Friday, October 28, 2016

Mom, Are you Homeless?

Mom, are you homeless?

1997 was a very difficult year for Stephanie. She had become a single mother upon the death of her husband and was left to raise three children, ages 9, 14, and 20. Despite her loss of a deep love, a love deep enough that she wears her wedding ring to this day, she hung on and held her little family together. Now, however, with her children 28, 33, and 39 all moved out and raising kids of their own, she has lost the strength to keep up. The necessity of keeping a roof over her children’s head helped her find a way but that’s changed. “Being alone now, it is just easier to find yourself on the streets.”

I met Stephanie on the corner with a sign asking for assistance. “I do have a job,” she said, clearly embarrassed in her current state. “It just gets slow at the convention center during the summer and I need some help to get by.” It becomes clear that slow is a kind way to say during the summer she has no work. Therefore, during this slow time, she often finds herself “between homes.”

“I have tried other jobs, but they always want me to put them first and I don’t want to give up my position at the convention center. After all, if I get 500 hours and pass my test, my salary goes up to $20 an hour. No one else will give me that kind of money.”

After mentioning her job, she notes, “The biggest fear I had when I started pan handling was that someone from work would recognize me. I even thought about getting a wig and sunglasses but didn’t feel that would be honest.”

“Do your children know you’re out here?” I ask.

“No way.”

“What would they do, if they knew?”

“They would want to help. Have me move in with them or something, but I don’t want to be a burden. They have their own children to raise.”

A lady stops, even though the light is green, and hands Stephanie a box with half a pizza. Stephanie grabs it and tries to thank the lady as the car quickly takes off in response to those honking behind.

“I am not proud of this, but am grateful that people are so kind to me. They often stop like this and get me food or a few dollars.”

“Where do you stay at night?”

“There is a place a few blocks away that is only $44 a night. Sometimes I get enough. I also have friends who will let me stay with them and shower if I have to go to work or have a job interview.”

I thank her for talking and begin to head back. As I walk, I think of this widow, mother of 3, grandmother of 8, and homeless women. Everyone wants so much for their children. We would do anything for them. A clear example is a widow mother, who in personal shame begs on a street, rather than accept a warm home to avoid inconveniencing her children.

But what of those who would do anything for us: our parents? How well do we reciprocate? I thought of her children. Do you think they know? Some of the signs must be obvious.  Do they notice that she only visits them; that she never talks about her home; that she shows up clearly having not bathed? Or are they so caught up in the business of the world that they don’t even notice? Or perhaps they notice but don’t have the courage to ask, “Mom, are you homeless?” Or maybe they know, but like so many, are not sure what to do.

I asked her, before I left, if I could take a photo for my blog.

“What if my kids see it?”

I assured her my blog was not that well-read, so she agreed.

I was sincere when I told her I doubted her children would see. But I ask all of you who do. Where is the woman who raised you: the woman who, when the world pushed on her, held up, not only her share, but yours, so that you could enjoy the safety, security and love of childhood? Are we caring for them the way they cared for us? Most are not in need of a roof over their head, but they may need a phone call or a visit. Or maybe they need to feel needed: that there are people out there who still need their love and support, perhaps just as much as the day they lost their father.

To all the Stephanies of the world, especially the one who, when times were tough, kept a roof over my head physically, emotionally and in every other way, I say, “Thank you, and I love you.” 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I'm A Writer

It was my junior year in high school. Six weeks previous to this experience we had all just taken an aptitude test. Now we were being shuffled, one by one, into a councilors office to discuss our plans for the future based on the results of the testing.

I went in and a kind women, whom I didn't recall ever seeing before, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. That question was easy. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and for as long as I could remember, I wanted to be one too. "Mechanical engineer," I said with pride.

We are lucky she didn't ask me what a mechanical engineer did because I had no clue. She just said, "great, your tests results line up perfectly with a future as an engineer. Now if you had said writer, we would have had a problem."

Society always says there is power in building people up and telling them they can do anything. I almost wonder if, at times, there is more power in telling people they can't do something. Since that moment in that councilors office, I have had some desire to become a writer. Not enough to change my engineering career path, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to be able to walk in that office and say, "I'm a writer." Of course, that wouldn't do much good since she probably hasn't been sitting in there for the last 16 years. And I have the sneaky suspicion this moment had more impact on me than her, so she may not recall the conversation.

Well today, in a small way, is that day. I was published in a small town paper. I know not a huge deal, but baby steps. Here is the link:

Hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 14, 2016


The underpass pathway

I walk away from my hotel towards the underpass. The underpass is literally only 500 feet from the hotel but large fencing connects the hotel to other buildings on that side so I am forced to take a long walk around. Once I arrive at the underpass I can see why the fence was installed. The 3 ft. walkway that is divided from traffic with a large concrete barrier on one side, adjacent to a shotcreted side slope on the other, is so full of garbage that only a small foot path on one side remains clear. Even that, at times, disappears, leaving you to kick at the waste. The top layer of trash is discernible enough: circle K cups, beer cans, used cardboard pandering signs and abandoned clothing, but below is a blackened, half decayed layer of garbage that has become unrecognizable in its current state. Hotel owners and high rise landlords have built the fence to make travel through their lot an inconvenience so as to keep the "filth” literally and figuratively out of their territory. It becomes one of the millions of barriers we “haves” construct so as not to be reminded of the world of the “have nots” that surrounds us.

I push the button to notify the street that passage is requested. The length of time that I sit waiting as each line of cars is ushered before me clearly tells me that in this intersection I, like all pedestrians, are unwanted guests. The hand signals me to enter just as a right turning car rushes to beat me, I enter hoping that the car behind won’t follow his lead. I’m not even half way across the 8 lane road when the clock starts ticking down, warning me that my time is soon up. I pick up the pace but quickly realize my quick walk will prove insufficient and I better turn to a jog to beat the countdown. I dash. With half a second to spare I cross the curbing and cars quickly fill the void I have left. No one cheers my victory.

A girl sits with her back to me and I approach. Beats brand headphones are in her ear, and in her hands she holds two items: a cardboard sign with a typical pandering message, and a bible track just handed to her by one of the passing cars.  

“Can I speak to you for a minute?” I rather shyly ask. The headphones clearly do their job. I approach closer and repeat my request.

She smiles and the headphones come out. “Can I speak with you?” 

She agrees and turns and turns to face me.

She wears a pink blouse, opened too far from the top, and accentuated enough from below to be intentionally indecent. Her face at first appears old but once you look closely, she appears younger than one would guess. Most of her front teeth are missing, and her nose is crooked with a scar down the middle, likely recently broken.

I mention that I have no cash but would just like to talk. She seems open to the idea and says, “sometimes advise is better than money.” I again feel bad, given I have no more advice than I do cash. Her name is Cassidy. She came to Phoenix from Illinois on her 21st birthday. She has been homeless for 4 months after her last boyfriend kicked her out of his home. 

“Is this your first time homeless?”

“Oh, no,” is her quick response, “I have been homeless on and off my entire life. I’m 48 now.” She goes on to explain that when it comes to work she has done everything out there: waitress, housekeeping, and even construction. She turns as a nameless stranger's hand comes out of a window with a few dollars. As more drivers offer her funds, I begin to feel awkward just watching and move on.

It’s getting dark now and across the street I see another woman with a sign. She is barely noticeable from the street, being set back behind a small building that houses electrical breakers and other equipment for the lights. I cross as she begins to put away her sign into her small black backpack.

“Can I speak to you for a minute?” I ask.

“For a minute, I’m just leaving,” she says, clearly leery of me. Marilyn is her name. She is more shy in every way than Cassidy and clearly not as comfortable speaking to me. She wears a zip up hoody that is zipped up all the way, that she clings to as much as the smell of smoke clings to it. She came to Phoenix in 2007 from Indiana to escape an abusive, 13-year marriage. “Phoenix seemed far enough away,” she says. “Plus I had a friend here. When I first came, I had a job in the insurance industry. I lost it in 2011.”

But despite the job loss, she assures me that is not why she is on the streets. “I let a friend live with me and they got me evicted. That is what I get for helping,” she says with clear, deep bitterness in her voice. I try to kindly ask how her friend got her evicted, but she avoids details. She has been on the streets for the past 5 months. When asked if she has ever been homeless before the answer is a simple, “no.”

“So, do you just try to get enough to get a place to stay each night?” I continue.

“Well I try, but that didn’t work out so good today; nobody wants to help.”

“Where do you stay?”

“Some nights I stay at a shelter, but you have to wait in line for a long time and then half the time they don’t have room anyways. Once you get in, people inside rob you. Usually it’s better to stay at a park.”

“Do police bother you at the parks?”

“No, they leave you alone.”

“What could society do to help someone like you?”

This question comes with a long pause. It’s something she clearly hasn’t thought about or at least not directly. Hard to be a big picture thinker what you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from.
Rather than directly answering, she puts forward what she has done to get society’s help. “I have applied for section 8 housing, and if I get that, I’d have enough time to clean up and get a job again.”

“Do you know how long the wait is?”

“They don’t say.”

She grabs her bike as a sign she is done talking and ready to move on. I ask if I can get a picture of her. Again she pauses, and clearly embarrassed she says, I’d rather you didn’t. She rides off, I presume towards a park for the night. I walk back across the 8 lane road, back through the path of garbage. I begin to walk around the fence that connects the hotel to the large high rise when I notice two of the bars are bent just enough to allow a person of my size to slip back into his side of the world.

A picture I took the next morning of the bent fence that allowed my access back to the hotel.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Are These Your Shoes?

Are these your shoes?

Barely used 10 ½ black Adidas with silver striping? Perhaps you left them sitting out on a bench at your local locker room, carelessly left them on your front porch so no scuffs got on your carpet, or maybe took them off so you could let loose on the play place at McDonalds.  I met them sitting on top of a black roller bag. You know, the type that an executive would wheel through the airport as he rushed onto a plane. However, the style and age of the luggage was not complimentary to its owner but rather in contrast. It appeared to me as I approached this frail body in a ragged blazer topped by a bright blue Buffalo Bills cap at the Denver Union Train Station that its owner had seen much more mileage than his luggage or the shoes that sat on them.

“Are you coming or going?” I asked.

“Neither, I live here.” After a pause he anticipated my next question, about the bag. “I’m homeless.”
Jack has been on the streets in Denver for 15 of his 55 years. When asked what led to his homelessness he responds, “I came home early from work one day and found my wife in bed with my father.” It is unclear how this left him homeless but it is said in such a way as to not invite follow up questions.

It doesn’t take long for him to steer the conversation and he asks, “What size shoe do you wear?” The answer is not 10 ½ but it’s close enough. “Do you want to buy these?”

“Where did you get them?”

“You want the truth?” I nod. “I found them in a dumpster. Probably a mad girlfriend throwing her ex’s stuff out.”

I pass.

We talk back and forth. Jack says the doctors tell him he has lymphoma. This has led to rapid weight loss and he produces a picture of himself with considerably more muscle, bone structure and everything else except for hair. The transformation has taken him from Mr. Clean to Mr. Burns.
“The health care is good though,” he explains. “If I need a doctor they let me see one and I can get any prescription I need filled for two bucks.”

Conversation continues as we head down into the bus station. At the bottom we approach a group huddled together on the floor talking and laughing. “This is Sunshine, Stella, Hollywood, and Daniel. The dog’s named Lucy.” Pointing to each member of the group and ending with the Pitbull sitting next to Sunshine. Sunshine is the first to accept the stranger or at least enough to talk. She’s from Tennessee and came to Colorado a few months ago.

“Why Colorado?” I ask.

“I love the mountains…and the lifestyle. It seems like everyone in Colorado lives a clean, healthy life style and I admire that.”

“You came for the legal pot.” Stella has joined in.

“That too.” Sunshine says laughing.

“What bus are you getting on?” A security guard has approached the group and is anxious for them to move on.  He continues his questioning to each one careful to try to catch them in a lie. “That doesn’t stop hear any more tonight,” or “that bus just left why didn’t you get on.” He pushes each person except myself, he doesn’t seem willing to ask or even make eye contact with me. After his pushing seems unable to make any in the group stand he simply says, “well you better be on the next bus or you’ll have to leave.” He walks away and the group visibly relaxes.

“Do you guys stay at a local shelter?”

“Not during the summer. It’s too nice outside. Plus, the shelter won’t let me stay with Lucy.”
“So do you usually just try to get enough to eat?”

“That and a shower. There’s a truck stop that will let us shower for $12 and wash some of our clothes.”

I turn again to Jack and ask, “So are you going to stay on the streets? Where are you going to be in five years?”

Jack looks at me, the smile gone, “five years? I’ll be gone in two months. Five years, I’ll be in heaven and I’m okay with that.”

Shortly after this exchange I have to leave and am half way out of the bus station when the shoes come to my mind. I turn around.

“Jack” I call out as I approach. “Maybe I will take those shoes.”

He smiles as I hand him some cash and he hands me the shoes.“God made you come back didn’t he?”

I think momentarily. “Yea, I suppose so.”

So, are they your shoes? If so and you are in the need of a new pair, I know a great place to pick some up. The atmosphere is like no other store I’ve ever been in and the sales staff know how to treat you. After all, it’s where I bought my favorite pair of shoes.

Sunshine, Stella, Lucy and Me.