Homeless - Late 2019

August - July 2019

August 10, 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.