Homeless - Early 2019

May - April - March - February - January 2019

January 12, 2019



Another Second Saturday, another Shower Day for the Homeless at St Luke's Episcopal Church in Long Beach. It had rained hard in the night, but luckily had eased to the odd patch of light rain by 8AM. A surprising number of people were waiting at the gates to the parking lot of the church; I thought the rain might keep some away, but no. One of the first ones to sign up only wanted a shower, so we quick hustled her in to get the line started. There was hope that for once, we might actually get ahead of ourselves and stay up with the demand. This hope was dashed by the next person who went in. She had an extensive and explosive accident all over the shower room - on the floor, the walls, in the shower itself, everywhere. There was a long delay while the hardworking church custodian gathered tools to deal with this - bucket, broom, mop, soap, disinfectant, rags, air freshener - the rest of us trying not to gag outside.

Everyone was kind though, especially the women waiting an extra long time for their showers, on a morning that was damp and cold and generally unpleasant. Nobody blamed the woman for the accident. (Although the one who got in first of everyone did punch the air with her fist and give a joyful 'YES!!' for her lucky break.)

So things got off to a slow start in the shower department, but the clothes moved fast. One lady after her shower was combing her hair, misshapen feet hanging out of thin flip-flops. I asked her if she'd checked the shoes? I knew we had a good supply. She shrugged - 'I didn't see anything that would fit my feet, what with the bunions and all.' I went to see for myself and found a pair of good quality waterproof hiking sandals, the kind with adjustable straps and plenty of support. I took them to her and as she slid a foot in - 'Ahhh!' she said, 'This is so comfortable!' I found her socks too and felt at least one person's feet were better protected from the cold and the rain and the endless walking they do.

Today I saw some familiar faces. The woman with that open sore close to her eye whom I've written about before, she was there, just for clothes. Her eye looked better, she's been to the doctor finally, and she told me she has her own apartment now - 'Section 8.' She looked relieved to be off the streets, but sad too. There was a woman sitting next to her, clearly they knew each other, were friends. The friend got up to get a cup of coffee and the woman I know whispered, 'She just told me her boyfriend died.' 'What happened?' She shrugged sadly - 'Living on the streets, these cold nights, drugs...' Tears rolled down her cheeks. 'I wish I could let people come stay with me in my place, but I can't. I'd get thrown out. It makes me sad.' The friend came back with her coffee and asked sharply, 'Where are my books?' They were under her seat, a couple of fat paperbacks. 'I love to read,' she said, 'but I put my book down and somebody takes it and I never know how it ends!' She had nasty looking scabs on her hands.

The young girl who pops up periodically was there today. I was relieved to see her, it had been a couple of months. She was the one with the kitten, a while back. I asked her about the kitten. 'He didn't make it, ' she said, her hard young face softening with sorrow. 'It was my fault, someone gave me a jar for his kitten food - good-quality kitten food! - but I didn't keep the jar clean. So stupid! When I dug a hole for his grave, he was so small. He fit in the palm of my hand.' She was too late for a shower - the list was long and we were way behind - but I said, 'Come find a jacket, something warm.' We looked on the jacket/sweater rack - most everything warm was gone, but there was one thing, a gray cashmere sweater, soft as a kitten. 'I don't want to take something so beautiful, I'll only get it filthy,' she said, stroking it. 'Take it,' I said 'It doesn't matter if it gets filthy. It's warm and soft and perfect for a day like today.' So she did. Later, outside, she asked me if we had any scarves? I took her back in and left her rummaging around in a box of scarves. She came out with a white hand-knit woolly scarf from Ireland, brand-new, the label still attached and visible. 'Let me take the label off for you,' I offered, but no. She said, 'I like having the label there, where people can see it. It lets them know I'm wearing something beautiful and new, and maybe they won't think I'm just some worthless homeless street person.' All this said matter-of-factly, without a shred of self-pity.

Earlier this week, I took a carload of donations to St.Luke's for sorting. One of the bags from my generous Palos Verdes yoga students included a scarf that still had the price tag on it. I was a little taken aback, wondering if it had been bought specially for the homeless. Surprised because apart from underwear and items like sleeping bags, backpacks, and small cases with wheels, nobody has donated new anything that I'm aware of. I am making a point of it here, because if you should be thinking, like me, 'it's a waste to give something nice/new/white to the homeless, it will only get trashed' - you are probably right, but you are missing, as I did, the point: that for the shining moment that that item is still obviously new and clean, it is a gift beyond measure, a gift of self-esteem, of inclusion, of belonging. As Frederich Buechner put it so well, "You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't be the same without you. ... –Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace.

Who knew a new scarf, a cashmere sweater, could have such power. In a small place. For a short time. But a shining moment nonetheless.

Thank you everyone who has been so very generous in your donations to the Shower Program. Sturdy, warm, things are always needed, especially right now on these cold damp days. The nights outside are worse.

February 9, 2019



Before I write about my experiences today with the Saturday Showers for the Homeless program at St Luke's Episcopal Church, I want to say a HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who has been so generous with donating supplies to this worthy and endless cause. Warm jackets, blankets, backpacks, shoes; little toiletries and costume jewelry - these things I have taken by the carload to St.Luke's every week for three months now, on Thursdays, when they do the sorting.

FYI: They are in especial need of MEN'S clothes, so if you can persuade the men in your life to do some closet purging, that would be much appreciated. 


So what happened today? RAIN!! Normally a sound that causes rejoicing for our drought-stricken land, but with the homeless in mind, rain can only mean misery.

By the time I got to the church, the large room where we hand out the women's clothes was already heaving with people. Joyce Levinson, always a cheery sight with her wide smile and upbeat energy, whose job it is to steer the women to THE right piece of clothing, was already there behind the long tables, setting out baskets of clothes. She laughed, "I feel like I'm on stage!" Indeed, facing her were a couple of rows of orange plastic chairs, occupied mostly by men sheltering from the rain.

We were a skeleton crew, but luckily for us, the number of women looking for showers was low ("Too cold!") and only about twenty or so wanted clothes. Hot coffee, shelter and "Is there breakfast?" topped the needs this cold wet day. One old woman asked if she could dry her feet and get a pair of clean socks.

Only a handful of the regulars were there. One told me about staying in a shelter, an old abandoned library - "the nice thing is they have a little room just for the women, so we don't have to be with the men at night!" I asked how she keeps dry? "We go to McDonalds and drink coffee to stay warm." What time do you leave the shelter? "They wake us up at 4:30AM and the busses leave at 5, unless the weather is really bad. Then it's a little later." "Why 4:30?!" She shrugged - I don't think she understood either, but that's just the way it is. There is a fatalism about the long-term homeless. They are used to waiting, to doing without, to missing out, to being too late. We see it in the people who come too late to sign up for clothes and a shower (the cut-off time is 9AM). They attempt an excuse, a reason for their tardiness, but they don't believe it will get them anything. They don't argue. They just nod, fade away.

There was a woman whose face reminded me of my favorite aunt, who told me a garbled story about needing a room in a Christian house ("I read my Bible every day"), about wanting to save her daughter from the streets, from a cult. "How old is your daughter?" I asked. "25," she said sadly. I thought of my own daughter, only four years older, and tried to picture living this impossible life she was describing, only snatches of which I could understand - belongings stolen ("all my clothes, my wallet"), the constant threat of danger. And her daughter ("I would take her in with both arms!"). At the end of her story she said simply, "Thank you for listening." Sometimes I think the real benefit of what we offer is not the clothes or the showers or the hot coffee, fleeting pleasures all, but calling the people by their names, looking them in the eye, listening to their stories with interest and an open mind and heart. Treating them like fellow human beings, not lumping them together under the label of 'the homeless' which makes them too easy to dismiss.

All in all, a quiet day: people seemed to find what they wanted, they didn't mind waiting, the showers ran smoothly. Actually, it was better than a quiet day, it was a RARE day for being mostly uneventful. The rain petered out, the grey clouds dispersed and our usual California blue skies were once again in evidence. And now I am cozy at home again, more rain forecast, and grateful for every bit of my life. Especially the roof overhead.

March 9, 2019



Second Saturday St Luke's Episcopal Church Showers for the Homeless is over for the month, and now I get to spend the afternoon writing about it. When you're in it, it's happening fast, multiple stories unfolding around you; it's only later, back home, feet up, cup of tea, that it's possible to make some sort of sense out of it. So you go get your cup of tea, get cozy and read along with me. It's a long one!

By far the sweetest story today involved another volunteer, Vera. She gave me permission to share it with you. Vera's job is to monitor the showers, keep track of who's in there and how much time they have left, and whether I need to call more people to the clothing room. We have time in between clothes and showers to talk. Today Vera nodded at a young man wearing a red shirt standing across from us. "You see that young man? He looks like my son. He's the same build as my son. About the same age too." She blinks back sudden tears. Vera's son died not so long ago. "I have two ski jackets of my son; my husband wanted to give them away, but I've been keeping them in my car to give especially to this boy. I saw him last time. He looks so like my son! A little heavier, but otherwise same."

We figured out how best she could give him the jackets. She decided to ask him to walk out with her to her car - the jackets were in the trunk. This happened. They returned shortly after, he holding a small bag with the two jackets folded, tightly compressed, inside. He went back to waiting at his place at the picnic table across from us. I asked, "Do they fit?" Vera said, "He doesn't want to try them on until he's had his shower." She beamed at him like a mother. Some time later, he disappeared and returned all shiny and clean. He stood by the table and tried on the two jackets, both of which fit him and looked so smart on him. Vera nodded in approval. "I was right! He did wait for his shower." The young man came over to us, to show Vera the jacket and how well it fit and to thank her. He is a strong young man; we wondered what had happened to him? Vera asked him, "What brings you here?" which we thought a tactful question. He said he hopes to get a job down at the docks but 'they're tough to get.' He said he lost his apartment and is dealing with bankruptcy, 'my money is still messed up' and 'on February 4th [I was struck that he knew the exact date], I became homeless.' He said he had slept on friends' sofas before, but he'd never not had a place to go. Being homeless was a new experience. Right now he was staying in a winter shelter. "People are sick there, lots of coughing and colds"; he was just getting over something himself, taking antibiotics. "Do you have family?" asked Vera, because we couldn't believe that such a boy would have no-one looking out for him. He told us he has parents in North Carolina and a brother in Napa. (We bit our tongues not to ask why they weren't helping him out, but then as Vera said later, "Who knows what has gone on in the family before now?") Vera urged him to try find a job soon, to get off the streets soon - 'the longer you stay out there, the harder it gets.' "I know," he said, stroking the sleeves of his new spiffy jacket. "I will." I asked Vera if I could write about this story and use her name - "Yes, of course!" she said. And added, "My son's name is Andrew. And this young man's name is Anthony!" Immediately, the association popped up in both our heads: St Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Through this flesh-and-blood Anthony, and a couple of ski jackets, Vera found her lost son, if only for a moment. And perhaps through the gift of the jackets, Anthony will present himself well and find himself a job. Oh how we long for happy endings!

Throughout all this, people are coming and going. There seemed to be a lot of mental illness on display today, people talking to themselves, or not talking at all, communicating in nods and graceful hand gestures, which is beautiful if you're on stage but a little strange in the context of waiting for clothes and a shower. Vera nudged me at one point. "Look!" she said softly. "She's talking to a child." And we looked at a young woman, leaning down at the waist, shaking her finger at an invisible small child perhaps as tall as her knees. Another one asked if she could light some incense and say a prayer before coming to find clothes. The man she was with genuflected right in front of me and laughed nervously. Then there was the old woman who arrived too late, desperate for a shower. "Last night I peed my pants!" she told me in a low voice. "I have a bucket I use but there were three men with hoods on in the parking lot and I was scared. I had nowhere to go!" (I told her to come back at the very end and I'd stay till she'd had her shower, but she went to get food and never came back. I looked for her but she was gone).

A note of cheer in the madness. One of my favorites, the one who looks like Carol Channing, swept in - even walking haltingly with a walker, she looks elegant, pink lipstick, blue eye-shadow, and a beige hat with a furry pompom. I was delighted to see her leave with a magnificent coat, beige with elaborate gold thread embroidery. She showed it off with a broad smile, "Look what I found!" It - she - was perfect.

The lady who unforgettably added a real squirrel tail to a throw-away hat was there today, with newly dyed pitch black hair and a well-behaved little chihuahua called Chuckie. She was the last on the list; we had time to talk once the crowds thinned out around 11 o'clock, moving from clothes and showers to a hot lunch in the church hall. I tried Vera's line on her, "What brings you here today?"

She groaned. "First my 'boyfriend' left me, and then I lost everything. The cops put handcuffs on so tight, they tore my skin." She showed me her wrist, skin scraped and bruised. "Why did they do that?" I asked. "Because I was on the sidewalk." "Why were you on the sidewalk?" "It was raining..." "What do you do when it rains?" "Try to get out of it! But if you sit on the steps of a shop, the shopkeepers put sprinklers that go off when you sit down; and some of them have put sprinklers in the lights; and so you have to move out onto the sidewalk, and then the cops come along and throw all your stuff away and make you move along. I lost everything. At least they let me keep Chuckie. And I still have my hat with the squirrel tail. And I can get more clothes from here. I don't blame the shopkeepers - they come to work in the morning and there are bottles and trash in front of their businesses. Who would want that? And you know how they say you can only use the restroom if you're a customer? I always buy a little something, so I can be a customer. But the cops have no need to be so rough and throw all my stuff away. Now I'm down by the river." I keep looking at her hands. Dirty, strong, deeply lined, like her face. Bitten nails. Stroking little Chucky all the while she's talking to me. She waits and waits for a shower. (The young woman who was talking to the imaginary child is in there now and is taking a very long time, in spite of repeated efforts to get her to hurry up.) Eventually she gives up. "I'm leaving now. I'm too tired." She's not complaining. She's stating the truth. She does not get her shower. "It's ok," she says. Is it? How is any of this ok, in the so-called richest country in the world?

Sylvia Boorstein says: "Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?" Apparently, quite easily. Yet you who read these notes are invariably kind and generous. Today we ran out of ladies' underpants (only three pairs to start with!) and no bras except ginormous ones. There was a shortage of long pants, jeans etc. These were just the things I was aware of. The needs are endless and the shortages vary from week to week. Compassion is constant.

Let's keep being kind. Life is difficult for all of us, but for those living on the streets, it is difficult beyond imagining.

April 13, 2019


Second Saturday at St Luke's Episcopal Church and that means my day for the Shower Program for the Homeless. What a crazy, jangled day it was! We had such a surfeit of clothes (thank you, Marie Kondo, for inspiring us all to clear out our closets and make room for joy) that we had five big containers filled with extra t-shirts outside and other things inside for people to just help themselves. This created chaos. There were masses of people - such a warm sunny day, the place was packed. Plus we were a little short-handed - although a lovely surprise to see Lisa, a familiar face from YogaWorld, show up to volunteer her time. Jolly glad she was there! The people were so flighty! As one of the volunteers put it, "Everyone's high!" She said, "I've had to say so many times: FOCUS!" Joyce Levinson didn't mince words. "Today is a clusterf**k!" she said brightly. "Isn't that the perfect word?" It was.

Early on, there was the earnest young man wearing vivid pink eye shadow wanting to be put on the list for women's clothes. ("He likes women's clothes," said Joyce, greeting him warmly by name). He looked at my face and said seriously, "You have beautiful eyes. I can only make my eyes beautiful like that with make-up." And then, sort of horrified, "I'm not hitting on you! I don't want you to get the wrong idea! I'm gay!" He cracked me up. "No kidding!" He was a bright spot.

Not a bright spot: the man who suddenly screamed in pain from falling on the floor in the hallway leading to the men's closet. People crowded around in concern. All except the woman I was shepherding into the women's clothes room. She glanced at him and sniffed, "He's always falling over. It's what he does. Send him away. Brush him under the rug."

This woman was clearly not entirely present. She was with a very concerned man who insisted that she have a shower. I showed him my list. She had signed up for clothes but not for a shower. He shook his head. "I brought her here especially for a shower. She NEEDS a shower. She doesn't know all the time what she's saying." So much truth there, I told him, "OK, I'll put her down." Relief on his part. She seemed so out of it, I'm not sure that she actually did anything in the shower once she got there. But at least she had the chance.

More regulars showed up as a tribe- the mother/daughter duo with whom we are all familiar, today accompanied by the mother's older sister, plus a child (whose?) and a couple of friends/cousins. The group kept expanding as more members arrived, assuring me that they had been here right at 8, but happened to step away at the crucial putting-name-down-on-list moment. One of the more interesting reasons given was that they were in the parking lot getting their $2 bill from the "Asian lady" who apparently comes by every so often, giving out $2 bills. She's from a Korean church, someone said.

Things calmed down a bit and up pops this young girl with a serious face who, when I asked her if she was looking for clothes, said, deadpan, "No. I am looking for a chapel. And a piano. And a baseball bat." She shook her head a little. "I don't think that last one is right." Not a hint of a smile. She said she wanted to write music. I pointed her in the direction of the church. I hope that worked out for her.

Two of our regulars showed up with a foot encased in one of those heavy boots. Both had been hit by a car on Seventh Street (not the same car!). Both had broken bones, held together with pins and staples and rods and screws. But how strange that such a similar thing, on the same street, had happened to them both.

One was the lovely Carol Channing, as I call her, not just to protect her privacy but because she really does remind me of her. I was so sorry to see her in boot and wheel chair, but she waved off my concern. "It's all right! Everything has worked out for the best! Things are better now than they were before!" I shook my head, pointing to  wheel chair and boot: "If all this is better than before, what did 'before' look like?" She laughed her deep chuckle, always seemingly amused at life.

The other one was shuffling about in a huge man's sneaker on her good foot, she said she had found it next to a tree. She said it was too big (!). We spent ages at the end of the morning going through the shoe closet trying to find her a shoe that fit. Success! It took longer than planned because there was a mother and two kids, a girl and a boy, around 7 and 11-ish? The mom was looking for shoes for the boy. We don't keep supplies for kids, but things had died down by then and she was willing to look through the women's shoes for something that might fit. So in between searching for the Boot Lady, we were all looking for shoes for the little boy. Gail (who's in charge of the program) offered the little girl a straw bag with flowers on it. So that was something.

The story that weighs on me is the one about the beautiful 30-something tall black woman who shuddered a little at the idea of clothes. "No, I don't need clothes, I have my own. I want a shower. I NEED a shower" - charming smile - "I'm not MEANT to be homeless." Like these others are. Of course she appeared after the cut-off time (9AM) and pleaded with me to make an exception. Exasperated, because it was already a day of loads of exceptions, I told her I'd put her name down on the off-chance that something might open up. Well, something did - three people never came back for their shower so I found her and told her with real pleasure, "You're in luck! You're next for a shower!" and she smiles down at me and says, "I'm going to get something to eat. I'm really hungry. And after I have something to eat, I'll see how I feel about the shower." I got a bit huffy. "Then I will likely be gone and you will have missed your chance." She didn't seem to understand - well, why would she, it was her first time - that an exception had been made for her, a rule bent, and the proper response, the one I didn't even know I was expecting, was one of thanks while skipping off happily to have that shower. Deciding to go get food first?!!

It's only now, back home and some time later, having talked it over with my wise husband, that I understand that she was simply arranging her life according to her own needs and time-table, the way we all do, not realizing that being homeless changes everything, puts her at the bottom of the heap, at the mercy of everyone else's needs (like mine, wanting to work through my list, go home and be done with this difficult day). So she chose lunch and I did go home and I don't know what happened to her after that.

I hope she found a shower though.

May 11, 2019


Second Saturday in May and that means my day for the Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church.

Following a string of cool cloudy days, the courtyard was unexpectedly hot and bright, filled with bursts of loud, frenetic energy. It was a pleasure to escort the women two or three at a time to the quiet of the clothes room, to introduce them by name to Bhavana and Joyce Levinson, and know they would be taken care of with kindness and solicitude. "How can we help you? What are you looking for?" as if they were in a high-end department store. For all the calm, Bhavana told me that one of the women said to Joyce, "Don't worry! We're all crazy here!" Joyce thought I'd like to know, to put in to this account. It was easy to believe out in the courtyard.

The morning began with a woman, her face covered in pink mud (some type of dubious face mask?), skipping the line and locking herself in the bathroom. We could hear her shouting and swearing in there. We (the volunteers) hovered at the door - is she ok? is she in there by herself? - until she emerged, alone, face clean, unharmed. Phew! Off to a nerve-rattling start!

Actually, now that I stop and think back over the morning, it was a pretty good morning. We had plenty of clothes on hand, nobody took advantage of their time in the shower, Vera and I moved through the names on the lists for clothes and showers at a brisk pace. 28 women got clothes and 18 got showers. And we were done by 10:15 for the clothes and 11:30 for the showers. Not bad! There were lots of cheery calls of Happy Mother's Day! among the women. Plus two women were celebrating their birthdays, as is Joyce later this month. She told one of them, "We're going to celebrate our birthdays all month long, right? Because it's the merry month of May!" The woman, with her long sad face, smiled at that. Joyce's good humor is hard to resist.

The thing that colored it dark for me came at the end, after all the other female volunteers had gone home, and I was wrapping up, with just a couple of women left waiting for their showers. A tall thin blonde woman in black sweat pants appeared out of nowhere and aggressively demanded pants, a skirt, shorts, SOMETHING!!!! I said mildly that the clothes room was locked, it was too late. She was beside herself. "A man told me I have BLOOD pouring down my leg! He called me a filthy &*@#! He said he could see the blood!" I told her there was no blood ("Maybe your eyes aren't so good! I'M ON MY PERIOD!!!"). I crouched down and checked her pants close up - there was no blood there. "You mean in this whole church there's nothing for me to wear?" Then I got an earful, was called all the terrible names the man ('my friend' she said with tears in her eyes) had called her. But the door really was locked and I really couldn't get her something else to wear - and there really was no blood on her pants. She wasn't having any of it. She finally stalked off, "Thanks for nothing, &^#$%!"

She left me with a heavy heart, a feeling of 'unclean' - as likely the man had made her feel. There was nothing I could do or say to make things better for her. It is rare to be called names at the Shower Program. Usually the people are so grateful, you feel good, like you're making a difference. But coming face to face with the rawness of this woman's fury and hurt at being sneered at and made to feel dirty, made what we do seem pitifully small. She needed so much more than clean pants.

Earlier, I talked to an older woman, a newcomer, with a limp and a walker. Dyed reddish brown hair ("I go to the Barber's School!") - she needed another visit, white roots were clearly visible. She was too late for the showers, but when her face fell, I told her I'd add her name with a question mark, and if other people didn't show up, maybe she'd get a shower after all. She beamed: she was willing to wait. (I'm a sucker for elderly white-haired women with walkers - "There but for the grace of God go I" and all that. She was probably younger than me).

When things slowed down, I sat with her and listened to her story. She used to work for Hughes Aircraft. She lived in a beautiful rent-controlled five room apartment in Santa Monica. But then she got sick. And while she was sick - nobody paid her rent! She was kicked out, she lost everything. This was about four years ago. The story became disjointed here: she lived in a home for a year (but 'you can only stay there a year'). She went to Carl's Jr. every day and cried. Told herself to pick herself back up. She said, "I talked sternly with myself." She rented 'half a room with a roommate from hell' for $650 a month in a 'terrible house with roaches' and a 'terrible landlady' who raised her rent 'up and up'. Until finally she had enough and she decided she'd be better off living in her car. Which is where she is now. She was peaceful, for all this. Not bitter. Full of smiles. She told me quietly, "We're not in charge, you know. We don't control things. HE does." She pointed heavenward. "It's not so bad. People are kind. They look out for me. Where I park my car at night, I feel safe. The security guard gave me a can of Mace to protect myself; a trucker asked if I had water - he gave me a bottle of water; they look out for me." She did get her shower. In fact she was in the shower when I was being yelled at.

Writing her story reminds me of another woman who asked wistfully if the 'prayer ladies' were coming today. I looked blank - she explained, one time there were a couple of women standing at the entrance to the shower/clothes room praying. One of them asked her if she would like her to pray with her; she said 'yes please'. She said, "She held my hands and prayed for me. I felt so peaceful." She looked at me - "Would you pray with me?" I'm in shower list mode, not prayer mode, and couldn't make the switch fast enough. She read my startled face and turned abruptly away.

Remembering her now, I'm sorry I didn't just hold her hand for a moment. She could read into it what she wanted. The connection, the 'we are not alone' moment - that I could have given her.

Maybe, without calling it prayer, that connection is precisely what we DO give. That looking them in the eye and calling them by name and honoring them as people. And if we can get them clean pants too, well then, that is no small thing.

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