Homeless 2017

February - March - June 2017

March 10, 2017

It's the second Saturday of the month, and that means Showers for the Homeless and lots of stories.

There was the man who asked me for a glass of water for one of the women who was 'dehydrated'. The woman, youngish, was holding herself as stiff as a board. I gave her water and checked back on her a couple of times. Told her to put her feet up and rest. She leaned back in her chair with a totally straight back, the least relaxed person I have ever seen. I told her to roll her shoulders, fold her hands on her belly, feel her belly breathe (going into yoga teacher mode) - she did her best and gave me a tiny smile and said 'Thank you. That feels good.' When it was her turn to go get clothes, I talked with the man who had asked for a glass of water for her. He was concerned - said he had only known her for a couple of weeks, and at first, he said, 'it was as though she was in shock'. She didn't speak. He got hold of her medication and doles it out to her as it says to on the prescription, one a day - and now she is able to talk a little, is coming out of her fog. (I have no idea what medicine she is on). Then I noticed this kind man had a backpack on the ground and curled up in a tiny ball on top of the backpack was a little brown dog, shiny fur, well looked after, fast asleep. He told me 'That's Max. He's only a baby.' I told him no wonder you take such good care of the lady, you already know how to take care of things because of how well you take care of Max.

Over in the showers, there was the big lady with the extraordinarily deep voice who told me she was so fed up with people accusing her of being a man, she just did this - 'this' being hoicking up her t- shirt to reveal her boobs! Which she did! That was a surprise!

What else happened? We had a surplus of volunteers today, so the shoe room was open, for the first time on my shift in an age. Now this past Thursday, I stopped by the church and dropped off a bag of clothes and shoes. Today, one of the women who desperately needed shoes (she was wearing the thinnest pair of flip-flops) came out beaming, 'they had my size and these are my favorite kind!' and when I looked at her feet, guess what, she was wearing my shoes! Bright pink Sketchers, holdovers from when I taught kindergarten, that I've not worn in years. How great to see them in use and so happily too!

NOTE: there is a great need for shoes, especially men's shoes, sizes 11-11 1/2. Message me if you have some spares lying around.

One of my favorite ladies was there today, sitting with a friend, the two of them reading their Bibles together in the midst of the hubbub. When the friend went for her shower, I talked with 'Miss Dorothy' who has the most serene and smiling face you could ever hope to see. I asked her, where does she sleep? She said at the 'cold weather mission.' She said she goes to the places 'no pastor will go to' and talks to the people and tells them about God. She said 'They're all souls, whether they know it or not.' She told me with a twinkle that for five years she had a ministry at the casinos! One day the men in black suits told her she had to leave. 'Why?' she asked 'What am I doing?' They said, 'You're handing out little pamphlets.' She said, 'I'm praying for them. Wouldn't you like me to pray for you?' And because (I imagine) you can't resist this woman and her unshakeable faith, they said, 'Oh yes, Mama! Please pray for us!' and so, with a huge joyful laugh, she told me how 'every morning outside the casino, the men in black suits would line up for me to pray for them'. It is rare to meet someone with such faith in God, who goes where ever she is 'sent' (she also has a Metro Blue Line ministry!) and trusts. She is nobody's fool - she also told me a story of lunch at a mission, how she was sitting at the end of a table and a couple cams and sat across from her and the girl kept saying 'I'm gonna to do it!' and the man kept telling her 'no, don't do it!' Ms Dorothy said, 'if someone tells you they're gonna do it, you pay attention' and what the girl was going to do was 'stick her finger down her throat and make herself throw up!' So Ms D. roars at the girl, 'Don't you DARE do it!' and the man tells her to mind her own business and she says 'I AM minding my own business - if she throws up all over this table, that IS my business!' The couple got up and complained to the person in charge and left - then Ms D. went up and told the person in charge, 'they told you their lie about what happened. Now I'm going to tell you my truth.' And she did.

I love this woman because for me she embodies that little pin that Helen gave me last month, the one that reads, 'Found My Voice.' Writing up the stories I hear on these Saturdays is a tiny way I can use my voice - but Ms D. is out there every day sharing her God with an indifferent and often hostile world - not that she sees it that way. A final story about her - she said after a long day on her 'metro ministry', she got off at the station of the shelter and had to cross a busy four-lane street at rush hour. She hesitated on the side until a trucker motioned her forward. She shook her head - are you nuts? she thought - cars thundering by. He motioned her forward more insistently - and when she bravely stepped out into the road, he pulled his huge yellow truck forward so it blocked all four lanes so she could cross safely. 'My Master was looking out for me!' she beamed, radiating complete conviction, total faith. Wonderful woman, shining her light right there on an ordinary Saturday morning for all to see, doing us all good.

June 10, 2017

Showers for the Homeless today! My favorite story concerns a dapper man wearing a navy blue suit jacket with black trousers - and open-toed sandals, necessary for his toes to 'breathe'. He complained to me in passing that we didn't have enough 'smart suits' like the one he was wearing. I agreed that no, we didn't. (Suits aren't generally the preferred outfit for the men on the streets). He looked at me sharply with one piercing eye (the other was milky blind) and asked me when was my birthday? I said March 20. "Oh!" he sighed happily, "March 20th! If I could have had any birthday, that's the birthday I wish I could have had!" He said, "You know who you are." I asked, "Who am I?" He said, "If you don't know..." I asked him his birthday - "March 11th." He asked me if I was good in school and had won awards? Been on the honor roll? Graduated with honors, top of the class etc? He was so over-the-top with his enthusiasm about this excellence in school bit that I teased and said I was such a great student I had a whole wall papered with my awards. He said, "I've never met a person born in March who didn't love school." I asked him if he had loved school? He said he had in elementary school, but in 5th Grade, nobody in his class liked school, so he stopped liking it too. He asked me wistfully if I was still studying. I said no, I'd stopped now. He looked amazed, "But you love school! Why would you stop doing something you love?" More on these lines - we detoured into what kind of school I had gone to - Catholic school - 'was it a boarding school?' - he supposed then that I knew all the scriptures, chapter and verse. I said no, the Catholics weren't so much about learning passages by heart. "Oh, he said, "The Catholics are more about 'Be Good.'" I nodded, "Two words, so simple, but not so easy." "But why is that?" he asked. "Why is it so hard to be good?" Then he said, "So! How have you spent your life?" So many great questions! At the end, he shook my hand and told me he had never met anyone who had listened to him as patiently as I had (!). Why would I not listen - he was a lovely man, charming, attentive, bright and inquisitive. And I wonder, if I'd seen him like that, on the street in his mismatched suit and open-toed sandals with his one bleary eye, it is likely I'd have looked away, filled with some snap judgement. This is why I love the Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church for giving me the opportunity to put faces and stories on 'the Homeless' - and if you are at all interested yourself, please consider volunteering! The last Saturday of the month is especially short-handed, but extra hands are welcome on any Saturday. (Except for the rare months with five Saturdays - then the Program is closed).

February 11, 2017

Today was my Saturday for the Homeless Shower program. The stories I witness often break my heart in one way or another. Settle down for a long read. Today, there were many such stories.

The first involved a very tough woman with a bristly crew cut, naked women tattooed on her arms, who yelled at me for letting someone get ahead of the line. She was right, I acted thoughtlessly and I was unfair. I apologized and made an effort to calm her down. I asked her how she came to be on the streets. She said she had been in the military, got out two years ago, had an apartment but the landlord suddenly took exception to "Germans and Irish" and kicked her out with barely any notice. Now she and her partner were living in her Jeep, but just last night the police had told her she couldn't sleep in a car parked on the streets, and she had no money for gas, and she was trying to get to her mother's up north. I asked around - what do you do when you need gas money? The answer: You have to go to a church, or somewhere with a program, but on the weekend... I thought, but we are AT a church, somewhere with a program, but we 'aren't allowed to give money' not that I had any to give. This one broke my heart because I couldn't help. I told her I was so sorry. She said, "I know you are" - like that did her any good. At least I heard her story beneath the scary appearance and could hug her. Could show her some softness. And at least she could have a shower. Although clothes ... she was a big, tall woman, she had to get men's clothes - but they had no big pants for her, only shorts. Those shorts that come down to the knee. But shorts! In this cold rainy weather of ours! The thought of her still hurts.

Then there was the delightful old lady dressed all in black, wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight around her black face - with a wide smile and an infectious laugh and a throaty singing voice - which she used to great effect, suddenly bursting into old spirituals with depth and soul. This was clearly a woman who had suffered - she showed me her broken collarbone, broken by "Long Beach's finest" when she was pushed at the age of 73. Now she is 80 and indomitable. She brightened my day considerably.

The last story is about a woman with a walker - not an old woman, just a woman battered from the streets and clearly not well, filthy broken fingernails, grimy clothes, greasy hair, reeking of pee. She beckoned me over and asked in a low voice if she could be last, because she 'needed extra time'. And she asked if someone - "maybe you" - could go in with her and help her - "Otherwise I'll fall." Her whole body shook, her voice too, and she looked so beaten and fragile, her forehead scrunched up with the effort not to break down. I was due to leave at 10:30 - the last shower would likely not be for a couple more hours after that. I told her I'd find out what we could do. I found out we, the volunteers, are not allowed to help - "liability issues"- but if she could find a friend to go in there with her, that would be ok. So I ask this poor woman shivering alone with her walker if she has a friend - someone she trusted enough - to go in the shower with her. She looks hopelessly around the courtyard where the men and women are assembled, waiting their turn, and points to a slip of a woman whose back is towards us, "Maybe that one, in the gray sweater." I go over to ask. I explain how this lady with the walker needs someone to go in the shower with her because otherwise she will fall, and I explain how it can't be me according to the rules, and she gets it right away and interrupts me. "I'll do it." I take her over to meet with the lady with the walker who can't believe it, who bursts into tears and cries and cries. The angel in the gray sweater puts her arms around her, filthy clothes, hair, stench and all, and pats her back and rocks her like a baby.

There were other stories - the girl who needed shoes - size 9 1/2 to 10 - because her feet were crammed into size 8s and she had blisters. There were no shoes today in her size. And men and women with flip flops and old Crocs and shoes with the soles peeling off. Some were lucky. Some not. And the youngish woman who got so agitated waiting for her shower, not understanding the idea of turns and how the system worked and finally bypassing me - "I'm not talking to you, you're too old!" - and no way for me to reach her, she turns her back on me, shows me her hand, tells me to go away, I'm making her 'mad.' And I'm standing there useless and the 80-year-old hobbles up and offers this wild woman her toothpaste and shampoo from her little toiletry kit that comes with the showers, "because maybe it will make you feel better." And the young woman smiles at her and says, "No thank you" and the charged moment passes.

I come home and ask my daughter Helen if she has a pair of old sneakers, size 9 1/2 to 10. Without question she gives me a pair of her sneakers, turns out her only pair and she actually wears them. And I think of running back to the church with the shoes and some cash but it's hopeless. Too late. I'm shivering from the cold and the damp. I wonder how on earth they manage out there on the street. Helen hugs me, makes me scrambled eggs on toast. Gives me a present she was saving for my birthday. Says, "I think you need this today." It's a little 'Everyday Bravery' pin that says, "Found my voice." We cry.

I run myself a boiling hot bath and wish I could bundle up the whole sorry lot of them and give them all baths for as long as they wanted, with sweet bath salts and thick white towels. Followed by soup, because it was a soup kind of a day. With crusty bread, of course. And clothes that fit, right size underwear and warm comfy sweat pants and big down jackets and shoes you could walk in without getting a single blister. Only you wouldn't need these types of clothes because you'd be living indoors, in a safe place, a cosy place, a home.

I thought of Pema Chodron's words, "We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts." I couldn't offer shoes or gas money today, but by sharing these stories, perhaps you reading this are affected, and you reading this will be inclined to stop, look - really look - at that next homeless person you meet and ask, "How are you doing?" Find your voice. It's a start.

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