Early yesterday morning, I'd just piled two large boxes of groceries into the car trunk outside of the store, the dog was bouncing for snacks, and I was eager to get home to breakfast and my first cup of tea.
As I backed out of my parking spot and began to ease out of the lot, I noticed to my right an older woman sitting in a camp chair, a sign in her lap:
"I need help. I'm camping out. Anything helps."
There a lot of these signs around here, maybe around your town as well. Usually they are carried by men here, often seeming mentally ill, always depressing.
I drove on, feeling guilty that I had a twenty in my pocket...but I was hungry, everyone was waiting for the breakfast I was bringing, and it was my last twenty, enough for gas.
I drove on, but couldn't get the woman out of my mind. The mental conversation began.
"Remember your great sleeping bag idea? That didn't work out so well, this is just another one of those situations. You need that money for your family. There are so many scammers begging for money..."
(When we'd first moved here, I started collecting sleeping bags for the many young homeless here. Months in, I discovered the young men I gave them to were selling them right away. One mentioned to me he'd rather be so drunk he didn't feel the cold than have to drag around bulky bedding sober.)
During this mental debate, my mind making justifications back and forth, my body had gone ahead independently and the car was now circling around the block back to the woman sitting in the camp chair.
I pulled up behind her and got out of my car. I'll buy folks food when I can-- sandwiches in the store, a cup of coffee, a jug of water in the summer. A hello. Now and then an ear for them to tell their story if they want. Most don't but some do.
One generous person here gave a lot of money years ago to one homeless young pregnant woman, only to eventually find out she was picked up at the end of the day in a mini-van, she and her husband were staying at a local hotel, and they'd been scamming all across the country, using their young child and a pregnant belly to often rake in hundreds a day. Not the most common story, but particularly galling.
Another time, a homeless fellow, a transient? local? was given cash by a well-meaning local, the fellow bought hard alcohol and possibly more numbing agents, passed out between two locked buildings that cold evening-- one of them a church-- and died of exposure in the early morning hours....
....about six hours before the first communion service.
This gets brighter.
This lady and I began chatting. She had lovely blue-green eyes, clear skin, sunken lips, and a broad, close-lipped smile for me. She said she'd been a trucker for years, had gotten sick, lost her home eventually. She had signed up for all the appropriate services, and only had to survive on her own until January 27th, when the social services benefits would kick in.
Eleven and a half weeks....or eighty-two days.
"But I have blankets, stuff like that. I have some food stamps."
She explained cash comes in handy so she can stay in campgrounds, usually $22. a night, 14 day maximum stay. It's safer there. I remembered, as I'd been homeless briefly in this area long ago with two small children. I'd worked though, had an emotionally supportive mother back east, was able to save money. This lady was on her own.
Her name was Pat. I smiled to myself when she said this as that's my mother's name-- I'd been missing her a lot lately. Then she mentioned her birthday was coming up, on November 26th. That's also the anniversary of my mother's death eight years ago. She went on to say she'd always gone by her middle name growing up, Anne-with-an-'e', but in 2002 she'd gone back to her first name, Pat.
I also grew up with the name Anne-with-an-'e', had also changed it eventually....and my mother died in 2002.
When I mentioned these...coincidences, we were silent, then we each laughed and mumbled "Meant to be"s. We got a little teary and hugged good-bye. She was off the to the coast for the winter, "They have a free medical clinic there..." I gave her my twenty. She thanked me and gave our dog a kiss.
As I drove away, we were both waving and smiling.
That was one really cool moment.
NOVEMBER 7, 2010 4:54PM