Homeless - Late 2018

November - October - September - August 2018

August 12, 2018


Yesterday was once again the Second Saturday of the month, which means my shift for the Homeless Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church. It was an easy day, for once - enough volunteers on the ground and not so crowded that we had to turn people away. The overall mood was one of gentle gratitude on both sides.

It was slow enough that I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the regulars, whom I like very much. I hadn't seen her in a couple of months, what with my being away and her being absent - what happened, I asked, are you all right? "Well," she said, "I have this thing -" she gestured at a lump on her belly, distending her T-shirt, "I have to have it taken out, and they say it will take four hours to do the surgery and I have to gain 17 pounds first, because I am too thin otherwise and they worry I won't make it. Oh! And I had a stroke!" (WHHHATTT??) "Yes! I could feel my eyelid on the one side drooping - I kept rubbing it, trying to make it stay open, but slowly, everything on that side started drooping and turns out I was having a little stroke! My friend called 911 and they took me to St. Mary's. I was in hospital for ten days. There was a nurse who sat beside me every day, keeping me company. I am surrounded by angels." She smiled with genuine pleasure. "I have the best news! I have not one but TWO places to live! One is available right now, but the other, which will be ready in October, is brand-new. I will be the first person to ever live there!" We sat in silence for a moment, absorbing this vision of a place of your own where no-one has ever lived before. It's a good one at the best of times, but I imagine when you live on the street and everything is second-hand and make-shift, a brand new place of your own must seem like the Holy Grail.

She said, "I have my Section 8 vouchers ready to go. I can't wait to get off the street! And you know what else I can't wait for? People think I'm nuts, but I can't WAIT to get my first bill. A bill with MY name on it! And a place of my own with a front door that locks with a key! MY key!"

I asked her where does she sleep at night right now? She says there are places where the security guards will turn a blind eye and let her stay for five hours or so, to sleep in safety through the darkest hours of the night. But they are far, and she walks everywhere. Recovering from her stroke, with who knows what operation going to happen in a couple of weeks, maybe. She was holding my hand with her right hand - the stroke side - it was a light grip. She took hold of my other hand with her left hand, she said "This is my normal grip. I'm strong," she said, "Or at least I used to be. And if someone tries to attack me, I will come at them with whatever strength I have. I'm not having sex with anyone! I am gonna be like the Virgin Mary!" She laughed ruefully. She has a boyfriend but she hasn't seen him in three weeks. He's looking after his mother who has Stage 4 breast cancer. And now she has all of this. But hey! She has a new place, a CHOICE between places, and she feels lucky and blessed.

I told one of the other volunteers, you can't possibly complain about anything in your own life after talking with these women. You just can't.

Another one of the regulars was there. I asked about her son. She speaks slowly, choosing her words with care, but oh, she lights up like a Christmas tree whenever you ask about her son. He is the best thing she ever did in her whole life. His name is tattooed on her arm. I noticed she has a girl's name tattooed on the other arm. "Who is that?" I ask. "My daughter." "You have a daughter?" "Yes. They took her away from me when she was one and a half. She's been adopted and they don't want me to see her." She smiled sadly, "It's ok. When she's grown, I know she'll come looking for me, I know she'll have questions for me and I'll be able to tell her ..." She trailed off, where are the words to express the weight of all she must long to tell her little girl.

There was another one, who comes often, with a sore right at the corner of her eye. It looks like it's getting worse and worse so I asked about it. Turns out she was afraid to go see a doctor in case it was 'something really bad', but she finally did and now she's got a referral in a couple of weeks - nowhere close, of course, up in Bellflower, but "I know my way around on the buses, I can get there all right," and at least "Thank God, it's not affecting my eyesight, I can still see!" I guess I was looking a little dubious because she said, "At least it doesn't look too bad, does it!?" Well yes, it did, but she doesn't have easy access to mirrors and maybe isn't aware of how awful it looks, this open wound on her face.

Speaking of open wounds, yet another one, asking for bandaids. Turns out she has many blisters all over the soles of her feet - the soles!! Popped ones, watery ones, weeping ones, and can you imagine how painful to walk on them? Two of us worked with her, finding the First Aid kit and the bandaids and where's the disinfectant (not rubbing alcohol!) and how about a gauze pad and now we need thick socks - verdict: much better, thank you! Well, for now. She needs to rest with her feet up, and let them air dry. I am writing this with my bare feet up on the coffee table - I am doing what she needs to do and cannot. I was not aware it was any sort of big deal until I saw those blisters...

Honestly, I come home from these mornings with a new appreciation for every last detail of my life. All of it an undeserved gift.

And then the food volunteers came round with an actual undeserved gift: groaning trays of cut up watermelon. Fresh, juicy, refreshing, bright red watermelon. And for a shining moment, (moment!), everyone was appreciative of everything.

September 9, 2018


Shower Day at St Luke's Episcopal Church yesterday: a strange, jangly, Very Loud day - also surprisingly full of dogs!

And one kitten! There was the tall young black guy waiting patiently in line for clothes holding a tiny chihuahua puppy with a pink collar bundled up in a jacket. "Her name is Princess," he said proudly and let me hold her until she got restless and whined for him. There was the black pitbull puppy, so adorable, gnawing on everything with tiny baby teeth, not fierce in the least. I got to hold him too because there was a new rule I'd not heard of before that dogs were not to be allowed inside the building and it struck me as harsh that someone who has been waiting in line for hours would not be allowed in for a change of clothes because they are caring for a dog. Remember - these are the people that society tends to kick to the curb and render invisible. When they have a dog who showers them with love, as only a dog can, how can we punish that? So, I held that little bitey boy and he promptly fell asleep in my arms. This was no hardship for me! I have missed holding a puppy! It happened a third time, when a woman tried to smuggle in Chuckie ("my service dog" - a 5 lb chihuahua) into the showers with her. She was stopped at the door - she said indignantly, "He's not going to have a shower!" so to forestall this escalating into who knows what, I just said I'd hold him until she came out. Chuckie settled in my arms, alert, calm and well-behaved. He tucked a paw underneath him, on my arm and stayed like that the whole time. When I pointed this out to his owner, she told me, "Yes. He's a reindeer chihuahua; that's what they do." Is there such a thing? I am so charmed at the idea of a reindeer chihuahua, I will not Google it to find out.

The kitten was an unexpected treat. The young girl I wrote about a couple of months ago, who was so angry, trying to hide the sores on her face with a scarf, who railed against drugs - "They tell us to stay off drugs, but how else are we to cope with living on the streets?" - that one. Well, she didn't appear last month. Suddenly here she is, looking terrible. Very thin and somehow without a voice. She literally couldn't speak. She was in good time for a shower but then disappeared and missed her turn. Then, as the other volunteers and I are totting up how many are left and will we get out of here in good time, she reappears. The wrought iron gate has been locked, so she beckons to me. She opens a little cloth bag, the kind you would put an old camera in, and smiling, shows me a tiny tiny black kitten, so young its eyes are still blue. I ask her, do you want me to take it to a shelter? (Thinking, my god, how will you manage???) She tried to mouth a reply but my lip reading skills are nil, so I'm not getting it at all. She finds a little notebook and pen in one of her bags, and quickly writes me a note : 'The kitten is fine! I found it in the bushes. I had to go get a carrier for it. I have kitten formula. Please may I have a shower?' I'm thinking, I need to get home - it's my daughter's birthday on Monday and we're going out to lunch as soon as I get home - but those words remain unsaid because how to talk about birthday lunches in this dangerous and foreign world of drugs and open sores and where a shower and clean clothes mean you get back your self-respect, if only for a few minutes. And where a person who has less than nothing is still able to open her heart to a small kitten who is even more alone and vulnerable than she is? So of course I said yes. The other volunteers laughed at me - none of them could stay and they had me repeat after them: Alison!! JUST SAY NO!!!

Shortly after, I was the lone woman left supervising the women's side. A young girl who has never been before and who has no idea about time, keeps coming up every ten minutes - "Has it been an hour yet?" I told her her turn will be in about an hour. Finally, an eternity passes and it is her turn. Well, man, once she's in there, with the door locked and plentiful hot water and soap and shampoo, she becomes impossible to get out. I knock on the door, I channel the other volunteers who are much better at this sort of thing, putting on a stern voice saying "You've got to get out" in twenty different ways... While she's having a field day in there, another young girl arrives, out of breath and sweaty, "I just found out about you guys! Please I know I'm late, but please, can I have some clean clothes? I've ridden two miles on my bike to get to you!" Tell me how you say no?

Meanwhile, the girl with the kitten who is the last one, is calmly seated on a chair outside the shower room, cleaning her nails with a paper clip, waiting patiently. The men in charge tell me I must warn the one who will not come out that if she doesn't come out soon, I will have to go in. How do I do that? I ask. The door is locked. Well, apparently you can turn the lock with a coin. As I contemplate this horrible step, kitten girl says mildly, "I don't think it's a good idea to go into a locked room. Seems like a violation of her privacy. I'd hate to see this program closed down because of something like that." I thought this sounded reasonable and said so, and added, "Hey!! You can talk!" She shrugged. "Yeah, it's a religious thing. If I keep my mouth shut..." She didn't say anything more. At this moment, shower girl flings open the door, with a towel barely covering her and soap still in her hair, and all shiny clean (if soapy) and beaming and so grateful and again - tell me again, how you stay cross and read her the riot act about being selfish and taking too long when she's like a kid who's just discovered bubbles and foam? I closed the curtain so she could dry herself and get dressed in peace, and kitten girl, an old hand at all this, moved into the shower and then I left them to it, puppies, kitten, heart-breaking people, and came home to my own shower and a whole other life.

If anyone is still reading all the way to here, know that comfy clothes, stretch pants, t shirts, sweats, sneakers, socks, bras, panties, towels, washcloths, are always gratefully received. Message me if you have anything to donate. Clothes that are too fancy go to the Assistance League or other programs. Nothing is wasted. Thank you!

October 13, 2018


It's the second Saturday of the month and that means the Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church. Last night we were treated to a magnificent (and rare) thunder and lightning storm, the kind of sheet lightning that illuminates the sky, and cracks of thunder that made us jump. Eventually the show moved on, and we were left with a steady rain all through this morning. No-one can remember the last time it rained here - I was teaching yoga when it started and it was lovely to lie quietly and listen in wonder to the gentle tapping on the roof: "Is that RAIN??" Southern California desperately needs a good rain.

The homeless, on the other hand, do not need a good rain. This morning it was not so lovely to see them lined up, more in need than ever of dry clothes and hot showers, muddy, cold, shivering, with wet hair and damp clothes. I asked a few of them, where do you go when it rains? They shook their heads, mumbled about parks and steps and churches, and always being told to move along. They looked exhausted.

The two perspectives of rain remind me of a poem by the Japanese poet, Misuzu Kaneko, called :

BIG CATCH

At sunrise, glorious sunrise

it’s a big catch!

A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival

but in the sea, they will hold

funerals

for the tens of thousands dead.

It was a sad, hopeless, grey sort of a day. Massive funerals in the sea sort of day. There were no puppies to cheer things up. And then, after eight women had had a shower, disaster struck. The shower broke!!! A young girl who'd been waiting patiently for a couple of hours for her turn called out, "I can't get any water to come out!" Three of us tried to fix it, before calling the head fix-it guys who arrived with wrenches and what-have-you - their verdict: it's something serious, that will involve cutting through the tile to get to the pipes, it needs a real plumber, it'll be a big deal repair. The young woman is waiting patiently, wrapped in a towel, not complaining. Eventually she gives up hope and moves into the adjoining restroom and makes do with a wash at the sink. (The water coming out of the sink in the shower room looks like it came straight from Flint - rusty and thin, no water pressure. No hope for anyone to wash anything there).

There were nine women who had to be turned away, who were ready, waiting with their towels and their shower kits (little baggies with soap and shampoo and other toiletries) and their clean clothes. Nine women who were so looking forward to that hot water, to getting washed and warm. Some of them waited almost three hours before giving up hope. At least there was coffee and a hot lunch, provided for them by a different team than the shower program volunteers. At least we had shoes to offer them (so many in flip flops!). But how many asked if we had jackets! Blankets! We ran out of those early on.

Two things (semi) brightened my day: the woman I call Carol Channing showed up and did not disappoint, wearing a black sequined miniskirt and a sassy hat with a bright flower tucked in the brim and her trademark huge smile. She calls us all 'darling' - of course! She asked me where I was from in England, and said she had been to England once when she was 15. She told me with dancing eyes that she had seen the "Loch Ness Monster - really! I've never forgotten it!" she said. She was early for once, and didn't disappear for once, sitting inside at a table so as to rest her head on her arms - but for all that, the shower was broken before she could have her turn. I was more disappointed than her, I think. She gave me her broad smile, "It's all right, darling. I can find somewhere else." And she tottered off bravely, skinny legs and high heels, flower bobbing on her hat, in the direction of the hot lunch and after that? Who knows? (I realize this is not much of a day brightening story, which just proves what a sad day it was).

The second story was the soaking wet man with the missing leg, who rolls up in a wheelchair, asking if he could have some warm dry clothes? The men's closet is all locked up, and I have never had any part of what happens in there, but it was while we were waiting for the shower maybe to be fixed and I had no job to do, so the chap in charge of our shift unlocked the men's closet for me and asked if I could help? Wheelchair man was the most grateful man, told me not to worry about size for the trousers, that since he was sitting down in his wheelchair, he could just cinch them tight with a belt. I found him some good corduroy pants and a warm sweatshirt and a t-shirt to go under that and two pairs of socks. Each piece was greeted with pleasure and tucked away in a plastic bag. He had a disreputable baseball cap, all ragged at the brim - I asked if he'd like me to find him another cap? He said, "No, no, this is my favorite! I love it!" He also turned down underwear... He was so appreciative of whatever I could give.

I come home from these Shower Days feeling touched and sad and so grateful for every last thing: Legs that work! Lots of hot water and showers whenever I want one and warm clothes and jackets and blankets and a roof and a sofa and cats and a husband and and and.... If anyone out there has jackets, blankets, warm clothes, sweaters, stretch pants, comfy pants, please think of the homeless! Winter is coming and it is getting cold out there.

**

Forgot to mention that the washer and dryer both broke too! The washer was somehow coaxed to see another day, but the dryer took two hours to dry one batch of towels...

November 11, 2018


Yesterday was Showers for the Homeless at St. Luke's Long Beach. Lots of volunteers: lunch was a sack lunch and another set of volunteers had to serve it from the same room where the clothes and shoes are distributed, because of a Brass Rubbing fundraiser going on in the main church. Made for a lot of people in close quarters.

For the first time we were wearing sweatshirts - the temperature warmed up later in the day, but at 7:30AM it was nippy. One of the women was pleased - she got lucky and received the last blanket we had. She had had a blanket, she said, but the night before, she gave it to a young man with a puppy. She said, "That puppy was too little, he was shivering. You can't let a puppy get cold like that." Never mind that she was cold and shivering herself. I saw the young man later on with his puppy, dwarfed in a huge blanket, one of those good thick heavy ones that must be hard to come by. The puppy was aptly named Chewy - "Be careful, he bites." He was adorable. Little puppies are always a bonus - they make everyone smile. Even if they bite.

It was a high energy sort of a day, with two men on drums in the alley next to the church, playing skillfully (loudly!)while a good looking woman swayed to the beat. Near them, another woman was hunkered down on the ground with a cup of coffee and an R.L.Stine (of Goosebumps fame) paperback. I admired her ability to block out everything and lose herself in her book.

When I was out at the gate, signing the women up for the showers and clothes, a man standing near the women said, "Sign me up too! I want a shower!" I said, "You have to sign up on the men's list." "But I'm a woman!" I frowned at him - tall, black, handsome, very male - "Really?" He nodded - and then grinned, "I'm just messing with you!" I had to laugh and he gave me such a huge smile. "I made you laugh!" Which made us both laugh more.

Of course there are other stories. Stories of pain I can't fathom. Like the woman who emerged from her shower and sat on a chair in the little alcove, leaving the shower free for the next person on the list, while taking her time putting on her socks, lacing up her sneakers very carefully. One of the other volunteers was keeping her company. She told me quietly, "She lost her daughter two weeks ago." "How? What happened?" I was shocked. The woman herself replied, in a flat voice, "She had walking pneumonia. She went to hospital and she flat-lined and nobody came to help her. And so she died." "How old was she?" I couldn't begin to guess this woman, the mother's age. "It was her birthday. She was 18. Her 18th birthday. She spent her 18th birthday in hospital, flat-lining, dying." She was dry-eyed, telling us this in a monotone. We listened in horror. No, I can't imagine my daughter spending her 18th birthday like that - nor can I imagine being her mother on the streets and completely helpless. Eventually she talked herself to a cheerier place, about how it must have been "God's Will - God must have needed her more than we needed her here."

Every month, I am humbled by these people, who give away what little they have to someone whose needs they consider greater, even if that someone is a puppy. Who are happy because they made me laugh. Who somehow have faith in God, even when a parent's worst fear has materialized. Who can play drums and dance and give spontaneous hugs to us, the volunteers, and thank us sincerely for our 'service.' At least three of them did that.

At one point I said to another volunteer, "Oof! I'm so tired!" and caught myself and we both made a face, fully aware that soon enough we get to go home and sit down and get comfy. Have a hot shower for longer than eight minutes if we choose, and no-one will be banging on the door and telling us 'time is up'. We can have a hot drink, a hot meal whenever we please. When the coffee runs out at the shelter, when the kitchen is off-limits and hot meals are unavailable and lunch is a sandwich in a bag - nobody complains, but shoulders droop and sometimes they sigh. These are people who are used to disappointment.

One last thing: I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who reads these posts and feels inspired to donate stuff. I have taken over bags and bags of clothes and shoes and towels and little hotel amenities, virtually every week on Thursdays when another group of volunteers sort through everything. I asked what is the greatest need right now and got this response:

"We do not need towels! A hotel gave us 500 white ones, and we are little by little giving away our old, bleach stained towels to the guests. We can use the large bottles of shampoo in the women's shower, if we have them. The men just use the antibacterial soap for body & hair. The women love perfume, nail polish, jewelry, any little extra thing to make them feel special. We have a basket for that.

I had several tubes of toothpaste, which went missing, so we need large tubes of that to tie to the amenity basket. Also spray deodorant and shaving cream. Body lotion is always nice to have - in large bottles. Thanks for asking."

Of course clean clothes and walking shoes and blankets and jackets are always welcome. Thank you for your generosity.

December 8, 2018


Second Saturday and that means my day for the Homeless Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church. We'd had some fierce rain a couple of days ago, so we had plenty of people in need of clean dry clothes. We had a surfeit of women's underpants - but only in giant sizes, and none for anyone else. None! Blankets were a wistful and common request - we had none of those either. It was cold, damp, and even though the sun was shining, there was a shivery quality to the air in the shade.

We had LOTS of volunteers though - a whole little group from a local church coming to see what's what, plus a young married couple here and a guy there, so many hands on deck. A bit like the program itself - you never know who or how many will show up, and ditto with volunteers. It has been known on rare occasions for the program to be unable to open because there just aren't enough people to run it; and then there are other days like today when volunteers are thick on the ground. I had the opportunity to talk with John, our team leader, at the very end of the day, and he made the point that we each bring different skills and personalities to the job, and together we create the proverbial village. None of us could do it alone. We have the Spanish speakers who can translate, the nurse to advise, the organized and the efficient who keep things moving, the ones with an eye and a memory for what articles of clothing we have on hand and what would be exactly right for each client, and ones like me who like to listen for the stories and write them up later.

The stories from today were all over the map. The first was about a woman with a truly remarkable hat. It was black felt, and what was most noticeable about it was this swish of fur across the side of it. I said something like, wow, your hat is amazing! So then she told me all about it. The fur is actually a squirrel's tail! Apparently 'some kids had knocked it out of a tree in the park with pellets' and killed it. So, matter-of-factly, "I got out my pen-knife and I cut off his tail and I soaked it in salt water for two weeks" - "What, the whole tail?!" - "No, just the end where I'd cut it. Then I bound it up and pinned it to my hat!" She was so pleased with herself, nothing if not resourceful. She said the hat when she first found it was 'full of ribbons and flowers'. She took all that off and made it her own, hanging all sorts of things off of it - single earrings, charms, "things I've found on the street." She was very proud of a pair of wooden buttons. "You don't find those anymore." It was quite the work of art, her hat. Truly.

The other stories were not unexpectedly cheery like this. The clothes closet people had locked everything up and left, and we were waiting on the last three for the showers. And along comes an old woman, wearing a black chenille dressing gown trailing over layers of clothes, all of which made everyone in her wake gag from the stench of urine. Of course she wanted clothes and a shower, but she was a Project, we hadn't enough people, everything was put away and she was too late. We tried to put her off, but she pottered about, looking to see what she could take even though there was very little. At one point, someone pointed out mildly that she had taken a giant bottle of hand sanitizer and was squirting it into the trashcan. I went to see why and found there was smoke in the trashcan and she was trying to put out a fire! This caused momentary alarm, until we realized the smoke came from this very strange futuristic type food in a box - you add water to it and it self-heats, sort of steams away in its pouch. Someone had come around earlier with boxes of this weird stuff to hand out - the expiration date was 2020, and some agency, the county?, had to have it on hand with an expiration date of 2030 (!!) so this stuff had to be got rid of. Even though it was still two years away from its sell-by date.

It seems that once it starts steaming, it steams for a LONG time, but is otherwise harmless.

The fact that this woman tried to extinguish the fire, despite using hand sanitizer, softened my heart towards her and I offered her a towel and a plastic baggie filled with supplies like toothpaste, deodorant, soap, body lotion etc. I said the showers were all booked up, but if she liked, she could go in the rest room and wash herself up at the sink. Her eyes brightened, she smiled happily and said, "yes, please!" Of course, one thing leads to another, as I realized she couldn't possibly put on those dreadful smelly clothes again, so I rummaged around in the clothes bins looking for pants and tops that would fit. She was tiny, and here I ran into the jumbo underpants problem, but after a small hesitation, I figured they would at least be clean, and would stay up under her jeans. I brought her the clothes and found her rolling deodorant all over her face. I was dismayed. I thought she doesn't know what any of this stuff is for. Let loose by herself in the restroom, who knows what she'll do with her little kit? I figured out I'd have to go in with her, or at least hand her things one at a time and explain their use. I went to get her a towel and when I came back, I saw her disappearing around the corner, heading out to the street, foul dressing gown flapping behind her like half-hearted wings. I confess I felt some relief that I didn't have to deal with her, because I wasn't sure how. Little did I know what lay ahead.

By this stage all the other volunteers have gone home and it's just me and John, our team leader, keeping each other company while the last woman at last took her shower. I've written about this young woman before, back in September, how she waited and waited and then when she got her shower we had a terrible time trying to get her out. Well, it was a similar scenario today. She'd waited and waited, so patiently. I remembered from before how she asked every ten minutes whether an hour had passed and if it was her turn yet. This time she didn't ask, she just found a chair and sat where she could see us and more importantly where we could see her, and therefore not miss her. She was determined to have that shower!

So she's the last one, and I already know she will likely take a long time, but I'm enjoying the rare opportunity to talk with John (we've worked together for years but had never had what you'd call a conversation that wasn't about the tasks at hand). Eventually we both realize that she's been in there a really long time and the water's still running and she's showing no sign of coming out.

I go knock on the door. "Are you nearly done?" I ask. "It's been a long time now!" "Yes," she says meekly. But the shower continues. Occasionally accompanied by a loud harsh grunting sound. I have no idea what that is, but it doesn't sound good. "Are you ok?" "Yes." I wait a little longer, try again, same response, nothing changes. John comes over and calmly tells her through the door to turn the water off NOW. Nothing happens. After five, ten minutes of this, he opens the door for me so I can see what is going on in there. I don't know what to expect, what with the grunting.

Her towel is on the floor like a bathmat but it is soaking wet. She is still in the shower, water turned off, thankfully, except suddenly she says, "I have to rinse my feet!" and the shower goes back on and John appears beyond the door - "Did she just turn the shower back on?!" Yes, I nod. He says loudly for her benefit, "I'm calling the police. You need to get out of the shower NOW." He pulls out his phone and pretends to be talking to the police. (The police in Long Beach are trained to deal with the homeless. However, I don't imagine he is really calling them.) Shortly after that, she does get out of the shower, brings all her stuff into the little hallway between shower room and rest room, closes the door to the shower room behind her (the floor is awash) and proceeds to dry herself off out there. There's a shower curtain that we close to create privacy, between this tiny hallway and the main corridor. I get her a couple more towels. She is taking forever to get herself dry and dressed. Every so often she makes these strange harsh, guttural sounds. John asks me to check on her.

I peek behind the curtain that screens this little hallway from the bigger hallway, and she is mercifully dressed, but standing hunched over, rigid, pointing at something/nothing on the floor, and in this deep harsh voice is roaring at whatever it is, "LEAVE ME ALONE!!" It's like The Exorcist. Where did this voice come from? What's going on? I ask her, "What's going on?" And in her normal soft sweet voice, she replies, "Nothing." Then she asks, very quietly, "Am I going to jail?" "No," I say, "It's ok. You get dressed." And turn around and find two policemen just outside the door! John really had called them! They are very kind and polite, using her name, telling her to listen to the 'nice people' and get dressed, it is time to leave. She doesn't see them, nor do they say they are the police, for which I am grateful. She answers them politely and continues taking forever to get dressed.

John tells me she is schizophrenic. I have never encountered a schizophrenic before, let alone up close, naked, in such a vulnerable situation. I was shocked at how she alternated between her usual gentle manner and this sudden awful shouting, this very fierce, deep voice erupting out of nowhere, swearing and spewing vile things that were hard to understand, but you got the gist. And when it passed, it was weirdly gone, as if it never was.

Staying on task is so hard and right now the task is putting on socks. She says, "I have epilepsy and it's hard for me to move my muscles in my hands and work my feet..." Plus her feet are peeling and so dry (no wonder she had to rinse them), she has to stop and slather them with lotion to try get the socks on, but then of course the socks won't slide, get stuck...It is painful to watch her try to coordinate hands and foot with those recalcitrant socks. I ask if I can help and she lets me, and together we manage to get the socks on.

By the time we got out of the little hallway, an hour had passed. The police had melted away. She seemed calm and composed now, neatly dressed and clean. You would never guess how she suffers inside her own head. John and I helped her take her bags out beyond the gates, both of us shaken that someone with this degree of mental illness is somehow supposed to fend for herself out on the street. John said at least she knows enough to come to us once a week for clothes and a shower and a meal...

(But where does she go, what happens to her in between times? How does she cope?)

And this is the point where I said good bye to the two of them, climbed in my little red car and drove straight home and for the first time ever after the Shower Program, took my own clothes straight off and headed into my own shower without pause. I stood under that hot water for a long time, feeling dirty and sad.

After that shower and a restorative nap, and watching the final episode of old favorite Gilmore Girls with my daughter, husband John and I decorated the Christmas tree, while daughter Helen baked cookies. A lovely Christmassy afternoon, in direct contrast to the terrible experiences of the end of the morning. How to make sense of it all? Frederick Buechner says it well: "And God said, "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid."

 Maybe not afraid. But heartsick is hard to avoid.

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