Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Over the doorstep

"Can I have my shoes back?"

It has been raining for a while now, a blessedly soft, warm rain, but a rain nonetheless, and the little man known on the street as Hobbit was soaked through.
"I don't have your shoes" I said, looking at his feet. One foot bare, one foot in socks that were well soaked with rainwater. He was shivering, his thin red hair plastered to his skull. I wondered where the new bruises on his face, beneath the startling heaven blue eyes, had come from.
"Did you have your shoes this morning?" He wasn't quite certain. I'd seen him at the post office earlier--one of the few places out of the rain, and asked him if maybe he'd left his shoes there.
"I can't be at the post office, " he said, as if he were repeating some lesson.

"Okay--but, maybe your shoes...?" I stopped. There are days I can't find my own shoes, but I sleep indoors, and when my shoes vanish it is because my youngest son has figured out that it is very funny to see mom looking all over the place for them. With Hobbit, well..."let me see if I can find you some other shoes, " I said, "what size you you think you wear?"

"Six" said he. He is a small man, smaller than I am, and I am not a very large person. He is thin, and walks with difficulty even on good days. He says he has a spinal injury, dating from when he was a child of seven.

Hobbit grew up in institutions. He never knew, he says, his family. He has been on the streets since he was 8 years old, when he ran away from a misnamed Home. He doesn't like to talk about that. My veteran friends say he actually did some army time, somehow getting past the height requirement. Must be true, because with their help he has gotten a little monetary help.

"Where did you sleep last night?" I asked him, as I rummaged through the box of shoes. "In the car" he said. No, I haven't any idea whose car that might have been; it could well have been our car, because sometimes he does that, and we were here overnight so that my partner could go north for a demonstration.

Yes, I gave Hobbit a tent a week or so ago, and another one when that one vanished. He finds it very hard to keep track of what he has.

We found a pair of shoes. Size 7, but they were rainproof, and fairly new, and good looking, and he thought maybe they'd work. I took off the one soaked sock and found some new ones. His nails were long and thick and gnarled, and I had a moment of wondering if maybe I should offer to cut them...but there is a delicate line between help and intrusion.

I helped him put on the socks, the shoes. We found a dry coat, some dry pants, some extra socks, a hat. He went back into the rain.

Is this an edifying tale? No, not really. And he has just drifted by the shop again, having lost his hat, lost his new coat. He still has shoes though, so we have a little success going.



I never set out to do street outreach. My partner and I didn't wake up one morning and say to each other "gee, look, people need stuff, and we should help". Like many things in my life it was a slow, insidious seduction, a gentle guidance.

Partly it was that our bookshop, which has been in a number of locations as buildings sold and landlords had other, more lucrative uses for the space, has somehow always ended up across the street from a church. People expect churches to be helpful to those in crisis. They'd go to the church, and knock on all the locked doors. And then they'd come across the street to our open, lighted, crowded bookshop and ask where they could go for help.

It wasn't long before we realized how little help there was--but also how little help, at one moment, was required. My partner always reminds me that Gandhi only dealt with what was on his doorstep. We have a kind of wide doorstep.

I still recall the first person who really opened my eyes. It used to be that people released from the maximum security prison up north were dropped off in my region upon their release. I never quite got the logic behind that, but so it was. We'd have some pretty rough guys, flinching from the unexpected freedom, uneasy, trying to be tough, trying to find their way home, wherever that was. Used to be we had buses running to and from our towns. They closed down some years ago.

But the guy in question, whose name was Wayne, came to the shop late one winter night from one of those drop offs. He was obviously very ill, his skin yellowed, his eyes glazed and feverish. He was hoping to catch a bus the next morning to..some city, I no longer recall where, where he thought his sister still lived. My partner Paul did the leg work to find him a motel room, and we managed to rustle up enough cash to pay for it, and got some dressings for the sores on his leg, and made sure he had some food. It wasn't much, but I knew we wouldn't be able to rest if we knew Wayne, sick as he was, was sleeping in some cold doorway. There have been many others since, and will be many others later. The reason I remember Wayne so well is that he made me cry.

As he was leaving with Paul to be settled in, I stopped him and said "hey, we never exactly introduced ourselves, I'm....." and I gave him my first name, and my hand to shake. He took my hand, and told me his name. And then he made me cry, because he said "I need to thank you. You are the first person to treat me like a human being in many, many years." It wasn't that we'd found him a room, or food, or any of that, he said. It was that I shook his hand.

I told my friend Brian, who has supplied so much this winter, that story the other day. He said, "Yeah, people don't realize that touch is so powerful, loving touch most of all."

It's the small things that matter--that's a lesson I keep learning. I can't make everything good, I can't heal every wound, I can't even shield Hobbit from the driving rain. But I can do a little, and a little at a time.

And I can listen. Over the past week somehow it was as if I was holding an open clinic. First Dylan's mom came in. He was in jail at the time, she said. I've been watching over him for a couple years--he is strung out, and wounded. His mom left town for a while because she couldn't deal with him; he may be bipolar, he may be any number of labelled things. On his good days he is very sweet, on his bad days he is raging, violent, and frightening to most. Usually I can talk with him, sometimes I can get food to him.

His mother said she couldn't talk with him, and she cried. And then she gave me the huge bag of warm hats. She'd spent Christmas weekend making hats. "I don't think I can help my son" she said "but if I help others, someone else will help him. That's what I hope."
Yes, she made me cry too. All the beautiful warm, washable hats are out around town now--blue and brown, forest green and kelly green, claret.

When she left Heather came in crying, because she is missing her children. She is very young, but has borne and left four babies. They are being cared for by her own parents, and maybe someday she will be with them once more. She told me a story of addiction and pain and abuse, of fear, of longing. I just listened, and listened some more. And her friend Tyler wanted to tell me some of his story too. He's known as Glass on the street, and has a beautiful fragility. He said he'd been on the street about 14 years, and I was startled. How old are you, I asked, and he said "24".
"But that means that..." I couldn't finish. I am always careful as I ask--I will listen, but to be too inquistive is to break trust. Tyler told me that in early January, the year he would turn 9, his family--his parents, his brother, his sister--died in a car accident in Oregon. He told me the details. He'd been sick that day, so they left him at home resting while they went out for a ride.

Stories like that make me want to question the universe: "Okay, what were you thinking then??" I take them into my heart. I hold them a moment, like little precious things. I try to let go of them. There was the child who had shot his father, who still has nightmares about that. There was Chris, who spent his last day with me listening to Mozart before being beaten to death outside my shop, late at night. Chris' last breaths sometimes haunt me, because...well, I thought how tired he was, that deep rough breathing--I didn't continue to where he slept at the post office loading dock. Yeah, I'd heard the rowdy kids that night. I didn't know. Had I taken three more steps I would surely have seen his injured head, I would have called for help. It haunts me--steps not taken.

But I remember how he loved the music we listened to, and how he talked of going back to his mom after his long prison term, and how he said of the candles on my table "they are like good spirits, so happy, glowing here"

They are all my children, dead, living, struggling. They find their way to me over our wide doorstep. I can only believe it is meant to be like this

8 Comments:

Anonymous marly said...

I like to think of you in that "warm, well-lighted place."

But that church over there . . . they ought to be linked up to you somehow! Living churches are really a body of people (the "body of Christ"), anyhow, and not the building where they find a home.

So many incomprehensible events turn out to be the actions of people, I think--when we question the wrongs of the "universe," so often it is the acts of men and women--a drunk driver, a human hatred, addiction, etc.

The world is a broken place, and it is good that some people discover a mission to pick up a few of the pieces. Like you, jarvenpa! Happy New Year.

7:18 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Dear marly, yes, you are right that this acts apparently of the universe are often human error...but still I do have moments of outrage. I figure the divine is okay with that, though.

And you are right about the churches. It is an odd thing; the pastors thereof have lived far from the town mostly. Sometimes we have made good contacts--and actually, at the Cistercian monastery not far from us the good monks (women) are openly lifting prayers for us. This is very heartening--it is a monastery much beloved by Thomas Merton, who used to come as a guest, and who thought of creating a man's order not far away.
For a time we had lunches at the church across the way from the location where Wayne met us, and got new kitchen equipment for the church. Alas, the elders claimed the people we served were not sad enough (true!) and that they were wearing the piano out by playing joyful songs. It was a sorrowful year. One of the good women of that church has come round and is meeting with us in search of trying something new.
Little lights everywhere. And indeed we are all linked.
Happy new year to you!

12:41 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Well, they made me cry too.
Dang.

Blessings on you, and on us all who try to repair the broken bits in whatever ways we can and do.

(I sometime wonder if the angels laugh about that product name, "Crazy Glue.")

4:24 AM, January 05, 2007  
Blogger David said...

Happy New Year Jarvenpa! :)

Just out of curiousity, does your town or county have some sort of homeless shelter? From your stories, it seems that there are a lot of people in need of social services. I suppose that Indianapolis has a sizeable population of homeless people, but I never see nor hear about them. I know that there are some shelters downtown, though. As cold as it gets in the winter here, they are really a necessity on some nights!

You have touched on the reality that many homeless people also suffer from some significant mental illnesses. Up to the 1970's most of the severely mentally ill who had no money or family to care for them were placed in state run institutions. I happen to know a lot about that from my study of psychology and also because my mother was a medical administrator at the state facility in Alabama. In the early '70's there was a federal lawsuit in Alabama filed on behalf of the state's institutionalized mentally ill population. At that time the state facility was very overcrowded. I think that it housed about 5000 people at that time. The patients were more like warehoused prisoners than patients. Livings conditions were really bad. The lawsuit was successful in Alabama and it became a model for other state facilities nationwide. The result was that the mentally ill patients won a lot more rights than they previously had. In theory, this was a good thing. It became much more difficult to have someone committed against their will to a mental institution. However, in practice, a lot of mentally ill people ended up on the streets with little or no social programs to help them. The old system was bad, but I think in some ways the current system may be even worse. I think that some states are doing a better job of caring for their mentally ill residents with community based residential and treatment centers. As far as I know, all seriously mentally ill people are entitled to federal disability and medical treatment. However, these programs are very poorly administered in some states. Also, a person needs to hire a disability lawyer before benefits can be awarded. Some people are just to ill to be able to access the system. Well, I am sure that you know the score. This is just an issue that I have thought a lot about over the years.

10:19 PM, January 05, 2007  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Thank you Lori, for all. I love the Crazy Glue image indeed.
You are right David, a lot of the misery on the streets dates to when there was an attempt to reform care for the mentally challenged. The reform had two stages: release, and then the creation of community centered care. There were no funds, or follow up, for the creation of that envisioned system of community centered care, so many slipped, and are slipping, through the cracks.
In rural areas like my own there are no shelters, and there is perhaps a larger percentage of people in dire need. My local veteran's group just called and said, however, that they have been moved to open the Veteran's Hall in the next town over (2 miles away, not far) tomorrow night as an emergency shelter, in light of the cold wet weather. This is temporary only, but will help some.
However, young Tyler just asked me if his dog would be welcome--and I fear she will not be. He would rather stay out than know she was out alone. I told him to go over anyway, because I know there will be a hot meal, and at least he can have a little time indoors and warm.
My friend the Hobbit is once again in the hospital; nurses tell me this time he may not come out alive. Nonetheless I just washed all his bags and blankets, brought down by a friend much against my dear partner's wishes--he thought I should just throw them out. It is true they were very unpleasant--but it is miraculous what hot water and soap will do: nice fluffy clean bedding once more.
If only we could make our spirits that easily clean and shiny and useful!

8:22 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger David said...

Jarvenpa, I will wish along with you that your friend Hobbit recovers. I think that your washing of his blankets was a life affirming gesture, something of a prayer through action that he will find you once again. May it be so.

10:28 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

well there is no questioning the universe for what it likes to do ;-) I guess we all just have to cope & accept the way it turns.

Happy nu year dear Jarvenpa. I wish U the best to come in this nu year.

I am sorry but I have tagged you ;-)

10:59 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger graceonline said...

Jarvenpa, you are an amazing human being. I give gratitude once again for your life, for your willingness to get dirty, for your story-telling skill and your courage to tell the stories, for your compassion, for your heart so big. Most of all, I am thankful that you did not die those three times you tried. May you know more joy than sorrow.

12:38 PM, January 14, 2007  

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