Homeless - Early 2018

February - March - May -July  2018

July 18, 2018

Last Saturday was the Homeless Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church once again. This one left me feeling raw, sad and helpless. There was a young woman, one I have seen over several months. I know her to be a hard worker, resourceful and strong. She builds things. She's competent. She's quick and cheerful and tough. But on Saturday she was broken. Wearing a piece of clothing tied round the lower half of her face, bandit-style. The other volunteers told me she likely had sores from drug use that she was trying to hide. That shocked me. I asked them, "Would it do any good to ask if she's ok?" They said, "If you have a relationship with her, doesn't hurt, maybe she'll talk to you."

I'm not sure I have a relationship with her, apart from seeing her once a month for months, but I hated watching her savagely brushing out her long blond hair, frowning face hidden behind that piece of cloth, clearly enraged. So I went over to her and asked, "Are you all right?" I got an earful.

"NO I AM NOT ALL RIGHT!" she roared. "They say we are not supposed to use drugs - but if I have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, and I'm so hungry and so tired, how am I supposed to handle life on the streets without drugs? And then last night I wake up to find some guy on top of me, having sex with me, while another guy is making money off me, has sold me in my sleep. AND my dog has cancer. My life sucks!!" I said feebly, "I'm so sorry." "Yes," she mimicked me, "'I'm so sorry!' That's what they said at the Resource Center. 'I'm so sorry we can't help you!' Tell me, what am I supposed to do?"

There was more to her story, leaving me wondering too, what IS she supposed to do? Yes, that hot shower must have helped (and it was a slow day and she stayed in there way past her allotted eight minutes, so at least she got that) - but showers and clean clothes are like pasting a bandaid on a hacked off limb. I didn't know what to make of this experience, so I set it aside to digest.

Until this afternoon when I saw the movie "Leave No Trace." This is a hard movie to watch. I don't want to spoil anything, because I hope people will go see it, in spite of the hardness. It will leave you feeling raw and sad, like the Shower Day, but unlike the Shower Day, not helpless, not in the end. What I took from it is how everyone is wanting to help this dad with his PTSD and his 13 year old daughter. And how the authorities have one way to help, and while they are well meaning, they push and they chivvy and want to fix and make normal and are basically overbearing and he can't stand it. And the other people, other broken people living on the fringes of society, they understand, so they live and let live, and they offer practical help with no thought of recompense or 'you owe me' or 'try harder.' They've been there, they know and they embody unconditional kindness, without judgement. I cried my little judgmental heart out all through the credits and all the way home.

Tomorrow I'm going to keep a vigil outside that detention center in Fullerton where some of the children seized from the borders have been sent. I am glad it is not a protest. I am glad we are not shouting slogans or otherwise making a scene. We take folding chairs and signs, so people know why we are there, and we just sit, to somehow miraculously let those children know they have not been forgotten.

Those children separated at the border... Let me share something here. I was sent to boarding school - at the age of 11, to a very good school, sent by loving parents who thought this was the right thing to do. It was considered a privilege. My parents were on the other side of the world, and I only saw them twice a year (Christmas and summer holidays) from the age of 11 until I graduated from university at 22. The repercussions of being separated from my parents too young have reverberated all my life, and it wasn't until I was in my 50's that I understood the damage it had done. So I look to my own experience and I tremble for those babies, ALL the children under 14, knowing they are going to suffer dreadfully from this separation all their lives. And that's assuming they get reunited. I can't fix the immigration problem, I don't know what the solution is to the borders, I don't care who started it, whose policy it is. All I know is from my own experience: separating families is wrong. And I will try to show up tomorrow with compassion in my heart, no blame, no judgement. I will try to be like the kind people in the movie, or like the Thai people with the Cave Boys, and just show up and do the small thing I can do and trust it will add something good to our broken world.

May 12, 2018

Another Second Saturday at the Showers for the Homeless program at St Luke's Episcopal Church. I missed last month's report so this month is twice as long to make up for it. Sometimes the stories are heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes just plain difficult. Today - all of the above.

Today there was a woman age 65 (one year older than me) bundled in a long brown down coat, a woman I had not seen before. At first she was testy and mean - she snapped at me, "Don't you smile at me, it's thanks to people like you I'm living on the streets, you pretending to help..." She was lashing out at everybody so I didn't take it personally. Two or three African Americans started spontaneously singing a hymn, beautiful voices, beautiful melody - she snarled, "Hypocrites!" She said over the past 30 years, people have been putting things into her food and drink, trying to poison her "because I'm a snitch!" She was thoroughly unpleasant.

She asked me why were we wasting our time offering showers and clothes to "these people" when it was "a fact" that they "all of them have money! Yes!" I pointed out mildly, how could we find out who has money and who doesn't? If we stopped the program, then she wouldn't get help either and that would be a shame. A man who was listening to this stepped in and tried to make peace, saying that all of us, the volunteers, were just that - volunteers. We could easily decide to be somewhere else on a Saturday morning - and then where would they all be? He got his head bitten off too for being a "suck up."

She found a chair, put her feet up on another chair and promptly fell asleep. She waited for her shower almost five hours. Her clothes reeked of pee. She suffered from arthritis and had great difficulty getting up and down. But when I offered to get her more coffee, she snapped, "I can manage. I'm just slow." She did manage. She was slow.

And then, in a moment of clear-thinking, she remarked to me in a normal tone of voice, "Do they spray these chairs down with bleach? Because I know I'm not the only one who is sitting on these chairs and has wet their pants..." She looked rueful. "I don't usually smell like this." She was very ripe. I told her that was an excellent idea, wiping down the chairs, and I would pass it on.

She did finally get her shower - a major effort with her slowness and bad feet and pain - and of course once she got in there, having waited so long, she wasn't about to nip in and out in ten minutes (the allotted time which includes getting undressed and redressed). When she finally emerged, smelling a whole lot better, she snapped, "Where's my lunch???" Extra lunch boxes had been brought over from the dining-room where the hot lunches are served, so the last of the shower people don't miss out. But they were all gone!

Luckily, a woman who was vigorously sweeping up the courtyard had a stash of extra lunches and when I asked her if she would spare one, she said 'sure.' This is where I heard again about poisoning, and how no doubt "These people" had poisoned her food. But there was nothing else to eat, so she reluctantly opened the box - and there, thank goodness, was a hearty helping of noodles and meat and gravy and she loved it! She smiled broadly and said she wanted to learn to cook something just like this! It was her favorite meal!!

Today I stayed till the very end of the showers, and since there was just one person left taking a shower, I sat down and kept this difficult woman company. She veered from pleasant and cheerful to suspicious and foul-mouthed on a dime. It was interesting to me to try to navigate her temper, not knowing what would set her off, nor what she would accept. I was glad at least she got clean clothes, a shower and a hot meal, but then what? Where was she going after this?, I asked. "Oh, around. Find a bench. Sit in nature." Nowhere to go. With sore feet to boot. And older than me. She weighs heavily on my heart.

I know she affected Joyce Levinson too, who mans the clothes closet on the second Saturdays. Joyce likes to make the choosing of these hand-me-down clothes into an exclusive shopping experience. She calls each woman by name, and waits on them like a personal shopper in a fancy department store. This woman was the last client of Joyce's morning. Her stench in that enclosed space was gag-making and Joyce looked shaken when she left shortly after for home. She said, "I feel like crying today. I'm going to go home and thank God for my life." It was that sort of a day.

One last story, to make you cry too, because it's almost Mother's Day: Last month, a new woman (to me) showed up looking shaken and filthy and on the verge of collapse. She was hard to understand, not only because she was missing several teeth, but because her speech was a low mutter. I gathered all her things had been stolen; she had been beaten up. She was skittish and afraid. I set her in a chair inside the clothes room. "I need a friend," she said miserably, and luckily, someone who knew her was willing to keep her company : "I'll be her friend."

So here she was back again this month, looking much better, stronger somehow. When I told her so, she smiled, suddenly pretty, and said, "Do you want to see my son?" She showed me a photo of her son as a little boy, on her cracked-screened phone. She told me in her low voice, her carefully chosen words, all about him. He is 19 years old now and she is so proud of him! He got straight A's in high school. He graduated high school! He saved up enough money to buy himself a car. He has a job! He works at Carl's Jr. He was raised by her own mother, his grandmother, whom he called Mom. When his grandma passed away, when his own mother phoned him after that, he called her "Mom." First time ever! She said, clutching her heart, eyes shining, "What did you just call me?" And he said it again, "Mom." She beamed at me, gums and all, "That was the happiest moment of my life. He called me 'Mom'." She said, "If anyone ever hurt him, I would... I would..." words failed her. "I love him more than anything in the world."

So there you go. As always, supplies are needed - underpants!! Always!! We had a big box full, yet halfway through, they were all gone. We served 36 women with clothing today - you can imagine, things go fast. Stretchy waist sweatpants, sweatshirts, jackets, warm things because it is so chilly, all sizes, especially the very big and the very small because those ones are hard to find. Shoes!! Thinking of the woman who showed up in the kind of flip-flops you get from a pedicure, paper-thin, half-torn. She was also wearing a stained nightie and other odds and ends of clothing, a cobbled together outfit that had never been good. She was brought over to me by a man, who waved a hand at her general state of disarray and cried, "Help her! Please help her!"

Anything you can do to help. It is a never-ending call for help. Whatever you can give is so gratefully received. And if you would like to actually come volunteer your time - even better. Extra hands are always welcome, especially from 10 to noon, when the early morning volunteers are flagging. Thanking you in advance for anything you can do to help.

March 10, 2018

Another Second Saturday, another Saturday at the Shower Program for the Homeless at St. Luke's in Long Beach. It was drizzling, a cold, damp, grey morning. Since I wrote last month, people have been very generous in responding with donations of everything - thank you, everyone!

You would be amazed at how quickly things fly off the shelves. For instance, there were no shoes today - and at least three of the women were wearing flip-flops with socks. I cannot describe their faces when they hear there are no shoes, especially on a wet day like today. They don't get angry, they don't even frown. There's just a nod and a slump of the shoulders. They are not surprised. But today, a shoe fairy arrived with bagfuls of new sneakers and all the flip-flop wearers got new shoes and socks. So that was good.

Two women showed up with adorable puppies - one a tiny chihuahua with a loud bark, one a larger mutt wearing a t-shirt. They brightened everyone's day. Well, mine, anyway.

One woman whom I have known from the first time she came to the program, some months back, so diffident and quiet and polite back then, today seemed distracted, out of sorts. I sought her out in a quiet moment, asked her by her name, "How are you today? You don't seem like yourself." She stared at me, eyes full of tears. "That you came over - to me! -and used my name!" she said. "You don't know what it means to have someone call you by your name. I HAVE been feeling bad - I've had the flu, pneumonia - it's terrible to have the flu on the streets. A friend felt sorry for me and bought me a hotel room for three nights so I could get better, that's how bad I was." I asked her where does she sleep at night? She said, "I don't sleep at night. I don't dare. A woman alone?!" But she felt lucky, she had received her Section 8 housing voucher - although she'd missed two weeks of looking because of the flu - but she was certain that God would look out for her - because after all, hadn't God sent me over to her, to call her by name and ask how she was, just when she was feeling so bad? (Yikes).

Then there was another woman, also happy to have received her Section 8 voucher. She explained to me how it works, that you have 180 days to find a place - but there aren't many places in Long Beach for $1050 (I think that's the amount she said). If you haven't found a place in that time, you have to contact them ten days before it runs out to apply for an extension. You have to show addresses of places where you've applied, to show you're trying. If after the extension you don't find a place, well, you're out of luck. This woman told me that she was also approved for Section 8 in Santa Monica but she didn't want to move far from the Village in Long Beach "because of the duckies." Duckies? She explained that The Village [a homeless assistance program in LB] sets out goals for each person, like she has to get her high school GED. She said every time anyone reaches one of their goals, they get a certificate and a little rubber duckie and a celebration. She said shyly, "It means so much to me. No-one has ever celebrated me doing anything good. I don't want to go to Santa Monica and miss out on getting my rubber duckie."

Last story is about a woman whom I've come to know over the months. She has an air of getting on with it, of knowing the ropes, of generally being cheerful. Except when she's not. I've known her in both states. Today she seemed utterly defeated. I greeted her with a "Hi! How are you!" and she hugged me like a drowning sailor. It was a bad day. She said, "I have enough bottles of things that I could end it all right now. I know God doesn't like suicide, and He sends you to hell if you do it - but I'm already in hell!" I told her surely God wouldn't be so cruel as to send her to hell when he can see how much she is suffering. (Surely!! Man!) I persuaded her to come in and maybe look through the clothes, find something nice, as if a second-hand piece of clothing could be reason to live. She ventured she could use another pair of jeans. She could really work with a pair of jeans. In the clothing room, she got into an animated conversation with a wonderful older lady who looks like Carol Channing, elegant, bone thin, stylish, throaty voice, deep chuckle, a huge grin, all teeth - she looks like she's walked out of a 1930's movie. She was sober for once and listened intently. I left them there and actually did my job, helping to round people up for showers, according to the list of names on the official looking clipboard. Eventually, I moved back to the two at the underwear bin, (no jeans), still deep in conversation. I learned that the very sad lady's boyfriend had left her the day before - to go to Lancaster to look after his mother, who's got breast cancer. Of course she does. Misery upon misery. Carol Channing is telling her "My dear, you don't want to go to Lancaster! Terrible place! Nothing there! He'll be back before you know it! Or else he'll come get you to help him with his mother!" and to me, "Isn't Lancaster terrible? Won't he be back?" Yes, I say, struck by her compassion. Sad woman waves a hand at the whole thing, the large room, the orange plastic chairs set up inside to shelter from the rain, the bins of clothes and the rack of sweaters, the homeless themselves with their shopping carts and wheely carts and strollers filled with stuff, the volunteers in blue aprons, and says with a weak smile, "I don't know what I would do without you people." She was talking about all of us.

The Shower Program at St Luke's is always an affair of the heart. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, both. Everybody who volunteers gives unstintingly of themselves. Sometimes it must sound as if I'm out there in a vacuum, but we are a team and each of us have stories. I choose to share mine, because sometimes the people who read these words respond with a flood of generosity. The needs are constant. In weather like this? We need cheap rain gear, jackets and hoods. Sweatpants and sneakers, underwear, socks. Small hand and body lotions. Washcloths! Toilet paper. Blankets, towels, sleeping bags. Back packs, sturdy bags, anything with wheels. Combs. You get the idea. If you're stumped - money is always welcome to buy precisely what is lacking in any particular week. THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING LACKING!

But come see for yourself. Come spend a Saturday, just a couple of hours. Come see the faces behind the blanket term 'homeless' and learn their stories. I didn't even tell you about the woman with a nasty sore at the corner of her eye. "What's that?" I asked. "Skin cancer, " she says, matter-of-factly. "I've had it about a year. I need to do something about it." (she sighs) "It's growing - see? There's another lump growing. And I'm afraid it's getting in the way of my eyesight. The pastor at the church up the road says I should go to the emergency room. But - I'm afraid." She looks scared. Cancer - untreated cancer yet - hangs in the air between us.

Or what about the woman who groans trying to stand up from the bench, all joints creaking in the damp weather. She says, "I bet I'm older than you." Her body may be crippled but her black face is smooth and unlined; mine is full of wrinkles. I say, "Bet you're not. I'm 64 (almost)." "HA!" she says, "I knew it! I'm 68!" We laugh, "You win!" I say, but I'm thinking, WHY is a 68 year old woman sleeping on concrete??? In America, the so-called richest country in the world. Richest for who?

Final note: I came home and read this about Trump's nonsense of a military parade: "Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, estimated that the sort of public display that Mr. Trump had called for could cost between $10 million and $30 million." Mercifully such extravagance seems to have been scrapped, but there will still be a parade of sorts - and how do you justify spending anything at all on that when there are old people, sick people, despairing and hopeless people, beaten people trying so hard to do right (think rubber duckies) - and there they are, out on the streets?

February 10, 2018

Another cold, grey Saturday at the Homeless Shower Program. So much suffering there today. Two women with uterine cancer, one who didn't dare take a shower because she would 'bleed over everything'; the other who had had everything stolen from her - twice in one week. Both wanted only pads, clean underwear. They looked so thin, so weary and unwell. Cancer!! Living on the streets!! How can this be?

When we opened today there was no women's panties - only a single pair buried under the socks. Then someone came in with a bag full and saved the day. A young girl gouged the top of her foot with a razor trying to get one of those errant hairs - not a huge cut but it bled like the dickens. Bandaids soaked through in minutes. We needed gauze and tape to make it stop. Some real teamwork with the volunteers, finding the first aid supplies and the gloves and scissors to cut the tape and meanwhile some lucky guy having to swab out the showers with bleach and mop up the blood. So much blood. Someone carried a puppy nestled on his arm, an adorable chihauhua with brown eyebrows - highlight of the day. Thank God for puppies. A husband and wife, first time at the program, unsure of the drill, so polite and soft-spoken. My fellow volunteer and I stayed late so the wife and a couple of others who had signed up late were able to get a shower at the end. None had had a shower in a week. And it was such a miserable day. We imagined just how blissful that shower would seem if it's your only one in a week; and what it would be like to arrive too late and have to wait another week for the opportunity. My lower back was sore today - and then a woman asked if there were any of 'those backpacks with wheels', because she has a bad back and it hurts to carry her stuff around. What would that be like? With my own sore back, I can imagine but only up to a point. There is no end to this homelessness - you don't carry your stuff around for a day and then get to go home and put your feet up. No comfy chairs! No slippers! No hot baths! 

My shower buddy Joyce Levinson did a stellar job manning the clothes closet all by herself - she too found it an especially hard morning. She said as she left, "I come up with a word for the year, my word for 2018 is 'grateful.'" 'Grateful' as in 'There but for the grace of God go I'... I know what she means. Honestly, when I come home after a morning like this, I can't think of a single thing to complain about. But then I think of our ignoble president wanting to waste millions on a military parade while women with cancer are homeless and bleeding, living on the streets in the great United States of America and 'grateful' is not the word that comes to mind. Please have a heart and do something for the people who have no voice and very little of anything else. Collect clothing - comfy clothing with elastic waistbands, underwear, combs, deodorants, shoes you can walk in, socks. Call your reps and advocate on their behalf. If nothing else, acknowledge their presence and smile and say hello when you pass them on the street. They are human beings, just like us, and yes, 'There but for the grace of God...' We are so very lucky.

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