Tag Archives: Homelessness

Wednesday’s Child

The dull ache at the base of my brain is like a relentless lover scorned. It’s giving way to a kind of vertigo that has shifted the real world into a dream as graspable as black smoke. The stench of it chokes me and turns my stomach. My tongue dries out like it’s licked the heart of the desert and been forever changed. I swallow hard to moisten the scar in my throat and soften the fortifying rock below my solar plexus. My heart beats to a random drum in staccato. Faint and without much interest in continuing.

I’m watching the credits roll and I don’t remember most of the movie. I’m too tired.

Every breath carries a thousand griefs. The tears are so stuck I don’t remember what it’s like to cry but I’m afraid if I suddenly recalled how to sob I would cry out every last drop of blood in my body. My flesh carries the marks of this beating and I’m afraid to look at them in fear I’ll find the bullet hole that went straight to my brain.

I remember a time so long ago that it feels like it belongs to someone else and not me.

There was a wide eyed girl with a heart so open she could have swallowed the whole earth with it. She believed in happy endings and prince charmings. Even though her father died tragically when she was four, she held out for the end believing it would justify the loss.

The darker the tunnel the brighter the outlet will be. The deeper the grief the greater the glory in the end. Every fairy tale says so.

Her hope would not be muted. Not by a hundred insults. Not by the false accusations of wagging tongues. Not by jealousy of lazy narcissists. Not by the inconvenience of the cubicles. Not by the misunderstandings of the ignorant.

But in the end she curled herself up in my head and went to sleep. And left me all alone. Her weight pressing in on my spinal cord.

From my quiet, forgotten corner, I watch as lovers unite and ride off into sunsets. I gaze into the eyes of the hopeful who have felt little pain in their pursuits. I inquire about the arrivals of kings and queens, born into the hands of another. I listen to the complaints of those who do not love the liberties I’ve lost.

I fell off the merry go round very early. The boy who pushed me just offered me a piece of rotten candy if I don’t tell anyone it was him. He doesn’t want it to ruin his holiday in the sun, after all.

I look down at the rags and blood and filth I’m wrapped in. I feel the patches of head where hair used to be. I lift the lids that are heavy with wrinkles and blink hard to moisten the eyes that are so dry it hurts to see. I caress the body that sags into the shape of an old woman prematurely.

And I ask her to press harder in sleep so that the credits will end. I can close my eyes and click my heals and finally go home if it’s still there.

I open my eyes to find that re-entry is never what they tell you. It’s awkward. For everyone. Some things can never be the same again. For the war-child, home vanishes in the smoke.

 

 

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Day 34: 46 Hours Remaining

Mothering is the thread that is interwoven through the fabric of life.

This morning I was sweeping in the bed area when one of the women who had slept there during the night hurriedly packed up the last of her belongings. My presence was an indication that she was running late.

“How are you this mornin?” She asked me with a big smile.

“Good. Good. And you?”

“I’m doing great. Really blessed. I start class today. All I need to do is start classes and show that to my P.O. and then my next hearing I might get my kids back. I miss them so much.”

“Oh? How many you got? How old?” My sweeping naturally paused at this moment, as it would for any mother.

“Well, there’s Jimmy, he’s just started kindergarten. And Patrice is three and then little Johnny is almost one.” She beams with that motherly pride.

My heart breaks that they slept last night away from their mama.

“What’d they get taken for?” I have a feeling I’ve grown about as confrontational as everyone else here.

“Drug possession. I went to jail and they went to my mom’s.”

So many broken families. And the cycle reproduces itself quite sustainably. Once you lose that glimmer of hope– once you snuff out that candle of a belief that this is just temporary– you become a permanent fixture of this world. It’s a different city than the one you’re used to. Things are dimmer, grimier, more in the moment. There is still life where ever you have drawn your own cliff, no matter who you are.

All it requires is a belief that human beings can, indeed, walk on water.

Wendy tells me a little later about how her own mother and father died when she was young. “I was raised by my aunt. That was a blessin, that was.”

What I thought was a tragedy, was highlighted as a blessing by Wendy. If only I could bottle her positive attitude and take it with me everywhere!

I was rolling toilet paper when a very slight, white woman made her way into the bed area with her head down. A partial paralysis of the right side of her body could not mask the fact that she was emotionally distraught.

“Ms. Wendy… I… I need a phone…” and here she trailed off into tears. It was hard to make out what she was saying under her muffled sobs.

She took a breath and tried again. “Please, Ms. Wendy… I need a phone… I just found out my mother died.” She sobbed again.

“I just can not be out here right now. I need someone to come pick me up.”

Wendy dialed the number on her own cell phone and handed it to the woman who tried her hardest not cry as she left a voicemail for someone. My heart broke for her. She looked like she was in her thirties, about my age. I wondered if I could have been in her shoes if situations in my life had been different.

How many moments of homelessness were averted in my life by the care of others, the provision of family and friends or just being in the right place at the right time to land some work. How many moments of hopelessness have I sat in where I would’ve given in to self destructive behaviors had I been around the wrong people? How many health issues did I avoid by having health insurance, being partially raised by a surgeon and a nurse and being given the ability to become educated in medical care?

So many things we take for granted.

After lunch I walked back to the shelter and passed her sitting at the bus stop. No doubt on her way to say goodbye to her mother a day too late.

 


Day 33: 54.5 Hours Remaining

I only have two more days at the shelter and I’m beginning to get sad about it. Fourteen and a half hours left to go. Tuesday will be my last day. The remaining forty hours were ordered to be done with Caltrans.

A man in a jersey walked onto the property today and started saying “six dollars for 10.” It took me a minute to realize that he had EBT cards in his hands. Every store on skid row takes EBT. Even the liquor stores and fast food restaurants. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize an addict can sell his or her EBT cards for less than their value and use the cash to buy dope. They get free food in the shelters anyway, why not?

I’m not criticizing anything about the way that works, just making an observation. Anyone who loves an addict knows there’s no way to “solve” the madness of addiction until the addict chooses to get off the ride. Even the State of California is an enabler.

“I’m sorry sir. When you show up dirty you gots ta leave. That’s how it is at the VOA. You need to go back to the VA and get yourself enrolled in a substance abuse program. You can’t come back here until some time’s gone by and you are really ready to accept help.” Eric hung up the phone and pressed his fingers to his temple, fatigued.

“Ma’am, I done told you. We don’t sign papers if you don’t got a case worker here.” Mark was getting frustrated. It was then tenth time he told the same woman the exact same thing. I put my hand on his back, trying to add some strength as I saw his cheek twinge with hidden anger. “No. No, ma’am. Thas not what I said. I said you have to go to The Midnight Mission. Not just any mission.” Twinge. Twinge. Twinge.

A staff member stood at the gate and stared across the street at the mounted police who had stopped to talk with someone who was sitting beneath a blanket that was hung up between two shopping carts filled with belongings. I wasn’t sure why they chose to stop there, randomly. The entire street is lined with people just like the homeless man they were talking to. Tents and blankets and shopping carts as far as the eye could see.

“They can sniff dope,” the staff worker mumbled.

“Who can?”

“The horses. They have em trained.”

A client walked by and proclaimed to nobody in particular, “I need to get right with God. This shit is off the hook.”

Later in the day, somebody asked Wendy what she was doing for Thanksgiving.

“Working. We don’t get holidays off.”

“You don’t?” I asked.

“No. The homeless don’t take breaks on us, y’know. The staff in the office, they get holidays off. But us here on the outside, we don’t. We get anotha day off later with pay.”

The clients’ madness is constant. It never stops. I don’t know about horses being able to smell dope, but I do know that these staff members have atypical skills. Anyone who works in a service profession knows how hard it is to care when you are never thanked. Not only are these caregivers never thanked by the homeless addicts and mentally ill people they serve, they are also never noticed. Their work is never acknowledged and goes completely unrecorded in history. There are very few people who would serve knowing they would never be rewarded in this lifetime. Thanksgiving is coming up. I’m going to thank them.


Day 31: 70 Hours Remaining

Something is in the air. My accupuncturist friend says it’s “crazy season.” Last night my children would not stop jumping like jack in the boxes no matter how much I put my thumb on their heads.

This morning a woman walked onto the courtyard like a queen from her carriage. She began shouting at anyone and nothing.

“I want a fucking bed!” came roaring at one staff member.

“I want my drugs!” was hurled at another.

Heads were gunna roll.

Most everyone on skid row is a ticking bomb. It’s just a matter of time before the last straw breaks. It’s hard to tell what came first, the mental illness or the addiction. Sometimes I feel that if I stay here long enough I’d join right into the song, crooning like an alleycat at midnight when the other ferals start their party.

Even when I’m hiding in the laundry room I know when something is going down. I can hear the shouting over the whir of the washing mashines and the mechanical clanking of the dryers. The woman’s timer had hit zero.

It always starts with one staff member yelling, trying to talk sense into someone with no reference for why gravity doesn’t point upward. And then like leopards creeping in from the corners of the courtyard, more staff members approach tactically, as they slip on gloves. The gloves are for protection in case they have to physically move the person who cracked. Cracked people have sharp edges. Some of those edges are uncapped needles and some are bleeding cuts and oozing sores.

Fortunately, this woman left without much prompting, shouting expletives over her shoulders as she did so.

A couple hours later a woman carried a complaint of mistreatment to Greg, the supervisor. She was cracking slowly, not all at once like the lady before her. Eventually her rage reached a climactic crescendo and she accused Greg of hitting her. I stood, shocked, wondering how Greg would handle this wrinkle in reality.

He reached accross the counter for his phone.

“Imma call the police right now and report it for you.” And he held the phone up for her to see as he dialed 9-1-1.

“Thas right. I want to press charges.” She seemed delighted that he had saved her a walk to the pay phone.

“Yes, ma’am, I’d like to report myself for allegedly hitting a woman here at XXX San Julian Street. She’s standing right here and wants to press charges.” He pulled the phone away from his ear for a moment to double check with the client, “You said you want to press charges, right?”

“Yes’m.” She had her arms crossed now and was starting to look a little uncomfortable.

“Yes, ok, yes. We will wait right here for you. You say you’ll have a patrol car here in about ten minutes?” And then to the client, “they can have a couple officers here in about 10 minutes so you can give then yo information and ask them to arrest me.”

“They won’t arrest you…” she said, “I don’t wanna cause you no trouble…”

“Well, you want to press charges, right?”

“Oh… are they really coming here? You ain’t really talking to them are you?”

“Yes. Sho am. Here.” And with that, Greg put his phone to the client’s ear.

“Hello? Who is this? Oh. No. No ma’am. I don’t wanna press no charges. I don’t wanna cause no trouble. No need to send the officers here to see me. But I just want you to know, the man DID hit me.”

It was a moment of amazing clarity for me. Love in the face of fear. Boldness in the face of intimidation. Truth and light in the face of lies and insanity. He called her on her claims and diffused the bomb.

These people are pros. Yet, despite this fact, they are rarely treated like the experts they are. All of them but one or two are black. I am by far the only white person in the client area and I am the lowest thing on the totem pole that’s out there. Heck, I’m not even ON the totem pole! I do the work nobody else wants to do. I’m there to learn a lesson and it’s not supposed to be fun.

But for some strange reason, whenever someone comes onto the grounds from another non-profit– a social worker, a medical provider, a community educator– they look at me when addressing staff and asking for direction. They assume that I’m in charge because I’m white.

Racism is alive and well, even here, even now.


Day 30: 77.5 Hours Remaining

I had a staff member look me in the eye today and tell me, “You really are something special. You are a good woman.” This made me astoundingly uncomfortable.

I’ve come to believe that the “good-er” a person is, the more in touch with their fail-ability they are. The most pure and beautiful acts come from individuals who are wrung dry of their own ego, pride and sense of self-entitlement. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that people would see the evidence of God in me after this profoundly humbling and heartbreaking year. I could give you a laundry list of all of the evil, wicked, and downright animal things I’m capable of and have conspired to do on occassion. Spend five minutes with my ex-roommate and he will give you a speech about the unworthiness of me. But that isn’t the point of this blog, happily.

My point instead is to maybe eek out a bit of the astounding gratitude I feel for the capacity to love. It is exactly BECAUSE I’ve been so crushed that there is so much room for service. There was this capacity before trial, but I’m finding it expanding outward even more now that I’m a felon. And, yes, I use that word a lot. I’m wearing it like a badge of honor. Because I’ve come to see the humiliation of it as a catalyst to loving others.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it terrifies me. I see no way out of the pain of this crushing time. If I linger in that view I run to old trappings that endeavor to shackle my feet.

But when I lift my gaze and see the eternal perspective that is ultimately molding me I am ok to sit in the fire some more. There is an old Indian saying that if I did not have tears, my soul would not give off rainbows.

I was interested to meditate on the story of the two apostles, Peter and John, who were arrested for healing a man. The judicial folks of their day brought them in to try them and the first thing they asked was, “by whose authority did you do this?” Which… I dunno… kinda sounds like, “Where’s your license?”

In the end they told them to cut it out and let them go.

What is most interesting to me is that they ran straight away to their buddies and they prayed together because they were preplexed, seeing as this was the first real issue this very first church really had. I was floored by their prayer. They prayed three things. First they acknowledged that God is sovereign and supreme, that He is able to do whatever He pleases and that THIS WAS HIS PLAN and not an accident. Second, they realized that they were followers of a Servant who suffered to love others and as such, they didn’t expect to go through anything less. And thirdly, they asked for MORE BOLDNESS to speak the truth.

So, yeah. They were crushed, emptied and scared. And this created a vacuum to continue to love and speak the truth from a place of boldness.

I’m cool if the goodness and love folks see in me is acknowledged as God inspired. I get profoundly uncomfortable when it’s not.

As we walked this morning in the pre-dawn hours, Wendy smiled and acknowledged every Skid Row tennant she knew.

“Hello! Good mornin!” And then under her breath to me, “Thas one of the most notorious dealers. But ain’t none o’ my bizness. Ain’t none o’ mine. She gots her life and I gots mine. But she can be saved same as me. She can. I know it cus I was saved and if I can be saved, anybody can.”

She beams with such light the street lights up when she walks in the dark. Everyone knows her and they seem stupified by her smile pressing up against such despair. But she lives for nothing but service and love. And that service and love comes from God filling up the vacuum created as she empties herself of her own ego.


Day 29: 85.5 Hours Remaining

My kids and I picked up a few small toiletries and snacks and placed them in small blue gift bags last night. This morning I brought them in to Eric for his vets. He looked like the Veterans Day Santa Claus passing them out throughout the morning which made me very happy.

Mark poked his head in the laundry room and whined, “I didn’t get no bag. An I served this country fo fifty years!”

“Wow. You sho look good for 70 years old!” I quipped back at him. We both laughed, but I knew deep down he did feel left out. Any time I bring in anything there is whining from who ever “didn’t get none.”

I do the same thing. Always whining about why I don’t get to catch babies. Why I don’t get to have a home for my children and I. Why I don’t have a husband who loves me. Why I don’t get child support. Why I don’t have a kitchen. Why I don’t have access to most of my belongings. Why I don’t have a paying job.

I really want to change my tune and talk about all the wonderful blessings I do have and not compare myself to all the folks around me. I want to be thankful that my kids are healthy and wild and creative and beautiful. I want to be thankful that I get to see them and am not in prison. Heck, I want to be grateful that I’m not locked up in a mental institution or having medications shoved down my throat. I’m super happy I am NOT with the man who married me and mistreated me instead of loving me. I am grateful that I have wonderful friends who read about this crazy journey God has me on.

I did a half a day because I was drawn away to a lunch time wedding on the beach for a dear friend. It’s 11/11/11 and apparently folks think it’s a good day to tie the knot. At least it removes any excuses for why the hubby can’t remember his anniversary!

I saw a friend at the wedding that I had not really talked at length to in over a year. Having been institutionalized himself in his younger days I felt like I understood a lot about him that I didn’t “get” before I was taken away in handcuffs. I felt like I’ve been spun around in a dryer and am now being presented to him as a totally different person. At least I feel completely different. I’m more socially phobic for anything but hellos and smiles and superficial greetings. At the same time I am fearful of the shallow, surface talk. I want intimacy but don’t know how to handle it at the same time.

Eric brought the 86 year old by my laundryroom to introduce me as the one who gave him a bag. He is, apparently, a World War II vet. He smiled at me, his hand shaking as he clutched the little blue gift bag. I smiled back and then ran away. I literally fled from the confrontation being anything more than a quick greeting. What would I say? How do you hold space for people after being smashed into the ground for doing so? How do you keep your heart wide open after the openness itself has been chastised?


Day 28: 89.5 Hours Remaining

As I opened the dryer door, I noticed a pile of what appeared to be large cocoa puffs. I swept it out with a broom and threw it in the trash. As I lifted the clothes out with my gloved hands I realized there was more of this dried and crumbling stuff falling from the newly cleaned clothes of a client who had signed on for wash today. As I folded each item I eventually noticed that the pants were filled with it. It was then that I realized that I was not looking at cocoa puffs.

The owner is a man in a wheelchair in his late sixties. He is pleasant as jam and had warned me when he dropped his bag off to be careful because they were really dirty.

I rewashed his clothing and refolded them and placed them neatly in a clean bag. When he returned for them later in the morning I handed them to him, looked him in the eyes and smiled with gratitude.

That was about an hour before I filled out a job application to keep my community service position permanently. I may not stay here, I do have one other job in the wings, but I feel like I need something secure beneath me. You know your life is unusual when skid row is your secure something or other.

I picked up cigarette butts and took a break to check the bathrooms in the couryard. I deep cleaned one because someone had chosen to smear oreas all over the walls and floor. Fortunately for me, this time it was indeed oreos.

It seems as though we have been visited by the newspaper fairy. The last couple days I’ve worked, each bathroom is repeatedly wallpapered in areas by wet newspaper. I assume this is to give the perpetrator something colorful to look at. Our bathrooms are pretty boring, afterall.

At 12:30 in the afternoon it is my duty to report to the bed area for the cleaning of the men’s and women’s main bathrooms and showers. And this is where I felt the inspiration for my writing, believe it or not.

It must be told that the men’s bathroom is something else. When I arrive on the scene my feet splash in the mud as I walk across the tile. Everywhere across the floor is a mixture of mud, shampoo, hair shavings, toothpaste, wet wads of toilet paper and as of late: more soggy newspaper.

Entire sets of clothing are thrown hap-hazardly in corners here and there. Sometimes blatantly on the counter for all to see. What at first appears to be frivolity (“How could they just THROW away this sweater when they have no money?”), eventually crystalizes when the difficulty of carrying your life on your own back day in and day out is taken into consideration. Soggy wet socks are found in the showers every time I visit. Please take note: I now believe that THIS is where those extra socks go when they disappear from your dryer. There appears to be some sort of vortex connecting the middle class dryer and the homeless shelter shower room.

I pick up everything off the floor and counters before beginning my cleaning task. Sometimes I think I high powered spray hose would be more effective than what I do, but regardless, I soldier on.

Try as I might, my cleaning attempts become more of a “pushing mud around” event than anything else. Even for a single mom who is used to attempting thoroughness in the face of chaotic odds.

On the way back to the car this afternoon, Eric was very quiet. “Are you ok?” I asked.

“Yeah. Well… it’s been a hard day.”

What I just described was a normal day. A hard one is even more in your face. My jaw drops to the filthy, trash-strewn pavement and I have nothing but respect left in it’s place.