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.
pic from nathansnews.com