DeliaBlack's Blog

JANUARY 9, 2010 11:42PM

What would you do for a homeless friend?

Rate: 52 Flag

Anna is a homeless woman who goes to my church.  She has hard-to-tame hair, a reddish, sun-lined face, a stocky build.  I met her because we sat in the same section--all the way over to the side and in the last row.  I did not know for a time that she was homeless, and once I did I struggled with how to help her.

She never asked for outright help to get a home for a long time.  She came to the soup kitchen where we served.  She asked for clothes, and we gave them.  I talked to a retired doctor, Dr. Lee, who has spent decades working with local homeless.  He said that overtures had been made to help in various ways.  For one, she has a feeding tube that she no longer uses, and appointments were made to have it removed.  Anna never showed up when she was supposed to meet her ride.

As Dr. Lee summed up her history, he intoned in a well-modulated voice that evolved as he presided over countless births, "You know, Jesus used to ask, 'Do you want to be healed?'"

Her history, her self-admitted drug use, my wariness due to my family's excruciating loss in a drug-motivated robbery--these things put me at a distance.  I would pray for Anna and wait.  I wanted her to know that she was ready.

And finally, not long before Christmas, she told me,  "I wanna get out of them woods!  I'm ready to get my own place!"

And so I began to call.  I have a small but growing list of contacts, mostly through the ministry I am 'leading' (or sometimes co-leading, or sometimes trailing behind).  We are trying to form a network, based on 150 existing models, in which homeless children and their families stay in churches as they are helped back on their feet.  Am I concerned about homeless single people?  Absolutely.  But I have to start somewhere.  There is so much prejudice against the homeless that it is sometimes hard to garner sympathy, even when children are involved.  And funds are drying up everywhere.  I hope that this ministry will tear down some prejudice and open a door for a singles homeless ministry to slip through and thrive.  I keep my eyes open for opportunities.  Post-Katrina, we have ONE non-addiction/non-domestic violence shelter on the whole Mississippi Gulf Coast.  One. They are as strapped for funds as everyone else.  You get two weeks there to find a job, I am told.  Then you are back on the street.

 Anna told me that a woman in a Sunday School class that I attend got her a job.  The fellow Sunday Schooler knew about my 'new' attempt at leading a ministry, and she introduced herself to Anna.  I have no money, and we have no public transportation, but this woman, who once spoke with wonder about becoming an "activist" because she attended a Tea Party, gave Anna her bike.  She is a hair dresser, but she knows the owner of a local buffet.  Anna rides her bike there across town, though she had a stroke in 2006, still in the years-long high-stress atmosphere of the hurricane.  Hospital admissions for stress-related illnesses were through the roof long after Katrina, and her lifestyle only exacerbated the problem.  At the buffet Anna vacuums, scrubs floors, does whatever she is asked for $400 a month under the table.  But I can't find her a place for that.

I call and call.  I talk to government agencies with year-long waiting lists.  I call the United Way, who helpfully tells me to check the paper. I find nothing.

Finally, I think of asking our church administrator for help.  He agrees to call a local store owner who occasionally attends our church to ask for a job for Anna.  I found some apartments across the street from the store.  If she has income she can actually claim, she can get a deposit through a local agency.  I want to throw her a housewarming party.  But first we must fill out the application.

I drive to meet her at the buffet after her shift.  She shows me her blackened hands.

"They had me down on my knees scrubbin' them floors.  I'm wore out!  Here, let me get my dinner and my cat bones."

A small group of us had visited Anna's tent to talk with her and ask what she would need for help months earlier, but we really couldn't draw much out of her.  She talked about how many times her mother had been married and blamed her sister for taking her son.  There we met Anna's cats.  All seven of them.

"I'm sorry I couldn't bring my truck," I say.  This would have allowed me to load up the bike and drive her  straight to her tent once we put in the application.  It would have saved her a hard pedal back.

"That's OK," she shrugs.

We go to a local truckstop that has showers for five dollars. 

"I need some creme rinse to get these knots outta my hair."  She fingers a ragged mess at the back of her head. 

I thought that there was some to buy at the truckstop, but I was wrong.  We find a Fred's and bustle inside.

"I won't worry none 'bout these trees on my legs." Anna passes up the razors. 

"Get what you need," I say.

She sees me getting a manicure set for myself and mentions how she needs a nail brush.

"Miss Laura at the church said, 'Anna, you better get them fingernails clean before you apply for a job!"

I had noticed her fingernails, so I buy the brush.  At the door of the store we meet someone who calls Anna's name.

"How are you doing?" the woman--thinnish, late thirties--asks Anna.  Anna says nothing of herself, but asks about the woman's mother.   How do you explain  to a long lost friend that you live in a tent in the woods?

We go back to the truckstop with our purchases.  I clutch $5--the only cash I have--in my hand, but in the end, the cashier waves it away.  I thank her more than once.

Anna goes in to shower.  I am left on my own to think.  I worry if they will look down their nose when I take her in the store.  I wonder if she is really off drugs, as she has said.  There is the roughened side of her that has learned to be blunt and hardy.  I only suspect the part of her it hides. 

A trucker comes in and spends extra time talking to the cashier about the cold, cold weather.  You can tell he misses another voice on the lonely road.

Anna is finally finished, and we head to the store for her to apply.  I park out front and think, 'How can I prepare us for this?'

"Do you wanna pray?" I ask.

We hold hands.  The former me, a twentysomething whose agnosticism was fed by the hypocrites I thought I spotted in so many pews, would not recognize the woman who nervously turned to prayer--out loud.

But I did it.  We got out of the car.  I tried to be ready for whatever reaction they might bring.  I walked up to the counter with Anna.  I said, "My friend wants to apply for a job."

A girl of about 21 handed me an application.  That was it.

Anna got it and began to walk outside.

"Don't you want to fill it out at the deli?" I said, remembering a time years ago when I, then 18, had gotten a job here the year my mom was laid off. 

"I could, but I don't have information.  I'll have to bring it back.  I'll do it at __________'s place."  Anna talked pretty fast as she hurried out. 

I did not want to push, but I would not drive away too quickly.  The anti-climax was almost expected.  I've often found that what you worry about is only a distraction that lingers until you get hit by something else entirely.

Was this going to be it?  I had talked to people about this job.  I took her to apply for an ID, which I picked up.  I talked to the church about helping her.  I took her for a shower.  I bought her toiletries and candles and pots that she asked for over the last few months.  I helped her reapply for disability and brought her my phone one morning to use for the scheduled phone call.

We got in the car and she began filling out the application on her own.

"I can't, because I don't have this information."  She gestured to job history.

"Just fill out what you can.  I can write a note."

On the way to the store she'd talked again about how she was ready to get out of the woods.  I told her that it must be scary.  She told me that she'd been raped so many times.  When the church was handing out toiletries, I noticed that she'd returned the toothpaste and brush. 

"I ain't got no use for that, because I don't have any teeth," she'd said.

From the front it seemed that she did.  And didn't she want to keep those?  I assumed that the drug use she'd admitted to had harmed her teeth, because I'd heard it could.  But on the way to the store, she told me that the man who attacked her had broken a lot of her teeth.

"He did it to other people, too.  He got thirty years," she said.

I thought of this as she looked down at the application.  Surely, surely she thought she deserved to be out of the woods.  I noticed that she was staring down, not moving.  Job history was blank.  She looked up, silent for once.  She had tears in her eyes.

Gently, I took it from her.  "I'll write a note," I said.  "We can fill it in later."

Where did her mind go when she saw the words 'job history?'  Did she think of how she had been used so long in so many ways?  Did she think of carefully saving rainwater to wash clothes that no one else wanted?  The times she'd eaten from the garbage?

Survival was her job history.

So I wrote a note, dropping the church administrator's name and phone number for the owner to see.

I took Anna back to get her bike.  She was back to her blustery self.  She was going to ride back to her tent.  She was a bit indignant about the distance.

That night, when I let my animals in on the porch, I thought of her in the cold.  She was within walking distance from the shelter that lets people sleep on the floor during a freeze, but she claimed that the last time she did that, she got pneumonia from being packed in there.  I began to worry.  I called the shelter, almost sure that they would recognize her name, to ask if she was there, but they said that they couldn't give out that information.

She can take care of herself, one part of me thought. 

How can you let her stay out there? said the other.

My brother and mother don't know her and would feel strange about her being here, I told myself.  How well do I really know her?  Surely she is at the shelter, not freezing somewhere.

The irony is that if you have a friend who is about to lose their house, you are much more likely to take them in than if you meet someone already homeless. Something about the word carries such a stigma, as if you know but don't want to know where they might have been.

Finally, I let it go.  I sit here right now, and I am not even thinking about Anna.  I am not wondering about her skinny cats who lay on her for warmth.  I can't even remember that another church member told me that when a collection was being taken up for a needy family, Anna dropped $20 of her buffet money in.

After I prayed for her, she thanked me for being a friend.  Yes.  That's what I am, sitting here in a central heat and air house that I inherited.  It's hard work, but this is what you do for a homeless friend.


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Delia, you've done way more than most. I really, really hope she gets that job.

Thinking of you both.
This is one of the best posts I've read in OS for weeks. Months more like.

"Where did her mind go when she saw the words 'job history?' Did she think of how she had been used so long in so many ways? Did she think of carefully saving rainwater to wash clothes that no one else wanted? The times she'd eaten from the garbage?

Survival was her job history."

You're beautiful for being that woman's friend. I'm hoping for the best for her.
Thank you both so much.
Oh, Delia, what you are doing for this friend is just moving. Life is so terribly hard and painful for so many people; I do hope Anna can get ahead at least a bit. And you are a great, beautiful girl.
You have extended your hand in friendship accented with empathy. From what you write, it seems that Anna has many issues beyond homelessness. Her situation saddens me as does all of those who have no real shelter from the cold and frigid winds of life. I wish Anna well; I admire your compassion.
My optimistic vision is that everyone in the United States would take in a homeless/displaced/needy person or family if they have room in their homes and make a difference in the lives of others, but the reality doesn't work that way. I myself have taken in a homeless person with disastrous consequences.
What a wonderful post!! Thank you for being and thank you for praying.
I am praying with you, for her and for you.
It's hard to keep enough distance not to scare them and enough ground to keep them going. Good job balancing.
You are a wonderful, compassionate person, who cares about others. You have taken extra steps to help her get her life back together. That is really all you can do.
It is very sad to even think about the homeless. Then to think that at any given time one of here on OS, could be where they are right now. Too many Americans are losing everything they have, and ending up on the streets. I think the numbers will increase, sad fact that it is. So now we have to keep in mind that not all homeless people are alcoholic and drug uses, they just be someone/ family who lost everything because of the economy..
I think you have done plenty and more then most people would have done. You can only do so much, and then that person has to take control of their lives and keep it together.
You are a very wonderful, sweet lady... Bless you!!
Very highly rated. Thank you DeliaBlack.
I think your amazing and caring and that, for now, you have done all you can. You ask a very hard question to answer. I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. It has to be case by case. You just don't know. GREAT post!
I appreciate all your support. I struggled with whether I should write this or not. I realize more and more that I have so much to be thankful for. It is hard to know what to do for someone who has lost so much.
This is a powerful, painful read but it's the least we can do considering all you've done. Your karma bank is getting fuller by the minute.
Tears in my eyes. Life isn't easy. Helping isn't always easy.

(Rated for raw reality)
Do we know what to do? And when we do know do we do it? I think often we have expectations of the homeless or other people down on their luck that are unrealistic. We have a coldness toward people, wanting to hold them totally responsible for their condition, wanting to find them unworthy of our concern, our compassion, our time or our money. If we believe that someone is totally responsible for their troubles we assume that the troubles will not befall us, for surely we behave in responsible ways that will shield us from calamity. Only, it's not true. Yes there are things that people do which might speed along the process. Yes, some people are drug-addicted or mentally ill. Yes, some people are unmotivated, or...whatever. The excuses go on and on.

I wish I had the answers. I can only say that I'm glad that someone took me in when I was homeless. I will never forget it. I am forever grateful to them and count them among my closest friends, although they didn't even know me at the time. What you are doing for Anna are the acts of friendship. These acts are love.
So many of us know what we should do for others in life. We are not on this planet to simply pass time and fulfill all of our own needs.
We are called to lift one another up.
We are called to make a real difference in as many lives as we can.

It is not easy. It can be scary. But once you move past the point of worrying about yourself and place others first, you've made it Delia.

There is no way now of knowing where this women will end up, but know in your own heart and mind that you add value to the human race every time you demonstrate these acts of love.
In a way, your acts "en-noble" all of us.
Loved the sharing. rated
You are providing grand assistance to one who needs help. Post Katrina I took in 3 friends of my son who were all homless. Feel strong about what you're doing. I for one am proud of you indeed.

Whts a soup kitchen? Is it like the Sikh Langar at the Gurudwara? I havent been here in a long time, was going away when I noticed your post title - love this. Can we also publish this story to our WERL blog? In case we can't, it would be lovely if you consent to guest write there too for other women that have access there and not here. Wish you a great and satisfying year ahead. Missed you Delia Black. Stay well.
First, you are a fine and kind soul.

On a side note:

Having poor and homeless people only shows how civilized we are. If I may, and with all due respect, soup kitchens are viciously humiliating to the poor, I really do believe that some of the good people who "help" in these kitchens, enjoy watching the misery of these poor people standing in line for food. There is one way to help the poor: Give them cash--from the government or rich Christians--just hand out effing cash. I am sorry, stuff like this makes me lose it.

You have done a beautiful and kind deed.
Endearing and emotional post, rated.
Oh, Delia, this is so achingly sad that it makes me cry. You are such a good person and you have suffered so much. But anna...I can't even bear to think of what she has suffered. Thank you for being such a good, kind person and helping others when it is far from easy.
You are a good and kind person. Saying prayers for both you and Anna.
This is the type of post that keeps me coming back here. Beautifully written. I know these stories; I loved the clerk who waved you guys on; the $20 in the collection plate. Son-of-gun, why is there so much suffering? For some, I call them the humanity haters this woman is not even real. She is lazy or a scrounger defrauding the system not a person who got behind the 8-ball. This is sickening. I share your concern and your wonder at what to do. I could write for hours on this. I hear you Delia, I hear you loud and clear. Keep trying.
If only the people who make the big money in Washington would put their time and energies in such a definite direction as you had, with such dedication to solving this one particularly devastating problem, we would all be so much better off. I admire you so much, Delia.

This is heartbreaking, poor Anna. Years ago I watched a documentary on PBS about squatters, who I thought of as bad boys, (a good thing for me) but they were taking matters into their own hands, not letting people sleep on the streets. Then about 5 years later, I saw another documentary about a housing program in some big city, may have been NY, for people like Anna who for one reason or another--drug use, illness, poverty--were homeless, and they just got them cheap apartments and paid their rents, took them to Goodwill, set them up with the essentials and asked nothing from them. They didnt have to get clean from drugs or get jobs before they got these apartments, they just had to fill out some forms. After they got their apartments, everything else began to fall into place, seeing doctors, finding work, that kind of thing. That was years ago, though, before GWB. I am so sad when good ideas are just abandoned. Now when I take the train downtown (and it's cold here) I see squares of blankets and sleeping bags and homeless people living under this bridge in Portland, and I do not think I should complain about my apartment anymore.

You tried very hard, and it's not just the stigma of homelessness that keeps you from having her in your house, it's the fear of the unknown. Who does she know, what will she bring. We are all afraid of that.
Great post. There is such a fine line between being a sucker and a saint. I struggle with this constantly. I want to be this extremely good person but I don't want to end up murdered(at worst) and seen as a gullible fool at best. It sucks to be faced with this dillemma on such a grand scale i.e. should you let Anna live with you or not- where does charity end and self destructiveness begin etc.
There are no easy answers but life doesn't offer us that many chances to help others, in such a major way, and how you respond will undoubtably affect you for the rest of your life.
This is beautiful and tragic and--hopeful. You teach us all.
You are definitely walking the walk, Delia.

Anna's story is so typical of the complexity of homelessness. It is so much more than simply not having a place to live.

"Survival was her job history."

That sentence is devastatingly powerful.
The quandary is like the Dr. asked "do you want to be healed?" This doesn't work when someone like Anna may not even understand SHE's the one needing to be healed. The mental illnesses that lead people to where Anna's at is such a tricky issue.

It is heartbreaking, but you are doing all (and much more) anyone could do to help. And if all else fails, you have given Anna something priceless -- your respect. And you've also given all those who're helping you help her the opportunity to contribute.
You are reponsible for a disproportionate number of my all-time favorite OS posts. You are a writer like Woody Guthrie was a musician. You have something to say, questions to ask, feelings to share as you search for your role in this world. I am pleased that you consider your own safety in helping this person, and the safety and sanity of your loved ones. We don't need another martyr. Also keep in mind that whatever becomes of your friend, she goes forward knowing someone on this earth thought her life was worth saving. If that thought takes hold, and she believes it as much as you, and believes it is possible.... Humility and Grace are not intended to make us fat and happy. They are, in my view, tools by which we make ourselves useful. Thank you for this, my friend.
Thanks for this glimpse of the front lines Ms. Black. We love you for it.
This is a stunning piece, Delia. My heart aches that there are people like Anna, who, because of unfortunate choices and circumstances, are denied even the basic necessities. You are a good person. Please let us know what happens. Very highly rated with appreciation.
This is so sad. I would take in a friend who didn't have drug, alcohol or mental problems. For them, I would look into every agency possible. But even for the programs and for section 8 housing, they have to be clean and sober.
Thank you for the support. I am trying to help her with disability. She is on track to start getting food stamps again. I have told her that disability can take a year and is not certain, and she wants to work.
Beautiful post. You've got a heart of gold.

We (my brothers and I) let a homeless mother and son stay with us for a week. They had been living in their car. The son (age 7) peed in my bed and the mother didn't clean up after them. We had to kick them out after a week. We felt bad, but we had to.

I've let friends live with me when they were in between apartments and/or jobs. That was fine. But I will not let strangers live with me. It's not a good situation for anyone.
Thanks for telling Ana's story. She deserves that along with any prayers that her story might evoke from readers. We all need to be doing more. A charitable nature is the truest way to peace, I believe.

I know how you feel when you say that you feel so thankful when you are around someone without the most basic human necessities. I feel then, most alive. I feel then, most moved to respond because my "problems" are not real ones, only imagined because I've lost my perspective.

Thank-you for writing such an important post.
this hit home, i'll tell you.
thousands upon thousands of stories
like this across the Land o f the Rich and the Free...

Human debris, is all they are to most people.

The Churches MUST take a leading role in this.
What else are the fucking places for? Mollifying suburban
mommies and being a boring obligation for their harried hubbies?

Just announce, in a portentous voice,
that Jesus has come back ---somewhere in the, uh, Mid West---
and his first order is to help his children.
Delia, you've shown more compassion than a lot of people would. Having troubled strangers stay the night is risky at best, and she didn't ask for that, did she?

I can't help but think maybe someone from your church can donate a very good, thick sleeping bag? Or a comforter? There are probably ways to make the tent a better place for the time being.
Truly beautiful story, so full of thought, including the conflict, including the questions. That you are finding ways to take action is quite inspiring, Delia. And your writing does a fine job of painting the picture.
Definitely worthy of the Tiara Pick and more.
Thank you for this story--you're a good friend.
This was a gut punch of a read. My brain made the setting Biloxi because I lived there many years ago. I went back to the post Katrina Gulf Coast just last year. I can't imagine the trauma so many have experienced. I can only see in the detritus that they have crafted into a memorial in Biloxi an inkling of the loss. Yes, we give and try, and give some more, and sometimes the giving just feels like fanning air their way. And then we batten down our hatches of home and wonder how much more we can give. This post shows the whole of that struggle, very humanly and from a lovely heart. Thank you.
Thanks for this post, and for all you're doing.
Delia, One of the hardest things about what you're doing is figuring out what you can and can not do. You expressed those feelings--wondering, guilt, friendship, love--all together, one into the next. I have helped a friend and her children who became homeless. You are right, that's much easier to do. But I also used to run by the woods in the park and was shocked to see a couple of people living among the trees on a steep hill. So quiet and camouflaged, you'd never know. I hurried on.
Best of luck to you in your mission. These things you're doing are healing and inspirational. I hope that Anna will find and keep a home. But more than anything, your friendship and respect for her have provided a lot of shelter for her spirit.

This was beautifully and earnestly written as well.
You are doing what most of us avoid. It is so much easier do to what Sao Kay said and just run by. We have all done it... you are not.

Wonderful post and most deserving. Thank you for opening my eyes.
You have done so much and your post is lovely. Thank you!
I am glad she found you.
The call is tough. Your heart is big. One never knows the work at hand.
Delia, this is such a moving story of courage and compassion. More and more people are becoming homeless, as politicians speak about economic recovery. It is a such a problem and people do not want to think about this issue. That you take action is exceptional.

Thank you for directing me to this article. I am grateful.