January 02, 2009
Welcome 2009: A message from Persephone

D sent me a book for Christmas, called The Soloist, about a homeless man named Nathaniel who had once been an elite music student at Juilliard, but who had had a schizophrenic break and was living rough, like many of the homeless, out of a shopping cart, and sleeping in parks with occasional meals and showers at shelters. The book was written by a Los Angeles Times journalist named Steve Lopez who got to know Nathaniel, tried to help him and ended up doing so, but not as much as he wanted or in the way he wanted. In the process Lopez's life is also transformed.

It's a good book with many layers, not the least of which is the impact of a personal view into the world of homelessness, Skid Row, and the walking wounded, the mentally ill -- a world most people deny. The description of reality among the homeless is particularly humbling. Set in LA, it's shocking to really consider that Skid Row is only a short distance from Beverly Hills and Bel Air. For all the wealth so close, the squalor and conditions the homeless live in are outrageous.

So this book has been part of my entry into 2009. And today, who knows why, I had an unusual encounter myself.

I was walking down the main street of my town at about 5:00 pm, returning to my apartment from the Post Office. In front of the Christian bookstore a woman stopped me and asked for help. She had a fairly nice jacket on, and a handbag, but it was clear she was cold. She was very sweet and respectful; in fact, she was very clear-minded and articulate. But she asked me about food and shelter. She said she was down to her last $11. She had stayed in a nearby motel for $53 the night before and didn't have a car. She had lost her place about two weeks ago and had been staying at various motels and taking buses around to different agencies, trying to find shelter. No one had been able to help. The regular shelters are all full or overflowing, and programs like St. Vincent de Paul had been unable to help because she didn't fit into a program category -- she wasn't a veteran, disabled, battered, mentally ill, and she didn't have a family. She had been working as a purchasing agent for a Federally funded Jobs Corps program, but cutbacks had left her unemployed. I didn't get too many more details -- the critical thing was that it was Friday evening, cold and getting dark, and the places she could get help from were all closing for the weekend. She was at the Christian bookstore hoping they would know something about churches which might shelter people -- but they couldn't help. (good Christians!) So there she was, and she reached out to me. Her name was Cora.

I had made a deal with myself awhile back that if anyone asked I would give something (ask and ye shall receive). But obviously just giving her a dollar or two and moving on wasn't right. While she was talking I kept thinking about how outrageous it is that more public help isn't available for the growing number of people who have become homeless due to the bad economic times. Plus the fact that she's a woman, and I am extremely sensitive to the fact that women are vulnerable to being raped out on the street, without a safe, warm place to sleep.

I didn't immediately offer anything tangible -- she hadn't actually asked for anything specific, just "help." My first thought was to bring her home with me, but I also knew I needed to keep a boundary on that. I am often too easy and open with people, I didn't really know her, and once you've taken someone into your space it's too difficult to get them to leave. I need my safe place also.

So I listened and tried to think up other options, other places for her to go and try, or places to simply be for the night. She told me how she also used to facilitate a CoDA group (for codependents) and talked of God, saying she had to have faith, but also asking for guidance -- Tell me what to do, Lord, where am I supposed to go?

Since she was a 12-stepper, I knew I could be honest. I told her to come back to my apartment building with me, that I could give her some bus tokens and some money, but that I wasn't comfortable with her coming into my apartment. She confirmed that she had no intention of coming into my space, but was just happy to get some help.

I have a bowlful of bus tokens, which I got with pre-tax commuter deductions before I started riding my bike. And I knew they would be useful for her because she could then get around without spending money. And the flexibility of movement would increase her options. So I went upstairs while she waited on the little bench in front of my building to get them.

I emptied nearly the whole bowl of tokens into a little pouch (there were a lot of them, maybe 50?), and added all the cash I had on me -- $46. Then I thought about food. My fridge is kinda empty at the moment, I wished I'd had some cheese, hard boiled eggs, or something dense with a lot of protein and calories. But what I was able to throw into a bag were two little soymilks and eight trailmix bars. At least they would keep her fed for a little while.

When I went downstairs, I gave her my offerings, a hug, and found myself crying. She was so grateful, but I wish I could have done more. I wish the circumstance didn't exist. And truthfully, there but for the grace of God go I.

I don't know how she'll spend my $46. Maybe she'll add it to her $11 and pay for another night in a motel, hoping to find new answers tomorrow. Or maybe she'll get a meal, then ride the bus to various 24-hour hangouts like Safeway or Denny's. But I wished her safekeeping and watched her go. She called me an angel, with the light of God on me, and said she would pray for me also.

Twelve step guidelines will tell you that this online confession is against the program. We are encouraged to do something good every day but tell no one, keeping it between God and ourselves so as not to get an ego boost from it. But this was a little bit bigger than what I am used to, and I don't feel better about myself at all. In fact I feel like shit because I couldn't do more. I'm also angry at this crazy modern life we lead, myself included, inside our various bubbles, concerned about the masses, but unconcerned about individuals up close and personal.

Usually my ability to take care of myself is a source of self-esteem. I live a simple life and am not interested in big houses, fine cars, a showy wardrobe, etc. I live modestly, pay my bills, save a little, and manage my affairs. Even so, it's not always easy. I don't floss enough, I don't exercise enough, I usually forget to take iron and calcium (I'm supposed to), and I sometimes also forget to take my medication for high blood pressure. I actually also don't take blood pressure readings as often as I'm supposed to, I tend to let my annual gyn exams and mammograms slide, I don't get haircuts until my hair is extremely raggedy, I don't take the time to cut my nails until it's an emergency, and my poor dry skin almost never gets moisturized. There are expired jars of dead sauces in my fridge, I rarely mop my floors, dust accumulates faster than I can bother to clear it away, and my plants often wilt and cry out for water (I don't kill them, I just make them beg...).

Self care isn't easy, but other than these items I like to think I do okay. Still I'm looking around at my little 600 square foot apartment now and so much seems frivolous. What about these antiques, and these two computers with wireless router, network storage, scanner, etc? What about these 4 bookcases with 800 books, and these drums? What about this yoga ball, this guitar, this air conditioner? Two bikes? A massage table? Nice dishes, nice glasses, a rice cooker?

The mood will pass I know. But Cora also brought with her a message. The shelters are overloaded already, and the people who work in them are reporting a continually increasing number of people asking for help. The need is expected to continue to rise dramatically and not go down anytime soon. So what to do?

Firstly, what am I going to do if I get laid off and can no longer afford rent? What's my plan?

And if I'm blessed enough to keep my job, how are we all going to cope with more and more people on the street, asking for help?

I am going to start inquiring about resources and how I can help or contribute next week, when 2009 really gets underway. I hope you will join me in making a plan for yourself -- and also a plan for how to deal with more and more needy people everywhere around.

Please say a prayer for Cora, an articulate, clear-minded ex-purchasing agent, cold on the streets this evening. By the way, I looked up the name Cora, it's a variant of Kore, daughter of Demeter, otherwise known as Persephone.

Hear the voice of Mama Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
. . .

Vinessa • 08:34 PM •

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