Homeless - Early 2020

February - January 2020

February 8, 2020

I put out an urgent call on FaceBook yesterday for help with the Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church and two great good people stepped up - Alice and Noelle. We know each other from various protests and marches over the last three years. It was a relief to have extra hands on deck, even though it turned out to be a quiet day, far fewer people than usual. (The men dropped from 90-plus two weeks ago, to around 50 today. And for the women, we didn't even have 30 for clothes, and everyone got their shower. Yay!).

Meet Dogosauraus Rex, a young dog who belongs to a young woman I have written about before. She has always had her old beloved dog with her. One time she rescued a tiny kitten but the kitten didn't make it. She has been part of the shower program for as long as I've been volunteering, and over the years living on the streets has taken its toll on her. She is no longer fresh-faced and cheerful. Old dog, a black lab with a white muzzle (white from old age) is not well, is on medication. She believes God turned her old lab's muzzle white so that he would look more like Dogosaurus and they would bond more easily. She told me her well-behaved old dog is teaching Dogosaurus the ropes - just as a cat once taught her old dog what to do ("Really? A cat?" "Yes!"). She tells me she tries to teach Dogosaurus things, and he doesn't listen, so she says to old dog, "You tell him." And somehow he does and naughty Dogosaurus gets it. She was more than a little anxious, keeping an eye on the two dogs in their extraordinary contraption she had created for them. It is two tiered, Dogosaurus is up on top, old dog on the lower level, with a doggy bed and a curtain to protect his eyes from the sun. She treats her dogs well. Young Dogosaurus is very friendly and she fretted, "I don't want him getting too friendly with strangers." "Why not?" I ask, naively. "Because when someone's raping me at night while I'm sleeping, I don't want him thinking it's ok." Of course a young woman on the streets is going to want a big dog not just for companionship but for protection too. She asked if she could go to the restroom and have a sort of pre-wash - she showed me her hands and nails, black with dirt. She said, "If I go into the shower like this, it will take me all my time just to get my hands clean enough to wash the rest of me." Later when I left, I brought her a boxed lunch (the church people who serve lunch on Saturdays always box up extras for the people still in the courtyard waiting for showers). She was crouched outside over a plastic bag full of old cigarette butts collected from who knows where, all different kinds, carefully opening each one and pouring the remaining tobacco into a cigarette paper. For herself to smoke? To sell? She is nothing if not resourceful.

There was another young woman today who had that wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights look of a first-timer. She had spent the previous night in a shelter, her first time for that too. She described the experience as 'humbling.' She had lost her job and her fiance had left her, all at the same time. She is trying to get back to England (she is American, but born in England) - should have left two weeks ago, but her bag was stolen along with her passport... It sounded like one awful thing after another. She was touchingly appreciative of all that was on offer - the free coffee, the trays of fresh doughnut holes passed out by the food volunteers, a chance to talk with Alice who, because it turned out to be not nearly as chaotic as we had imagined, had time to listen. Later, when she came out from choosing clean clothes, she showed me, "Look! I found a Christian Dior bra! My size!" It was such a pretty thing, blue and beige, lace and ribbons. We both looked at it in wonder, she shaking her head, "I get a Christian Dior bra when I have lost everything." And later still, she came up to tell me a friend was coming to collect her and take her to the gym - she was going to take a shower there. She asked when I'd next be working - I told her the second Saturday in March - she said with a shiver, "I hope I'm gone by then." I hope so too.

The girl with the Chewbacca toy from last month was there - the one where she would press his stomach and he would roar and she used him like a talisman, roaring at everyone and lightening the mood. She said she'd left him behind today, she didn't want to wear out his battery. "He does make people smile, doesn't he?" she said.

There was the young woman who had recently had a miscarriage. She came late but just in time to get a change of clothes from kind-hearted Joyce Levinson who opened up the clothes closet for her, just when they were wrapping up. I asked for her name to add her to my list. She looked offended. "You don't know my name? After all this time?" I know her face, but my memory for names is getting atrocious. I shook my head and asked her, "Do you know mine?" I wasn't wearing my name tag. "Of course!" she said. "Alison and Joyce - my two favorites." Busted! I hope I remember next time.

The strangest encounter was with an old woman who sounded faintly reasonable at the beginning of the morning but made progressively less and less sense as the day wore on. None of us had seen her before. Things began to go south when she told me she was related to the Queen of England. Princess Diana was her cousin. That she knew who killed Diana, "Who?" I asked. "A foreign man. They're wining and dining him, all over Europe, but he's dying. He has lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. God asked him whether he would like a hard cancer or a light one. He said, 'Hard, of course.'" "What's a light one," I asked. "The kind that hardly leaves a mark and doesn't kill you." She went on, "You get to choose how you die, you know, before you get here. God gives you the choice. Nobody would die of cancer if they didn't choose. My grandmother died in the hospital. There were 64 of us in her hospital room, but I was right next to her because I was her favorite. The first child of my father, the seventh of my mother, seventh child of seventh child. I told her to go, just leave! And she did. I can speak to spirits. Even when no-one else can hear them, I hear them. And poltergeists, they live in hotels, in between places." All this she's telling me while slowly advancing upon me, pale milky blue eyes fixed on my face, raspy voice like a fairytale witch. It was a bit unnerving. Noelle was watching and told me afterwards she wondered how I held my ground and didn't back away. I was curious to see just how close would she get and also whether I could stand still and not back away. She ended up very close, less than a foot from my face, her story becoming more and more fabulous: how she was born a triplet, but one triplet died of lung problems so her spirit is in her now, and something about how she is related to the last three Popes, and has an uncle who is a Cardinal ... Gail, who runs the whole program, intervened by offering her a bag of chips and a box of juice and happily she took the food and moved away. I reassured Noelle that such instances of madness are rare. I think they are.

A happier picture to leave you with is the tall black woman who waited for hours for a shower and was one of the very last to get one. I went to find her to introduce her to Noelle who was taking over from me. The chill and the damp of the early fog had evaporated by mid-morning, music was playing from somewhere and here she was, dancing in the sunshine in the alley between the church buildings. Making things festive all by herself. She waved a scarf around her head, weaved her body and moved her feet in complicated patterns. She beamed at Noelle and me, while voicing her thanks 'for all you do.' All the while, still dancing, still smiling, still moving. Full of grace. Amen.

January 11, 2020

Somehow January got away from me and I never did write up my usual second Saturday experience for Facebook. But here are three separate incidents that remain too good not to share:

1. A young woman showed up with a mangy Chewbacca action figure that when you pressed its stomach it roared. Her delight with this thing was catching. If someone was giving her a hard time, she lifted it high and made it roar and she roared right along with it and it was impossible not to laugh. She said in some wonder, almost to herself, "I'm making everyone laugh."

2. A man almost bent double with what looked like a very painful back shuffled up to advocate for a spaced out young woman who was too late for the showers. He whispered, "She really needs one! I found her living in a deserted car! She's been there two weeks! I had to bring her here." I told him he was very kind to help her. He looked nonplussed. "You HAVE to help people, don't you? I'm just doing what's right." He had bitten fingernails, hands black with dirt; was broken himself. I couldn't skip over the others who were waiting patiently - every one of them with a story that would break your heart ("I'm meeting my sister, I want to be clean" stands out in my memory). I was able to find her a blanket - the last blanket, and one I recognized - it had been donated by one of YOU! So there was that and thank you. But she had no shower. I don't think she cared, but the man and I did.

3. Last story: An old man in a wheelchair, with a smiling face that reminded me of my Dad's. He caught me frowning at my clipboard, searching to match name and face on my list, and called out, "Smile! It's not that bad!" He was smiling such a broad smile himself, like Chewbacca, it was impossible to not smile broadly back. After that, every time I caught his eye, I found myself smiling. He was so pleased: "I have you trained!" I thought, how nice to train people to smile when they see your face! And how rare, to be able to smile yourself AND to make other people smile, while homeless, powerless and wheelchair-bound. Humbling!