Saturday, December 12, 2009
Written December 2, 2009
“Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”
~~ Matthew 5:42
My friend, Gabriela, who owns a lovely cafe in my neighborhood, has a streamlined method of communicating with me about clothing she collects for our neighbors experiencing homelessness downtown, because she’s done this kind deed so often. Her e-mail says simply: “Hey there, I have some male and female clothing items – shall i take them to your house? pls advise.” They appear at my house shortly, and I put them in the trunk of my car.
Shopping at Target tonight, I walk out into a cold rain, and an impulse tells me that this is the night. Moving the clothes — two large bags — from my trunk into my front seat, I head to a place where I know people are sleeping outdoors under cardboard.
On my way, I drive through downtown, and the streets are whistle-clean of humans. That means every single person without a home has a bed tonight, doesn’t it? All six (or is it ten?) thousand of them? Or have they somehow magically been swept away?
I say the streets are clear of human beings, but on a St. Paul Street corner, I pass woman with a small child knocking on the door at Family Gateway. Since it is cold, dark and almost bedtime, I stop my car beside them. ‘Do you have a place inside the Center already reserved?’ I ask the young mother. ‘Yes, I have a room. I go to school at night. We just can’t get anybody to come to the door. We’ve been here quite a while.’ ‘Let me call someone,’ I tell her. ‘If you can’t get in, I’ll take you somewhere.’ I call my friend, Clare — who knows everything about helping people — to get a phone number for Crisis Intervention, realize I already have one, and just then, inside the glass door of the Center, a woman holding an infant opens the door for the mother and her little boy. Thank God for the place. Thank God when things work.
I drive to the encampment — a small gathering of cardboard-box houses — pull up and stop the car. I haven’t been here for a while — the camp looks very sparse: streamlined, as though it’s been cut down to its barest bare essentials. It’s quite dark — not a spark of a campfire on this cold wet night. I roll down my passenger window and ask the first woman who approaches if H. is there, a man whom I know I can trust. She says, ‘I’m Samarah. First I want to pray with you.’
I start to get out, but she says, ‘Just stay in the car,’ and takes my hand through the window, across the seat. She talks for a while, then asks for prayers about her alcoholism. I offer her some clothes. ‘Na, I’m all right,’ she says.
A second woman says, ‘I’m ___’s wife — I just got out of TDC.’ (Texas Department of Corrections) She shows me her nametag, as though I won’t believe her, and says ‘I don’t have anything. Do you have hygiene stuff or underwear?’ Yes, in one of the bags, I say, and wonder, not for the first time: what can be gained by releasing women from prison with absolutely nothing? Maybe we feel their lives need to be as streamlined as possible when they’re starting over.
H. walks up. He looks thinner, is in his sock feet. I greet him, embrace him, and hand him the bags of clothes. ‘You’ll share them out, right?’ I say to him, but he’s already ducking back inside their cardboard house with them in tow.
The wife looks into my car and asks, ‘What else do you have?’ I hand her some whole wheat bagels from my Target shopping. H. comes back out and I give him a bag of Christmas M&M Peanuts I got at Target. Now, THIS ONE THING feels sacrificial! Everything else is easy, but giving away my Christmas M&M Peanuts, a generous handful of which I was planning to eat in the car… that’s the TRUE measure of my love! Ah, well, maybe without them I’ll be more… streamlined.
Samarah introduces me to her boyfriend. In a streamlined repetition of a conversation we’ve had a number of times over years, I ask H.: ‘Has the City been here?’ ‘A few days ago,’ he replies briefly, ‘Wiped us out.’
I. Somehow. Don’t. Feel. That. Much. Because. Things. Don’t. Change. Do. They. Just. Numb. Can. I. Not. Work. Up. Any. Outrage?
My emotions seem to have become streamlined, too.
Then, later, reading at bedtime, I am visited by an at-first-unnamed sadness. Reflexively I think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Everything’s fine.’ But soon I realize the sorrow is a familiar one and has been there all night — it was just hiding, tucked down inside me, the same way I’m tucked into my cozy bed with my book, down comforter and quilt. I know then that I’m being visited there in my room by that ragged and rugged band of individuals who cling to a cold, hard, windswept stretch of sidewalk somewhere in Dallas, squeezed down to the barest minimum of space between a chain-link fence and a gutter — and who struggle to hold on to the LIFE and to the COMMUNITY they’ve created there.
We may not like their lives, the way they look, or how they conduct themselves. But.
IF we are going to raid and raid and raid and raid and attempt to shut down the camps, THEN we need to be able to offer Housing First in a form that their inhabitants can deal with.
I. Guess. I’ll. Just. Keep. Saying. It.
View Kim Horner’s latest Dallas Morning News article on housing for homeless individuals (one in an occasional series) here: