The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

The Soloist: Friendship and Freedom of Choice August 16, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

 

The Soloist:  Friendship and Freedom of Choice

 

“Let your good deeds be like drops of water into the ocean, which then disappear.” 

 

If you have not seen The Soloist, I hope you will.  A friend who has worked among people on the street for over a decade highly recommended it, saying it changed her view of things.  “I’ve been trying to make them like me,” she told me, “but that’s wrong.”

 

I’ve just watched it, and it utterly reinforced one of the most challenging conclusions I’ve come to in knowing and caring about some of the people who are ‘chronically homeless’ in Dallas over the last six years:  one cannot have an ‘agenda’ for people who are experiencing homelessness.  And not having an agenda — yet still knowing them, loving them, being somewhat involved in their lives and trying to be of assistance to them in resolving critical, and sometimes urgent, issues in their lives — that is a very fine line to walk.

 

This past week, someone that I know, care about, and stay in touch with who lives outdoors under a bridge — we’ll call her Mary — became seriously ill.  I’ve become increasingly close friends with this woman and her husband this year and see them from time to time.  She didn’t call me until last Monday night, when the critical part of her illness, which had lasted several days, had passed.  Fortunately, they’d had the money for a motel room for three nights when she was sickest — wracked with pain, drenched in sweat, up all night trying to get her fever down with Tylenol with cold baths.  “We thought I was going to die Saturday night,” she confessed.  “We were really scared.”

 

By the time she phoned me Monday, she had improved but was still in a considerable pain, and they were back in their outdoor camp.  She thought she could make it through the upcoming night, but asked if I would be available to take her to the emergency room the next day if the pain became intolerable again, because her husband had to work, and, of course, they have no transport, their lone bicycle having been stolen a few months back shortly after they acquired it.  I said I would.  I offered them money for a motel room that night, but they declined.

 

The next morning, I got busy trying to find out what emergency medical services are available for homeless individuals besides the ER — information I felt I should have known but didn’t.  I called and e-mailed friends who are staff members at The Stewpot and an acquaintance who’s a caseworker at The Bridge and learned the following: 

~~ Parkland Hospital has a mobile medical unit (‘HOMES: Homeless Outreach Medical Services) which is at The Stewpot on Wednesdays and every other Monday.

~~ Parkland also runs a medical clinic at The Bridge each weekday.

~~ The Stewpot has a medical clinic in-house on Fridays.

~~ If one calls the City’s Crisis Intervention Team, there’s now a streamlined procedure set up to process a person with the medical emergency at The Bridge quickly, short-circuiting any expected wait in line which might occur.  But this would only be an option, for me at least, if the friend who is homeless agreed to it, and they are often unwilling to involve city government in their situation for fear of being ticketed.

 

When I was unable to get in touch with Mary by phone all that day, I drove to their camp in the late afternoon, armed with cranberry juice for a kidney infection she thought she had, a bag of ice to combat the heat, and dog biscuits for their dog.  I was shocked at how much thinner she’d become, noticeable just in the few weeks since I’d last seen her.  She’d never had cranberry juice before, but loved it, and we made plans to go together the next morning to the Parkland Mobile Unit at The Stewpot.  This time when I offered to loan her and her husband the money for a night out of the heat in the motel, she accepted.

 

The next morning when I drove up to the camp, she came walking down to the car and got in.  I handed her the breakfast I’d brought her to eat on the way and another bottle of cranberry juice, but now, suddenly, she was hedging about going to the Parkland Mobile Medical Unit.  She was really feeling OK and was no longer in pain, she said, and she looked better.  But I urged her to let me take her to the clinic anyway.  I knew that she has only one kidney with functions fully, and I so much wanted her to avoid another crisis.  As we sat in the air conditioning of the car and the morning outside heated up, I tried again to persuade her to go see the doctor.  I knew she’d be back out in that August Texas heat all day, barely recovered from her illness.  “Shouldn’t we just get you checked out, get you in the system for Parkland?  Then, if you have another crisis or if you need medicine for your kidneys, that will speed the process up for you when you go in.”  But she didn’t want to go — it was as simple as that.  I could see that she was grateful for my help but that she wanted me to support her decision.

 

And then…  there was a moment…  believe it or not, that I almost drove away with her in the car.  I had been worried about her, on edge for two days;  I had put things on hold to help her deal with her medical crisis;  I’d canceled other plans I’d had for that morning in order to drive her downtown.  I.  I.  I.  

 

I argued with myself silently, and the inner monologue was pretty simple, going something like this:  “Are you insane?  This is a grown woman with children and grandchildren!  OF COURSE YOU MAY NOT take her to the medical van at The Stewpot if she doesn’t want to go.”  End of monologue.  I hugged her goodbye, and, bag of breakfast and cranberry juice in hand, she climbed the hill back up to their camp.

 

I know better than that ‘friend-napping’ impulse implies, and it surprised me about myself.  It was my choice to try to help Mary when she was ill.  It was her choice, then, to say, “I’m OK now.”  Would I have had the same impulse with a friend who is housed and lives in the suburbs to drive away with him or her in the car?

 

We cannot have an agenda for those people to whom we want to offer assistance.  Suddenly, in that moment in the car when I had a momentary impulse to drive Mary to the Parkland Mobile Unit to get the medical care I thought she needed, I seem to have flown into maternal — or maternalistic — mode.  I remind myself that the life Mary is living requires strengths, skills, nerve and wisdom which I myself don’t possess.

 

There are very to-the-point discussions in The Soloist about just this sort of issue.  Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) tries to get a shelter director to force homeless cellist Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) into psychiatric care, medication and housing.

 

Lopez:  “I want you to help him, because he’s sick and he needs medication and you have a team of doctors here.  Tell him to sit down with them.  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

Shelter Director:  “Nathaniel’s made it quite clear he’s not ready to speak to a psychiatrist.”

“Force him…”

“That’s not what we do here…   Look, even if I did want to coerce Nathaniel into psychiatry… which I don’t, I couldn’t force him to take medication.  The law’s the law.  Unless he’s an imminent danger to himself or someone else…”


Later, Lopez’s ex-wife wisely tells him, “You’re never gonna’ cure Nathaniel.  Just be his friend and show up.”

 

I think The Soloist gets it very right.  We can’t fix people, nor is it our job to do so.  We can love them and do our best to offer them opportunities that we hope will make their lives better — if we so choose.  And they, as sacred human beings in their own right, have every right to accept or decline our offers of assistance.

 

And then there’s this optimistic bit of science at the movie’s end which one may view as a form of Grace, when Steve Lopez says of his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers:  


“There are people who tell me I’ve helped him — mental health experts who say that the simple act of being someone’s friend can change his brain chemistry, improve his functioning in the world.  I can’t speak for Mr. Ayers in that regard.  Maybe our friendship has helped him, but maybe not.  I can however speak for myself.  I can tell you that by witnessing Mr. Ayers’ courage, his humility, his faith in the power of his art, I’ve learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in, holding onto it, and, above all else, of believing, without question, that it will carry you home.”

 

Karen Shafer


 

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The Magic of Gardens April 2, 2009

 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

 

The Magic of Gardens

(Someone, Please Steal This Idea!)

 

I love to garden in the winter, and in our North Texas climate, that is probably a good thing.  One has to get an early start on the Texas heat, and it’s always tricky striking a balance between getting a jump on the drought and blistering sun with plants that are liable to bolt, and trying to ‘cheat’ our freeze date of March 17 by planting tender things like potatoes early — then remembering to cover them if we get a late freeze.  There was one year when my kids were little — by the first of April, I had a burgeoning garden over which I was blissfully prideful, only to watch a late freeze take it down in mid-April!

 

This year, my son-law-law and grandson beat me to the punch.  They had their onions in by mid-February, and now theirs are way ahead of mine.  Still, by the second week in March, I could see the beginnings in my small vegetable patch of sugar-pod peas, carrots, Swiss chard, onions, tomatoes inter planted with nasturtiums, Italian parsley, radishes and bibb lettuce — all planted with the help of my three grandchildren.  And in the perennial bed, lavender, rosemary, lamb’s ear, echinacea, artemisia and perennial marigold had over-wintered successfully and were leafing out.

 

Then my granddaughter found some potato plants growing out of small pieces of potato skin in the compost pile, and she pulled them out.  One already had teensy baby potatoes growing on the roots, not an eighth of an inch long.  She and I were pretty thrilled with this discovery and stuck the plants into the dirt at the end of the veggie patch.  Four out of five are still going strong!  

 

Today, she and I found a cloves of garlic sprouting in a basket in the kitchen, took them outside and stuck them in the ground.  Later, we were thinning the lettuce plants, and she asked, “Do we take these and put them somewhere else?”  “We can eat them if we want to, since we didn’t have salad for dinner.”  Her eyes widened with tremendous excitement after a lifetime of being told she absolutely could not eat plants she picked up in her nature studies!  We were washing dirt off lettuce sprouts and popping them in our mouths for the next half hour.

 

And what of my rather fatal tendency to research seed catalogs in the dead of winter, make detailed lists, shop for seeds, plan, diagram, plant, and chart a garden fervently in late winter / early spring, set up elaborate systems of hose hookups for watering…  then get busy with other things and skip the rather vital part of actually doing the watering for several days at a time in a climate where three days without water is a death knell to many plants?  Hallelujah!  My grand kids as almost-first-graders are responsible enough now to head straight out to the garden, grab the hose, and give things a good soaking themselves.

 

When my girls were small, Steve, their dad (an expert gardener who puts me in the shade) kept a really marvelous and large organic garden.  We literally had three or four varieties of fresh vegetables for dinner most nights during peak season.  One mild winter day, my daughters and I went out to sit in the garden plot and ‘watch nature.’  All the vegetables from the previous fall had long been harvested and consumed.  Then one of us noticed some carroty-looking sprouts coming out of the ground and pulled them up.  There were several sweet, cold carrots that had managed to winter over!  We wiped the dirt off and ate them on the spot.  My girls are twenty-eight and thirty-one now, and we still talk about that day and how good those carrots tasted.

 

These days, as soon in the afternoon as I get a chance, I head out to the garden.  It is such a tonic.  There is something healing about being there that helps me leave everything behind — something that goes beyond words.  

 

Recently, while I was out there deadheading winter growth off of some perennials, I began to think of the healing effects of being in the garden, ‘watching the lettuce grow,’ and I thought how great it would be for people in homeless shelters to be able to plant and manage a community garden, while they are in the process of transitioning from the street into housing.  My fantasy spun off into all the elements required to grow strong plants:  getting the proper soil balance and consistency, providing the right combination of water and sun to help a particular plant thrive, finding a healthy harmony between management and ‘letting things be’ — just like the right balance of elements for a happy and successful human life.  Gardening seems to be art as well as science.

 

I thought of the sheer magic of sticking a seed into the ground and seeing it transform itself into a flower, herb or vegetable that can be enjoyed for its beauty or brought to the dinner table (or eaten on the spot, like my girls and their carrots, and mine and my granddaughter’s lettuce sprouts!)  I thought of how people in shelter settings could learn to work together — and of how the healing power of being in a garden would facilitate that. 

 

Then I pictured a stall at the Farmer’s Market in downtown, where the good people of Dallas were lined up to support formerly homeless individuals who had grown prize-winning organic produce and were offering it for sale.  All of the things that had gotten them to that point with a garden would be part and parcel of a skill set that could help them toward self-sufficiency in their lives:  cooperation, organization, planning and executing a project, seeing it through to completion, a bit of ‘prayer and magic’ for an auspicious result, and earning some cash off it all to boot.

 

The idea is something that’s beyond my purview to organize and pull off right now.  But I wish someone would steal it and run with it — maybe someone at the Bridge or other shelter facility or non-profit agency downtown.  If it happens, I’ll come and help with the weeding, and I’ll be the first in line at the Farmer’s Market stall, cash in hand!

 

KS

 

Hot Off the Presses! DMN’S Kim Horner & Courtney Perry March 28, 2009

 

Saturday, March 28, 2009

 

Hot Off the Presses!

Kim Horner and Courtney Perry of the Dallas Morning News 

on Homelessness in Dallas

 

A friend just brought me the early edition of the Dallas Morning News for Sunday, March 28, 2009, which he knew I’d want right away.  Front and center on page 1A is the first in a series of articles by Kim Horner, with photographs by Courtney Perry, on homelessness in Dallas, with an emphasis on the ‘chronically homeless.’

 

In reading the article, I was impressed by Kim’s sensitive and comprehensive grasp of this very complicated and heart-rending issue.  I learned a great deal that I didn’t know about aspects of the problem that I never see.  I think this first installment is excellent and goes beyond anything I’ve previously read on the subject here in Dallas.  As usual, Kim is balanced and non-polemical while, I believe, laying out the complex challenges involved in addressing the problems covered.

 

Courtney’s photographs are excellent and show us that she’s been places in the city that few of us will ever go, not surprising for this intrepid photographer.  

 

Kim and Courtney have really done their homework for this series of articles.   I look forward to future installments.  I’m thinking ‘Pulitzer.’  What do you think?

 

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/032909dnmethomeless.34d3691.html

 

By the way, SoupMobile gets a mention in the section, ‘Reaching out to the homeless:  Other social services’.  Well deserved!

 

KS

 

 

Trust March 9, 2009

 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Trust

 

When we have solved the problem of homelessness in Dallas, we will know it.  We will not need to ticket, arrest and harass homeless people for being on the streets of our town in order to get them out of sight.  They won’t need to be on the street, because they will have access to housing, social programs, and jobs which pay a living wage.  

 

Our programs serving the homeless will not be averse to criticism, because they will be good, fair, evenhanded and effective.  They will work, and, if they do not work, we will listen to those who ‘know how to,’ and we will change them. Therefore, they will be funded.  

 

Take the example of the Stewpot.  When the Stewpot puts out an appeal, people generously respond.  Why?  Because this is an organization which has credibility, viability, integrity and staying power.  Rules are rules, and the homeless clients they serve know this;  the rules are for everyone, and they don’t change every day.  A client may or may not believe that a rule is fair; nonetheless, trust is built with the organization because those living in the perilous and shifting sands that street life offers know what to expect at the Stewpot, day in and day out.  Donors have the confidence that their donations, in-kind and monetary, will be directed efficiently to the targeted population.  There is a strong, trusted, and experienced leader at the Stewpot [Rev. Bruce Buchanan], and there is accountability among the staff to him. 

 

Clarity.  Consistency.  Transparency.

 

Here is a conversation I had with an intelligent and well-educated ‘chronically homeless’ individual recently in response to my question, “Do you use the [homeless assistance center and shelter system]?”

 

“I tried it for a while, but I gave up.  If I want craziness, I can get it out here [on the street].  I don’t have to go there to get it.  They want me to give up whatever drugs I might want to use, but then they want to put me on their [prescription] drugs in order to sedate me into being a person who can fit into their way of doing things and be compliant.”

 

I am not an advocate of ‘recreational’ drugs — don’t use them or champion their legalization.  I think they are almost wholly destructive.  But this point of view makes sense from a certain perspective.

 

What is the element that is missing between this homeless individual and the organizations built to facilitate her or his getting off the street?  Trust.  I’m not sure I would trust the system much either if I were in his or her position, and I understand the viewpoint even from the privileged perspective of being a property owner and a taxpayer [although, as we are seeing, even these privileges are quite tenuous in uncertain times.] 

 

But when one is utterly powerless and living on the street, it is not likely that one will give up the little power and comfort one has in order to put oneself in the hands of authorities which are perceived to be unreliable, unpredictable and whimsical in their exercise of power, at best.  Not one of us would choose that, would we?  Is it a character flaw to choose independent living, rough as it is, over the perception of a dangerous surrender?  We have squandered an opportunity to win the trust of some chronically homeless individuals in recent months, and I hope it can be rebuilt.

 

“If I want craziness, I can get it out here.  I don’t have to go there to get it.”  A concise and eloquent statement.

 

When we have solved the problem of homelessness in Dallas, we will know it.  There won’t be hundreds to thousands of homeless individuals living in the woods, hiding from Dallas authorities.  We won’t have to dissemble, harass, prosecute, and hound people into shelters and treatment.  Our programs will be open to constructive criticism, and our responses to the same will be forthcoming, measured and rational.

 

As my friend, David Timothy, says of his organization, the SoupMobile:  “I don’t want us to just look good.  I want us to be good.”

 

That is a goal worth striving for, and it is the only one that will succeed.

 

http://www.thestewpot.org/

http://www.soupmobile.org/

 

Karen Shafer

 

Link on Pegasus News:  

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2009/mar/10/dallas-homeless-organization-need-develop-trust/

Link on Dallas Homeless Network:

http://dallashomelessnetwork.blogspot.com/

 

Homeward Bound March 3, 2009

 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

 

Homeward Bound

 

I just got back a couple of hours ago from going with my friend, Soupman (David Timothy), to visit our good friend, Samuel, who lives in a cardboard house.  Tonight, Samuel seemed discouraged.  The police come by every Thursday or Friday and ticket him for ‘sleeping in public’ or ‘littering’, even though there’s no trash around his house whatsoever —  he takes pride in keeping it tidy.  He can work the tickets off in community service, go to Community Court, but the bigger question here is “What is the point of the ticketing?”  Samuel and those in his situation have nowhere to go.

 

People are trying to survive, to work, to live, to get themselves out of the hole they’re in.  Is there any possible way in which constantly being ticketed and warranted and sometimes arrested furthers their efforts to lift themselves up?

 

We are a long, long way from having affordable housing for the 6000 + homeless people in Dallas (a conservative estimate — many think it’s almost double that number.)  We’re also a long way from having enough shelter beds for everyone, or from fulfilling the promise publically made when the Bridge was in the planning stages that it would accommodate the ‘shelter-resistant’ homeless by providing a safe place for them to camp within the homeless assistance center campus.

 

After visiting Samuel, we moved on to visit some other friends who live outdoors.  “How many people are hiding out around here?” I asked James.  “Around 2000,” he responded.  “What??”  I said, incredulous.  “That’s a conservative estimate,” he replied, and his neighbors around us agreed.  James is extremely intelligent:  college educated, ex-military, well-spoken.  I love talking to him.  He’s also reliable in the street sense, and I trust the information he gives me.

 

Earlier, I had sat on the bumper of the truck near Samuel’s house, and he’d knelt by my knee.  We talked for a long time while David did all the heavy lifting of giving out coats and blankets to people who showed up.  “I know I’ve been saying this for a long time,” he told me, “but I’m sick of this.  I want to get out of here.  One of these days you’re going to come down here to get me and say to me, ‘Samuel, let’s go,’ and I’ll just leave.’”  We looked at each other steadily through the darkness, as I scanned my mind for ‘housing first’ initiatives for which he would qualify and came up short.  “Where would we be going?”  I asked him.  I was really hoping he had an answer, because I don’t.  We just kept looking at each other for a long time, saying nothing.

 

Both Samuel and James would be good candidates for ‘housing first,’ as both are independent and have a strong work ethic but have lost faith with the current system in place to help them.

 

Samuel, David and I put our arms around each other before we left, and I felt honored to be chosen to say a prayer. As David and I climbed aboard the van, Samuel said something about heaven, and then he said something I’ll always remember:  “We’re not homeless;  we’re homeward bound.”

 

KS

 

Arrested & Jailed: Sherry Parker, Poet January 28, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

 

Arrested & Jailed

 

Three days after the Bridge closed its courtyard for sleeping and the subsequent police sweeps began, Sherry Parker and her boyfriend, Sarge, were arrested for ‘criminal trespass’, which in this case meant sleeping in public on private property, and spent ten days in jail.  I had heard about this through the ‘grapevine’ when I went looking for them in early December and couldn’t find them.

 

The police report of their arrest says they were ‘warned.’  They say not.  Sherry had a clean record;  Sarge had just worked off some tickets through community service.  They were told by the arresting officer that this offense would put a Class B Misdemeanor on their records.

 

Both Sherry and Sarge work full time, but their hours prevent them getting into shelters to sleep, including the Bridge, as they often work evenings. 

 

Sherry, like many women on the street I’ve spoken with, used to sometimes seek shelter and safety on the Bridge campus.

 

I ran into them in late December and sat with them on some steps to get caught up, at which time Sherry handed me the following new poem from her journal.  It was cold on the concrete steps, and they had just been robbed.  As luck would have it, an Anonymous Angel had just filled my car with coats and blankets.

 

Does adding a Class B Misdemeanor to people’s records help them get out of homelessness?  What do you think?

 

KS

 

Always Returning


Always returning

     to some lost place

Where the winds moan softly —

Surrounding me in the emptiness…


Always returning

     in the same swift race

Speeding up gradually;

Enjoying the chase —


Always returning

     to some promised light — 

That beacons out brightly —

Saving souls in the darkness —


Always returning —

     Eternal — to me —

A lost soul —  seeking solace —

Thoughts left bound in their brightness.


copyright Sherry Parker, 12/28/09

 

You may see some of Sherry’s other poetry by clicking on the category “Street Voices” at right.

 

… ‘And Now We’re In the Woods’ January 15, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

 

I’ve known Scott for years, and, sometimes when I see him, he doesn’t feel like talking.  Sometimes when he talks, his words are so big and he is so erudite that I have to seek out a dictionary in order to understand him. Today, though, his words were simple and to the point.

 

“Where did they all go?” Scott asked me.  Although he himself is homeless, he was referring to the scores of people who used to sleep on the Bridge courtyard at night and have been unable to find shelter elsewhere.  

 

“I think they’re hiding in the woods,” I told him.

 

“This city has a horrible gut in it, and it digests people,” he said.  “And now we’re in the woods.”

 

KS