Not long ago, Lorenza Andrade Smith called Los Angeles’ Skid Row home. Her neighbor – a friend, she said – was a local gang leader, a drug dealer, a parolee. But that’s life, she said, in the downtown region, which is home to thousands of the city’s homeless people.
Smith is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church. But since last summer she’s lived among the homeless in San Antonio and other cities, dodging knife fights and panhandling on occasion to learn about surviving life on the streets.
It’s her calling, she said, and her job – part of a three-year experimental church ministry based out of San Antonio.
Now through Sunday, Smith will live in downtown Wichita, among local homeless, and share her experiences at several speaking engagements around town. Her goal, she said, is to bring awareness to what she calls the “criminalization of the poor.”
"Lorenza is one of those people who causes an itch in the system," said the Rev. Christopher Eshelman, associate pastor for West Heights United Methodist Church and Wichita State University campus minister, who invited Smith to speak in Wichita.
"Bringing Lorenza here was a chance to inspire people.”
Addressing a group of WSU social work students Wednesday at the school’s west campus in Maize, Smith called homelessness a “global issue of poverty” that will require people to talk to one another to foster systemic changes.
“We need to start talking. Just starting the dialogue is critical,” she said.
Smith, 43, started her ministry in July 2011. Like many homeless people, she said, she eats once a day, travels by Greyhound bus, and posts updates to her Facebook page from McDonald’s using her laptop.
She’s petite: 5 feet tall with a wide, welcoming smile and a soft, nonthreatening voice. Her backpack is stuffed with meager belongings: duct tape (to repair clothes and her sleeping bag), toiletries, a Bible, toilet paper. A heavy metal chalice, a tool of her ministry, is secured to the outside.
But after more than a year living on the streets, her eyes are tired.
Being homeless is exhausting, Smith said – moreso than when she was studying for her master’s degree, raising her son, being a wife and a traditional minister for the church – because life on the streets is about survival, she said. She’s been ticketed and eventually arrested for sleeping on a bench. She’s been kicked and threatened with a knife.
“I’ve never been so exhausted in any other place than living on the street. I would rather sleep than eat. I can go days without eating but no sleep changes your way of thinking,” she said.
“If you want to stay alive, then you don’t sleep at night.”
Smith says her job is simple. She lives among the homeless and “does nothing” but listen.
She hears the problems faced by women and men who have no place to use the bathroom and works with city councils to bring public toilets to areas where the homeless live.
She offers a friendly ear to a teenage boy who panhandles because his father kicked him out of the house.
She tries to show that homeless people are in a cycle that needs long-term changes rather than “Band-Aid solutions,” she said.
Then Smith shares her knowledge with her church, the public and city officials across the country.
“It makes us feel good to give someone $5,” she said. “They can go eat and we feel good. But they are in the same place” – still homeless.