My brain threatens to explode again, in the method of intense migraines that have plagued me most of my life. The pain killers keep things to a dull throbbing that begins at the base of my neck and moves to the back of my eyeballs, convincing me that my brains will burst out of my skull…
This usually means that I need to write. That something catastrophic has happened and my brain is swelling in the process of it all… I have a trauma burning inside me, and until I get it all down on the paper in front of me it will never go away. Today it’s death…
I’ve known for a long time that people die on the streets. I don’t remember who it was that taught me that lesson, but I can think of a few people off the top of my head. Jesse is dying of lupus at a campsite under a bridge. She is tired and her voice is sad, and she is painfully aware of how forgotten her life has already become. Thomas is dying of throat cancer on the sidewalk. He talks of the broken promises of the government and his tours in Viet Nam. We promised him honor, and gave him shame. Emphysema will kill Scott, and his young friend will remain homeless until he passes away, so that he doesn’t have to die alone. Yesterday I found out that a man befriended by a 5 year old while we were in Tampa, Mr. Don, died at age 70, sick and alone on the sidewalk.
On the streets of Portland, Oregon, on another coast and what feels like a lifetime later, I face another reminder of the tragedy that lives on American sidewalks when Shane and I pack our backpacks full of hygiene kits and bottles of water, leaving our parking space in search of The One.
In scripture it discusses the act of leaving the 99 sheep in the pasture in search of the one that is lost. I often try to explain to people that we are looking for those who have fallen through the cracks of the traditional system. There are hundreds of people in each city who will never be found at a shelter, a community kitchen or a resource center. The reasons for this are diverse, but I find that it’s rarely about ignorance and usually about preference. When I first became houseless, I didn’t choose a shelter either, so I can relate.
When we show up at campsites, under bridges, or down the forgotten alley ways of America carrying hygiene kits, food and water, it’s like Christmas in the best way. But as we started walking up the street toward the Burnside Bridge, I grabbed Shane’s arm and pointed across 4 lanes of traffic. I had read the words, “more than a meal” and “more than a bed” on a couple of windows and noticed people sleeping beneath them. The signs and the people created a picture of irony. There were probably 40 people lining the sidewalk in front of this shelter, and I was riding a fine line in my decision making.
I already know a few patterns of culture within these sorts of situations. When 40 people can roll out the blankets, pillows and sleeping bags, it indicates that this is a ‘safe’ area for them where the police won’t run them off, and since they are in front of a mission or a shelter, they probably receive at least one meal a day from this organization. The public can personally witness this deposit of poverty, so when they are inclined to give, THIS is where they will go. I’ve seen locations like this receive hand outs from as many as 12 or 13 outreach teams or churches every day during holiday season, and 2 or 3 times a day on average. The outpouring of free stuff leaves people with all of their immediate needs met, and any money that they can scrounge up can then be used on drugs or alcohol without risking the opportunity to eat. The drug culture in these places is intense, and along with that, the rate of mental instability is extremely high. Once places like this are “born” into a city, they are hard to change. Skid Row in LA is a great example. With the presence of services that will meet immediate needs, and a “safe” place from law enforcement, more and more people will find their way to that stretch of sidewalk. Some people will stay there for years.
What would happen if these places didn’t exist? We don’t know. And where would all of these people go? We don’t know. Would they suddenly “find the motivation” to become self sufficient if we didn’t provide for their basic needs? With criminal records and major hurdles to attain stable employment, and without affordable housing for those that receive monthly government checks, the answer is not a matter of motivation. The system is so overwhelmingly broken that a complete overhaul in community expectations is required for a reduction in the sidewalk population. There must be an expectation of sobriety (among the entire community- how can we expect a houseless person to stay sober if we don’t have the same expectations of someone who still has a house?) and available mental (and physical) health care, as well as employment opportunities for those with criminal histories. Even so, becoming sober, healthy and employed won’t matter if there isn’t affordable housing at the end of the line. And it all begins with relationships and love.
Knowing all of this, I also knew that we had 65 hygiene kits, and I made the same decision as every other church and outreach team. I have the ability to help, and there might be a need. The least I can do is ask. As we made our way up the sidewalk toward the crowd of people, we asked the first person that we saw. “Hey man, do you need some clean socks?” I could see his socks underneath his too-short-pants and already knew the answer, but we didn’t want to assume. His eyes lit up. We pulled out a bag, and explained that there were lots of things in there. “Take out what you don’t need dude, we can give it to someone else.” He clutched the bag and began thanking us, and we understood that he needed everything. Shane turned to look at me. “Should we be secret Santa’s?” he asked as he nodded at a man asleep on the sidewalk next to us. I smiled. It is pretty cool to leave a sleeping man a gift for when he wakes up. I cautioned him though. “Make sure you put it between him and the wall, not on this side. People will just take it from him while he sleeps.” I’ve seen it happen. “We’ll make sure everyone gets one too, and that way no one will need to steal” Shane answered. I couldn’t decide if that was naïve or a good point, and my heart told me not to judge. Everything in me told me to keep going, and keep giving.
These situations create an internal conflict for me… the American mentality of throwing stuff and money at a problem isn’t going to solve anything substantial. It will only treat the symptoms. However, someone has to provide the food, the socks, and the soap while our culture learns to love again…
A few more paces up the sidewalk and we left another package with another sleeping fellow, but a few paces further and I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Oh shit…” slipped from my lips as I stared at the man lying in front of me. His hands and bare feet were covered in open sores, abrasions, lesions and cracks that trailed up his arms and ankles and disappeared beneath his clothing. He was sleeping on a towel in an awkward position, and I felt trapped and frozen with shock. I stared. Shane brushed past me as he reached out to give everyone a bag. He noticed the man and placed a bag at his feet, while I remained stuck to my spot on the sidewalk. If we have a modern day version of leprosy, this must be it.
I later discovered that his name is John… When we came back up the street a couple hours later, a dude named David stopped to pet my dog. As we talked, I asked him about the man, and he told me that he often sees him stumble around holding a bottle, yelling obscenities at people. I was relieved to hear that he can get up and walk around, but disappointed in the drunkenness. Still, that doesn’t make it okay for him to suffer on the sidewalk without proper medical care. As we talked, I watched people on their way to the parade, walking past the men lining the sidewalk. The reactions varied… Most people focused their attention on some invisible curiosity across the four lanes of traffic or stared at their feet. The people who did look into the eyes of the people sitting on the sidewalk seemed afraid. One man stopped in front of John the same way I had. I wondered if he was saying the same helpless and defeated words that I had let slip as I stood there. His face said the words, if his lips did not.
He lingered for a moment before he moved on. I called out to him, “Sir!” hoping to ask him if he thought we should call someone, but he pretended not to hear me and continued down the sidewalk. I only felt worse as I realized that the man could die there…. Like Don. Alone and sick on the sidewalk. I went to the man next to him and asked him what he knew. “He needs medical attention, badly” the man said.
Just then I saw a bald headed man open the door behind us and peer behind the wrought iron gate. Awesome. Someone who should have the answers I’m looking for. “Hey! Can I talk to you for a second?” I asked. He opened the gate about 6 inches and looked down at me from a height of six feet. “You know this guy over here, the one that has the abrasions on his skin?” The man nodded at me. “John… yeah.” He looked down the sidewalk toward the man with a sincerely sad expression on his face. “What can we do? Does he need a doctor? Should we call someone?” I pleaded. The man softly smiled.
“He has a bad case of eczema,” he assured me. “He’s been to the doctor, they gave him antibiotics and ointment, but…” the man sighed. “He’s not really…” he paused, “all there.” I nodded. I got the drift. He continued. “We try to remind him to use the medication when he comes in for breakfast, but we can’t let him stay here because of the open sores. It’s really not good…. Eczema can turn into staph infection if it isn’t treated.” He looked genuinely worried. “There isn’t much we can do if he refuses medical treatment. You should go next door and talk to Chris, I think he would like to know that the public is concerned.” He smiled at me.
A week or two in the hospital would probably allow time for John’s skin to heal and let his medication take effect. But he’s an adult, and if he refuses treatment, they can’t keep him there against his will. I wondered how many times he had been in and out of the hospital for something so simple…
I did go next door, and I did talk to Chris. The conversation consisted of the repetition of what this man, whose name was Steven, had told me and the expression of our similar thoughts about homelessness, its causes, and the remedy. My favorite part of the conversation was when another employee told me that he could “improve” on a quote from Ghandi. Some people amaze me…
When I found myself back on the sidewalk, standing next to Shane and David one more time, my heart was heavy for a world where we create suffering and then ignore it. David’s voice sounded exhausted as he told us about Portland. “All of these services and the situation doesn’t change…”
Across the bridge in search of The One, Frederick grasped our hands in his as he spoke in tongues on the concrete. He preached of the body of Christ and the trinity. He warned us that the end is coming. He begged us… “Remember me in your prayers now, please! Remember me in your prayers. And thank you for my blessings, God’s gonna bless you back!” I couldn’t decide if I felt better or worse knowing that Frederick was praying for us from the concrete ledge next to his shopping cart parking space.
James was a block away when I first saw him staring into the sky. I thought maybe he was watching the walk sign on our side of the street, but as I got closer, I realized I was wrong. We were crossing the side street when he turned to face the main road, still staring up at the sky as though he was waiting for something. He glanced at me as I stepped up the curb and I said “Hey dude,” as I took in his dirty jeans, muddy boots and the filth on his sweatshirt. His hair was greasy and he looked away quickly. He didn’t respond. Shane stopped next to him. “Hey dude, do you need a clean pair of socks?”
He looked at Shane and twisted to face him, holding both of his hands out and licking his lips. It was remarkably child-like and as soon as Shane placed a bag in his hand he clutched it to his chest. He took the bottle of water with his other hand and resumed staring at the sky across the street.
I was fascinated. He wasn’t going anywhere, but he was standing at an intersection. I wondered what he was thinking as he stared at the sky. Shane asked “where ya from?” and he mumbled to himself as he lifted his hand. He scribbled his finger across the air in front of his face as he muttered that he had crossed Salem 35 days ago. As he finished the sentence, his eyelids lowered.
“What’s your name?” I said gently.
I felt as though I had asked the question to a child. I’m not sure why. He turned his gaze to look at me. When his eyes met mine, it was as though I was looking into the eyes of an almost-dead man. Trauma was written on his face. Some serious stage of PTSD had stolen a part of his spirit, and I could barely hear him say “James” as he touched his fingertips to my hand in a weak handshake. “What do you need, James?” I asked him. I’m often not sure of where that question comes from, but there it is, waiting for an answer. He paused for a long time, staring at the sky, before looking back at me. “Maybe an apple?”
Damn. I looked at Shane. Why did I ask him that question if I had no legitimate way to get what he asks me for? We didn’t have an apple, and we were miles from the truck and the nearest grocer. What now? We told James that we didn’t have an apple on us. He waited a moment and he opened the bag that we had given him. He took out the liquid soap and poured a drop on his hand. He held it to his nose and breathed it in… a few moments passed. I didn’t understand. A few more moments passed. He suddenly smeared the soap on his face and nose, closed the bottle and put it in his pocket.
“James, we’ll be praying for you,” I said as I thought of what Frederick had just said while we were up the street. Prayers, right? When you can do nothing else, you have that. James barely glanced at me out of the corner of his eye as he suddenly walked across the intersection to the other side of the street with a fearful, almost angry expression on his face.
Frustrated and helpless, I stormed off… angry at myself for saying something so intangible to someone who was obviously suffering a severe trauma.
A few moments later, we were sitting on the sidewalk less than a block away, watching James from across the main road. “What good is this stuff?” Shane asked while he held a hygiene kit in his hand. “James needs a counselor and probably some medication.” his voice was filled with defeat as he watched James stop in front of a building across the street. He needs Love…
James stood there for a moment, staring at a wall, when an ambulance pulled up next to him. They stayed there for a moment, and we were hopeful. I could see a woman in the building behind him approach the window with her hand on her hips. Maybe she had called emergency services? But we saw James’ green sweatshirt dart around the building and out of sight, and the ambulance drove away from the intersection and up the street.
I watched the Twilight Parade for the Rose Festival while sitting on the tailgate. There were chairs set up in front of the truck three rows deep, and high school kids congregated to gossip and watch the marching bands. I remembered the days when my biggest concerns included how short to wear my skirt and how much glitter I could put on my eyelids at once. How beautifully simple life had been, and how little I appreciated it.
As we watched the people marching in their costumes, probably paranoid that they would miss a beat or drop a baton, or worried sick that their butt looked big in their spandex, I couldn’t get the image of John out of my head. Knowing he was only a few blocks away only made it worse. It was as if I was watching flash card images of the sick and dying, rotating photographs of Don, Thomas, John, Jesse… I kept seeing the lost and wounded eyes of James, the outstretched arms of the man lying on the sidewalk with his face covered, the fervent prayers of Frederick and the exhaustion in David’s voice.
As my mind traveled across the impact of these images, my eyes traveled across the words printed on the black and pink Tshirt of the high school girl standing in front of me wearing too much eyeliner… “Fuck Love”.
Something inside of me broke. I choked and hugged my knees as I watched another band march past. I cried to Shane later in the truck.
“I’m not OK. This is not OK. I don’t understand. I can’t get their faces out of my head…” I was sobbing as I tried to explain myself. He knew something was deeply wrong. As soon as the tears started, all of the hurt inside me poured out in a slur of choking sobs. I literally felt as though I was expelling something into the air. “How could they?” I choked out in despair as I nodded to the people walking up and down the streets. “How can they go on, living? How do I forgive them?” my frustration was swallowing my mind… “They’re letting them die! I know that they’re ignorant, that they just don’t know, but how do I forgive them? This is your city,” I sobbed to the people who were walking past our truck carrying their lawn chairs and blankets. “This is your home. You live here… These are your people. This is your family! Why don’t you love them?” I begged. I looked back at Shane as he watched me sadly. “and we watch this parade, where there are representatives from EVERY business and club and school and cause… But who will represent them!? Someone to just say ‘We’re dying and we need your love!’” I imagined someone standing in the center of the parade begging people for mercy.
I know that the girl’s shirt is talking about high school love, not God love. But it’s equally sad to me that she probably doesn’t understand the difference. “Say something, please…” I asked Shane. He sighed. I whimpered. “People are sick… we should take care of people when they’re sick, right?” He nodded. I tried to explain, tried to make sense of what I was feeling. “It’s not their fault. It’s never their fault. Nobody deserves that. Nobody deserves to die alone. Dying on the sidewalk! On the sidewalk… I don’t understand that, there’s no dignity in that. No love..”
“You know, Don didn’t die alone and unloved. You know that.” He said softly.
I suppose no one really dies that way, because God is everywhere and loves us all. I guess what bothers me is that I want people to KNOW that. But maybe, thanks to Theo and his family, Don did. The thought made me stop crying so violently, but I once I could breathe, I thought again of Thomas. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone sick or dying on the sidewalk. Why is it hitting me so hard right now?” I asked.
“You’re in a different place now,” he answered.
“Yeah, but what’s the difference?” I needed specifics.
“I don’t know…”
“Why does it make me so mad?”
“Because it’s supposed to make you mad.”
“But why does God want me to get mad? That’s just…”
“Because it motivates you to do something.”
“Right now it motivates me to do nothing.” To curl up in a ball and cry, I said to myself. I stared out the window and leaned my head against the glass. I sniffled. My head hurt with such force I thought it might pound right out of my eyeballs.
Shane’s hand found the base of my neck and rubbed gently. In a matter of moments I was asleep, drifting away from the pain of today and hoping for a different world when I wake up.