown bank and hotel; a woman who sleeps on a sidewalk steam-heat grate under bright sodium-vapor street lights and who, that night, was so outraged when Hahn woke her that she tongue-lashed him for 10 minutes; and a trio of homeless persons who were bedded down on a loading dock, the three of them far more welcoming when Hahn woke them than the steam-grate sleeper had been.

Not all the night’s stops had paid dividends. One regular site, hidden in the darkness under an I-90 exit ramp, was empty when Hahn arrived with sandwiches after scrambling down three nearly vertical embankments. The residents were out for the evening, but their belongings were there. Hahn left the sandwiches. Another site, on a lonely railroad spur beside a stream, also turned up no homeless residents. “Sometimes people stay here,” he said, “in a tunnel that empties into the stream. I like to check now and then.”

It was the post-midnight loading-dock stop that accounted for the last of the stew and the sandwiches. During the transaction, four more street people happened along and Hahn handed them the remnants of his blanket supply along with some pants and shirts and toiletry kits and the last two sandwiches. “You got any underwear?” asked one of the walk-ups; “I got no underwear and it’s cold, man.” Hahn had none in the van that night, but he promised to bring some the next night.

HERE’S a sentence that creeps into Bill Hahn’s conversation frequently when he talks about his mission to the homeless: “The root cause of all discontent on this earth is the perceived, or the real, deprivation of love.” Tomorrow night he’ll be out again in the van, cruising the streets and looking under bridges, trying to compensate for that deprivation with food, clothes and hugs. Tomorrow night and next week and next month . . . until there’s no more deprivation.

Walt Collins is the former editor of this magazine.

Photo by Matt Cashore


“From Thy Bounty” can be reached through:
Catholic Charities Organization, 2855 Scarborough Road
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

Bill Hahn may be contacted at 216-371-0131.

Volunteers of America