Last December, Joe Manzanares let his son borrow his car for the weekend. They were both distracted by the holidays. Neither remembered to put gas in the car. Joe’s car ran out of gas at the corner of Federal Blvd. and Speer Blvd. in front of St. Dominic Church where Joe is a parishioner.
Chris Rezac was happy to help push Joe’s car several blocks to the nearest gas station. But to do so, he had to put down the piece of cardboard he was holding that read, “Cold. Homeless. Hungry. Spare Anything? God Bless.”
Joe thanked him with a burrito and fifteen dollars. At first, Joe didn’t think beyond the moment.
“He needed some money, I needed some help,” he said. “But it grew beyond that.”
Joe asked Chris, “What’s your story? Why are you here?”
“Growing up Catholic and going to church every Sunday and having great parents made me aware that nobody is better than anybody else—and do unto others and take care of your brother,” Joe said. “It’s always stuck with me.”
Joe is 49 years old and has built a successful real estate career in Denver. Chris is 42 and worked as a welder. In another life, these two men could have been brothers. In this life though, Chris lost everything; his home, his marriage, and his job. In the previous year, he was also hit by a car while panhandling, and dragged 115 feet, shattering his leg in five places, displacing a few teeth and injuring his shoulder. He spent two days in a coma.
When Joe ran out of gas, he was looking forward to seeing his college-aged daughter who was on her way home for the holidays. Around the same time, Chris was unpacking the backpack he carries everywhere and he pulled out a bible from the bottom. He opened it and a picture fell out. He said, “Wow, I thought I lost this. This is the only picture I have of my daughter.” Dakota is 11-years old, and Chris hasn’t seen her in six years.
“It killed me because I’m super close with my kids,” Joe said. “I’ve been so blessed in my life, so to hear about his little girl, it just broke my heart.
“He said he wanted to get back together with her—it was all he’d pray about,” Joe added. “He wanted to get out of this place, from these people and this rut. He misses her so much.”
Chris told Joe he made 20-25 dollars a day panhandling and spent most of it on food.
A PROPOSITION AND A COMMUNITY
“What if I give you twenty-five dollars a day, guaranteed, to work my [real estate] sign,” Joe asked. “I’ve never done this before so I don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Chris’s face lit up.
Experiencing homelessness often means bouncing around from place to place—some of them including dangerous people, drug use and liquor, a circle Chris wanted to break from. As the two men became closer, Joe took a leap of faith, bought an air mattress and a sleeping bag, and extended an invitation for Chris to temporarily live with him.
“It gave me a lot of time to sit and talk to him,” Joe said. “I became like his big brother. I could hold him accountable.”
It also gave Chris a chance to see encouraging and supportive comments from people he never met, but who were connected to Joe through Facebook. The story quickly went viral around Christmas as media outlets in Seattle, San Diego, Boston, New York, California, Ohio, St. Louis, and Florida shared the unlikely bond between the two men. It made Chris cry to see how many people cared about his story. It gave him reason to take care of himself. It created a network of advocates, offering to help him get back on his feet.
“It’s awesome,” Chris said. “I don’t have people yelling at me anymore to get a job. They give me two thumbs up because I’ve got this new job.”
On Christmas Eve, Joe took Chris out to dinner. He bought him new boots, pants, a coat, gloves, and even a haircut. Joe reached out to Kelly Zara, a corporate recruiter, Danita Vigil, an interview coach, Connie Holzworth, an image consultant, and Chato Vigil, a welder—and Joe’s cousin. This new community, “Team Chris” volunteered to help position him for a new job. Stephanie Randall, a pro bono attorney, would work with Jefferson County services to begin the process for Chris to receive visitation rights with his daughter, who was living with her grandparents 45 miles southwest of Denver.
“Everybody wants to be helpful,” Joe said. “Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody. When he gets his life together, there will be a job waiting for him. Miracles are everywhere.”
For months, Chris avoided starvation and bitter cold on the streets. But, he couldn’t escape the incident that kept him from fully rejoining society. While he was still recovering from the car accident that nearly killed him, Chris had a physical altercation with his mother’s abusive, alcoholic boyfriend that resulted in a warrant for Chris’s arrest. Chris’s mother lived, and died last fall, blocks away from where he was panhandling when he met Joe.
For Chris to pick up the pieces, he had to face the past. In January, he turned himself in and began serving a sentence for felony assault.
“He was scared, but he was ready for it,” Joe said. “Jail hasn’t been a bad thing for him. Before he went in he was trying to kick an alcohol problem. Being away from it and in a safe, warm place, he’s much healthier now.”
A SILVER LINING
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, at any given time, there are more than 500,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. Most of us ignore them. That’s half a million people. Maybe it speaks to our inner embarrassment of riches—maybe we don’t feel equipped to help. That’s more than the populations of Sacramento, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Cleveland, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Or worse, maybe we pretend not to see them because the alternative means acknowledging how close we are to the edge. That means realizing we aren’t so far apart.
According to Joe, his sponsorship of Chris will not be a success until Chris has a job, a home, a relationship with his daughter, and he can pass off the sign to someone else. When Chris is released from jail, Joe said he won’t let him return to the street.
“These are people who just needed a hand up,” Joe said. “We drive by them every day. We see them. Sometimes we give them money, but most of the people just drive by and never look at them—which I found out is the worst thing. If you can’t give money, that’s one thing. I don’t blame people one bit for that. But when people drive by and look the other way, it’s like saying they’re not a part of the same human race. How many of us could be in that place with a few financial moves? If there’s one thing this story has done, it’s made people notice the homeless more. Now I look and I wonder what their story is.”
Through it all, Chris has kept his faith. He keeps a rosary Joe gave him and had blessed by Fr. Ed Ruane, O.P., pastor at St. Dominic Catholic Church, where Chris and Joe attended morning Masses together.