Homeless - Late 2019

October - September - August - July 2019

October 12th, 2019

Shower Day at St Luke's Episcopal Church today. A very nice day, smooth, just the right number of people - 32 women for clothes and 15 for showers which took us to almost 1PM. There were many more men, there always are, but they were kind men, no raised voices, advocating politely for their women ("Please could you let her have a shower? She really needs one!").

Standing at the gates, writing down the names of the women and handing out tickets for the clothes and showers, a funny thing happened. A young woman comes up with the name Miesha. She had to spell it out for me. "That's an unusual name!" I said, "I've never met anyone with that name before!" And then. THE VERY NEXT PERSON IN LINE... "What's your name?" "Myesha!" She spelled it out with a Y instead of an I. Meanwhile the first Miesha is going nuts! "You have my name!! How can you have my name? She said [meaning me] I was the only one!!" I'm laughing - "It's ok, she spells her name differently, you are still the only one!" She was mollified, but barely.

A young woman stopped me in the parking lot after I added her name to the list. "I need to apologize," she said, her hand on my arm, "I'm so sorry. I've yelled at you and the other ladies, I've cussed and used bad words when you try to get me out of the shower. It's been weighing on me, how I've yelled at you. Makes me feel bad." She's right, she's known to take forever to get out of the shower, which leads to quite a bit of frustration and yelling on both sides. But for her to recognize it and feel bad about it, and apologize yet, is both rare and touching. I give her a hug and thank her for saying sorry. And when it was her turn, she was positively speedy. She flung open the bathroom door and asked if I'd tighten her bra straps for her. I was happy to help. I felt like her mom.

The young woman with her beloved skateboard who gives off a tough as nails vibe started screaming bloody murder when she was getting dressed. Turns out there was a spider - "A brown recluse!!" - and she was practically standing on the toilet. So there's me, who's not thrilled about spiders myself, wetting a paper towel and trying to throw it over the spider who is trying to jam itself under the baseboard. When I saw how hard it was trying to make itself small, I relaxed - clearly it was far more frightened of us (with cause! "Kill it!! Kill it!" shrieks the young woman) and I did catch it and take it outside and toss it in the flower bed, far from the showers. It was a rare moment of bravery - this young woman has dealt with horrors I can't even imagine, but hey! I could save her from a spider.

There is a woman who comes regularly who now has a place to live, but still comes for the clothes and the hot lunch. She has had a nasty open sore near her eye for months now. I always ask her about it - last time she was supposed to be having it operated on - today she confesses she "got scared." She promises she will get it seen to "before Christmas." She's sitting with a friend who tells her, "You get scared, I'll come with you, I'll sit with you." The friend continues, "I have things I need to see the doctor about, operations probably, but what's the use? I'm living on the streets, who will take care of me?" She says it with a shrug. She's not angling for her friend to take her in. This is just how it is, the reality of life for the homeless.

By 11 o'clock, the other volunteers for the women's side have left, the clothes cupboard is closed and I'm just waiting for the last of the shower people to finish up. And a woman shows up, dead face, expressionless eyes. "I've driven down from Skid Row, I just got here, can I have some clothes and a shower?" I say, no sorry, it's too late. She turns away without arguing. I overhear a man tell her, "Sometimes if you're nice, they'll take pity on you and let you get some clothes." So she comes back, this time with a little smile. "I know I'm too late, but if I could just have a clean pair of pants?" I tell myself not to be mean, what else am I doing after all, but just waiting around? And she is making an effort and it bothers me no end that she should have to make nice to get around me, the authority figure, who is enforcing arbitrary rules that prevent her from simply getting clean clothes. I open the closet and pull down a container marked 'pants'. There are two pairs left, one black, the other a cheery pattern of red, white and blue. Another woman moseys in, "Could I have a pair of underpants?" We only have enormous sizes left - she is half their size. She takes a pair. "Will they fit?" I say frowning. "I'll manage. I peed in my pants, I need a clean pair. These'll do." She turns to the first woman and nods at the patterned pants, "Those are nice. You should take them." So she does. Underpants lady wanders off. First lady asks if there's a T-shirt to match the pants. "I like to wear clothes that match," she confides. "They make me feel better on the streets." And then a striped white and gold shirt catches her eye. It's way up high, I struggle to get it down for her. I grumble a bit in my head about this. And then she confides, "My mother's favorite color is this golden yellow. Today is her birthday. She's 83! God gives us 70 years. She's been given an extra 13. She has been blessed. Life is good to her. She lives up in Glendale. I don't have enough gas to get up there to see her, but I can wear gold for her birthday." I am ashamed of my unkind thoughts. I give her a shower kit, soap and body lotion, toothbrush and a towel, and although it's too late for the showers, I tell her to go in the restroom next door and wash up in the sink. She does so.

Solomon the dog is not here today - "too hot in the van for him" says his owner, she doesn't say where he is. His owner, she who loves boxer shorts, shows me her various scars. Her knees are in shocking condition - deeply scarred - as is her upper arm where she was shot (a glancing shot but still, "I almost lost my arm") and puncture wounds from a stabbing in the other arm. All these wounds from the same incident. When she was walking down an alley at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in San Pedro about ten years ago, with her head phones on ("I never wear head phones now, you can't hear anything"). Two men jumped her from behind. They wanted her backpack in which was a good camera and some DVDs and she couldn't remember what else. They dragged her by the arms down the alley and tore the skin off her knees to the bone. She was wearing Levis - the Levis didn't tear -"I should write to the company and tell them the story, it's a great recommendation for their jeans." The doctors told her she wouldn't be able to walk again. She spent three months in hospital. But she recovered "thanks to my strong German and Jewish heritage - I come from survivors."

All these people are survivors, doing the best they can.

Let me leave you with this: picture a wiry man holding a (what? Boombox? Do they still have those? something bigger than a phone anyway) blasting out a lively Gospel song with the lyrics, "I am blessed." He's singing along and dancing and weaving around the courtyard, he's got a whole routine going, and everyone stops what they're doing to watch and smile and share his joy. And just for the moment, it's enough.

September 14th, 2019

Shower Saturday yesterday, everyone seemingly still feeling the effects of the Full Moon Friday night. There were so many people for starters! Not vastly more than usual, when we counted up the numbers in the end - 38 women for clothes, 20 women for showers, at least double that on the men's side - it just felt like masses: noisy people, emotional people, lots of men in particular declaiming and being very loud, taking up lots of space.

It was a day of babies, human, in the womb and otherwise. There was a young woman with an actual tiny baby, just weeks old. She seemed nervous, unsure, but fiercely bonded to her baby. She was struggling with stroller, blanket, baby, plastic bags - I offered to hold the baby and with relief she handed him to me without question. But once she sorted her stuff, she panicked, "Where's my baby?!" Visibly relaxed when I showed her, "Here he is!" In the serendipitous way that life sometimes unfolds, the person filling in as a last minute sub for Joyce Levinson handing out the women's clothes, was an old volunteer who hadn't been part of the program in years. This woman is also a child psychologist and took the plight of the young mother to heart. She is also required by law to do something if she feels a child is in danger. She talked to the mother at length and then took her off in her car to Lydia House, a shelter for mothers and children. They will have a place for her at 9AM on Monday morning, but nothing before then. Apparently she has a friend she can stay with over the weekend. The hope is she will keep her appointment at 9AM. If not, she is likely to lose her baby. I found this wrenching and was glad my involvement had been just to hold the baby and keep him from crying and not take responsibility for any decision more complicated than that.

There were two pregnant women there - one, the irrepressible daughter of our regular mother/daughter duo. She announced to us all - "I'm going to have a baby! " And then, making a face, "Not what I would have chosen." She is so young! I don't actually know how old she is, but still a kid herself in many ways. And now a mother? She was scared of the pain and asked me if it hurt to have a baby. I told her what my mother told me, that it's the best pain in the world, because it's the only one where you get something at the end of it: a baby! Think about it! A new human being! I was being as positive as I could, but she remained dubious.

The other pregnant woman was sitting in the shade, holding her stomach, not feeling well. But when old Carol Channing rolled up in her wheelchair with her blue eye shadow and bottles of beer and broad grin, she greeted her with a smile and said to me, "She's the best! I used to hate her but now I love her. She and I got in a huge fight once. But then I thought, don't shut anyone out, don't put up walls, and I made an effort to get to know her and I found out she and my grandmother used to be best friends! I'd never have known that if I'd still shut her out."

There was a joyful moment when a vibrant woman with curly black hair and a huge smile showed up late, too late for either clothes or shower, and I started to tell her so but she dismissed all that with a wave of her hand and flung her arms around me, saying, "I have my own place!! And I had to come by and say thank you to everyone here for supporting me!" She was beaming, so happy. "And I want to volunteer, you know, pay it back, all the good I have received." Her joy was contagious. A roof over one's head, a safe place off the streets, is a gift.

And there was a reflective interlude with a woman who had been waiting patiently for hours. I sat beside her and asked her if she had a place to stay. "No, I'm homeless." I said, "It must be hard." "No, she said, looking straight out in front of her. "It's all about choices. You get to take different paths in life, and some take you one way, and others take you another way. I made some bad choices but I'm doing ok now. I'm ok." Of course her turn for the shower came just at this juncture, and I was sorry - I was enjoying her philosophical attitude.

Finally, Solomon the gentle pit bull and his Mom who lives in her van showed up. I learned a little more of her backstory - Army drill sergeant of a father, of German descent, an alcoholic, who abused his women. Her mother sent her to live with the dad for two weeks when she was eight years old. She looked deeply sad. "You can imagine how that worked out." She was last for the showers and kept us an interminable time after we had supposedly closed but "I haven't had a shower for three weeks!" and I couldn't say no. I volunteered to watch Solomon for her while she had that long-awaited shower. She goes in the shower, and I get to talking with John (team leader who kindly stays to keep me company) and lose track of Sol and then, panic, just like the earlier young mother and HER baby - "Where's the dog?!!" And of course, like all good dogs, Solomon was stretched out on the floor outside the shower room, nose pressed to the gap beneath the door. She told me, with his tumors, she is lucky to have him still (he's eleven), and her Mom is also not doing so well and when those two go, she will be all alone in the world. "Well, except for God," she said. "But God isn't much for bodily presence." I said lightly, "That's why there are dogs - God backwards, God in physical form." She stared at me as though she had never heard this before. "You're right! That's exactly what he is! God backwards!" It is not often that she smiles, this woman, but this thought caused a rare smile.

Rare smiles, God backwards - a good place to end.

August 10th, 2019

Second Saturday is over and that means my day for volunteering with the Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church. FYI: The men's closet was virtually bare and the men's line zipped through in record time because there was so little to be had. I know I just have to tell you this and stuff magically appears. Therefore any and all donations of men's clothes especially welcome. Thanks!

I was delighted when my friend Bonnie offered to come help "if that is allowed." For sure, allowed! We had no-one to do the shoes, and shoes are crucial when you spend so much of your day on your feet. In fact one of the women told us that when she was homeless and she'd get her monthly Social Security check, the first thing she'd do was buy herself a good pair of shoes. She said, "If you're wearing just one pair every day for 30 days, you can guess what kind of shape they're in at the end of the month. And you really need to take care of your feet out there!"

Earlier, I commented to this same woman that far fewer women than usual were signing up for showers - many simply wanted clothes. She explained, "It means we have a place to live! I just got my section 8 housing and I am so happy!" She was wearing a pair of flat sandals, with suede straps. She said one of the joys of having her own place was that she could have more than one pair of shoes, that she'd found these on sale - "Aren't they pretty?" - and that she could never have worn such a shoe when she lived on the streets - a sandal without arch support, so flimsy and open. Yes, and pretty. I looked down at my own open-toed sandals with new eyes.

A man asked Joyce if we had an iron he could use? Joyce asked me, we both shook our heads. He said, "I guess if I go in the shower with my shirt on, that will get the wrinkles out and then it will just dry on me, right?" Joyce told me he wanted to iron his shirt because he had a job interview and wanted to look nice. I can't remember last time I ironed anything, thank you, clothes dryer.

The woman with the dog Solomon, the woman who likes to wear men's clothes because 'women's clothes just don't fit right,' told me how two men had come up to her van a couple of nights ago and yelled at her through the window. They called her names, names like 'cunt' and 'dyke' and so many more. "Forgive me" she said, in her low voice, "but that's what they called me." "What did you do?" I asked, shocked. She smiled a little. "I said, I'm sorry you feel that way." I shook my head. What to say? "I know," she said. "Isn't that something?"

The story that most weighs on my heart involves a sprite, a person with the lithe, lean body of a young male, perhaps, but wearing black leggings and a satiny golden puff of a skirt, creating an overall impression of glitter and sparkle. Honestly, the gender was uncertain, but no matter, she looked exotic and quite lovely to my eyes. When it was her turn for clothes, I did my best to hurry her up. She was one of the last names on the list and the women's closet would soon close. She meanwhile was trying to secure her bike. She told me she had had a very nice bike once, but someone had stolen it. This "new" bike was big, not nice, with a shredded seat. Still, it got her around. She gave up trying to lock it and came with me to look for clothes. I left her in good hands and soon after, she came out beaming: "Look what I found!" A pink shimmery scarf in one hand, a pair of beige strappy high heels in the other.

She goes one way, I go another. There's a hullabaloo and Vera, fellow volunteer, fills me in. "Her bike's been stolen." No! I go see for myself and sure enough. The bike is gone and she's beside herself, twisting and flinging herself about as if wringing her entire body, crying out to the onlookers - because there are witnesses, there are people sitting on folding chairs along the wall of the alley, the place where they can smoke and drink coffee while waiting their turn - and she's screaming at them, "How could you? How could you let someone steal my bike? You knew it was mine!" And they stare back at her blankly and if they engage with her at all, they simply say, "You should have locked it."

She turns to me, furious, "I told you! I told you I had to lock it! Now you see? You see?" She stops short of saying it's my fault but I feel like it's my fault. All the joy of the shoes gone. The awfulness of the stolen bike shattering everything. I stand there letting her rage at me, wondering why the others, whom I have only known to be tolerant and kind towards one another, are treating her so coldly. Why hadn't they stopped whoever took her bike? Now I wish I'd had the wit, the courage to ask. But while I'm standing there speechless, a fire truck and an ambulance roll up because another drama is going on simultaneously in the men's shower, where a man has apparently collapsed. He's wheeled out on a gurney and by the time the paramedics leave, the bike story is unsatisfactorily over. She's gone, her pink glittery scarf lying forgotten on the ground. The others have turned back to their conversations. The storm has passed. Everything is back to normal, except it's not.

Back to friend Bonnie, who gets the last word. When I thanked her for coming with me, she wrote, "It was fascinating. Helps me remember how dang ‘entitled’ I am, and white, and advantaged. Perspective is important."

And it's true. Everything about the morning, virtually every interaction, underlines her point: stories of shoes, iron, van, bike. Perspective - and gratitude. That's why I keep going back, month after month - so I don't take any of my own life for granted. So I remember to say thank you.

Oh, I wish that bike hadn't been stolen though.

July 13, 2019

Second Saturday Shower Program at St Luke's Episcopal Church - a jangly sort of day at first, our beloved team leader is walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and things were not run the way he usually runs them. Plus we were short-handed. But once we opened the doors and got things moving, we found our rhythm.

Our mother/daughter combo were first in line, as usual. The daughter was in a wheelchair - I didn't pay it much attention, I thought she was playing around. But then the one I call Carol Channing, still in HER wheelchair, said to me, "Tell her she must stay off that leg if she wants to get better!" So I asked, surprised, "What happened to your leg?" "I got stabbed." "What???? How?!!!" "A girl was disrespecting my mother and I beat her up and she stabbed me twice in the leg." She tells me this in a flat tone.and rolls up a pajama leg to show me a huge cut sewn up with big black stitches on her calf. This girl is like a puppy, one who gives spontaneous hugs to everyone - this time I bent down to hug her, and she leaned against me, uncharacteristically soft. This stabbing happened two weeks ago. This is the daughter whose mother, last month, had just come out of hospital from having a stroke, determined to see her other daughter graduate high school. Today, although Mom was first on the list for a shower, she waved her hand - "Let someone else go before me - I've just taken my medicine and it makes my heart flutter. I need to settle down."

Meanwhile, 'Carol Channing' just wanted clothes today. She was drinking from a paper cup. "What are you drinking?" asked one of the volunteers. "Beer!" she grinned. And when she found some clothes, she wheeled herself off flashing her huge smile, mouthing an expansive 'I love you!' to all of us. Do not underestimate the power of a smile - she brightens the place, beer or no beer.

Most of the women today were regulars - the studious one with glasses and long gray hair and her book of Sudokus who keeps her head down and works her puzzles until it's her turn; the deaf one who gets so impatient with me for always getting her name wrong (it sounds like Rwanda but it's not and of course I can't think of anything but Rwanda when I see her); the one who sits hunched and quietly moaning to herself, eyes darting every which way, keeping a look-out - I imagine she is soothing herself somehow with her constant guttural 'mmm'mmm'mmm'.

A good friend donated several bags of women's clothes from a friend of hers who is a keen (overly keen) shopper. Some of the clothes, she told me, had never been worn, still had price tags. I was there when I'm guessing one of her items was pounced upon with glee by a woman who was looking for something 'long enough to cover this' (she waved vaguely at her stomach). Brand new, this pretty top - it still had the price tag. You should have seen her light up, "That's perfect!"

There was a new woman I hadn't seen before, bleached blonde hair, very tanned tattooed skin, startling blue eyes, skimpy tank top stretched over a very large body - she told me with a huge grin that she was Greek and Italian and several other things besides, but mostly she was American so she was one up on me 'because you're not!' she crowed. She thought this hilarious. She told me she didn't like the Italians so much because 'the Mafia kills their own.' She was extremely hard to follow - talk of the Mafia segued to gangs (is she in a gang? unclear) and that sometimes her head hurts and she has to tell people to please keep it down, because her head... She's telling me all this with a broad grin and expansive movements, but when it's time for her to come find some clothes, she shows me her hands with their calloused filthy palms, and asks in a small voice, "Should I wash my hands first before I touch the clothes?"

You know, sometimes I think I can dismiss these women, listening to their rants with half an ear, nodding absently not understanding a word - and then they say or do something so utterly sweet and unexpected, I SEE them - not as annoyances or mad creatures, but as fellow human beings who have fallen upon truly awful times. and who are doing their best to survive. It's a humbling experience.

Here's one that made me smile: A magnificent black woman, well-endowed... When I took her in to find something to wear, Sue the volunteer said brightly, "I have extra large t-shirts and xx t-shirts too!" And this woman replied firmly, "I would prefer something a little more" - and here she drew the word out with relish - "snug." Such confidence - 'I'm not hiding this, I'm FLAUNTING it!'

Finally, the woman from last month who lives in her car with Solomon the dog, asked me if I could get her a pair of boxers (she does love her boxers)... my friend Yolanda was subbing today in the men's closet so I was able to do that for her (red silky ones, very snazzy). Turned out she was parked two cars away from my own. I went to tap on her window to tell her I was leaving. Solomon jumped up from his passenger seat, wagging his tail and smiling in that goofy doggy way, so she let him out of the car to greet me because "he remembers you!"

So I will end here, because that was a lovely way to end the morning, being remembered by Solomon.