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Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Staying Vigilant

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2013 at 5:08 pm

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In August of 2011 I went downtown for our first Shelter meeting of the year to begin organizing for our November 1st opening. I noticed that a veritable encampment of homeless people had arisen near the churches on a ledge belonging to some property owned by the state of Georgia. This ledge is directly across from the Fulton County Courthouse and adjacent to The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of the host churches of Central Night Shelter. I am not sure why the encampment had started but I would surmise that it had something to do with the proximity to the Shelter and other services for the homeless nearby. The encampment remained even after the Shelter opened in November. Any given night there were scores of men, women, and children there, perhaps feeling there was safety in numbers.

In November and December, the Mayor’s office  formed a committee and launched a series of meetings with city officials, business people, clergy, and homeless providers to deal with what they perceived as the growing problem of the encampment. To their credit, they came up with a plan with United Way to place people in shelters and housing. By early January about twenty five people had been placed. Now the Mayor’s office had presented this plan to the state people and the state initially agreed to it. However, on January 10, 2012 at 5pm, the committee chair was told that the state was going to clear the ledge the next morning.

On January 11th at 5am in the pouring rain, the state moved in with police troops, street sweepers, and garbage trucks. Men, women, and children were roused from their sleep and told to leave or they would be arrested. They were ordered to take what they could carry of their belongings. The rest of their meager possessions were thrown in the garbage trucks.

Outraged but aware that the damage had been done, Mark and I, along with others from Central Night Shelter, organized an overnight Prayer Vigil by the ledge one month later on February 11th. We felt it was important for us to stand in solidarity with these homeless people who had been swept away like so much trash in the street.

The Holy Spirit or God or Karma or whatever you choose to call it intervened in our plans and brought overnight temperatures of 22 degrees with 30 mile an hour winds resulting in wind chill temperatures of 7 degrees above zero. We had about fifty people who attended the Vigil with ten of us who spent the entire night. For me it was a profound and moving experience but also one of the hardest things I have done. I feel changed for having had this experience.

Some of the people who stood with us that night were the guests of Central Night Shelter. Many of them were people evicted from the ledge. They gave up the warmth and comfort of the Shelter to stand with us, to share the burden of the night.   And a burden it was–bone chilling winds that never stopped all night, freezing temperatures that kept dropping throughout the night. For all of our high-tech gear, down sleeping bags and down jackets, layers of thermal, there just seemed no way to be warm. Sleep was impossible. Besides the cold, there were mentally ill people wandering up and down the sidewalk all night long–some mumbling, some with incomprehensible stories, and some screaming. None of them were in any manner dressed for this kind of weather.

After doing this work for almost thirty years, I thought I knew what homeless people went through trying to survive in the streets. But I did not. After enduring that one night, watching the moon inch across the sky, feeling the minutes crawling by, I will never take shelter for granted again. There is absolutely no way that people without shelter could possibly attempt to extricate themselves from the relentless bondage of homelessness. I know in a deeper, more fundamental, more down in the bones kind of way that we are called as a city, county, state, nation, as a moral populace to move towards finding solutions.

 

Photo Credit: Heather Hunter

Dancing Through the Dark

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2013 at 1:30 am

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 Many  years ago we had two men staying at Central Night Shelter whose life stories especially tugged at my heart.  One man, Harvey, was clinically and chronically depressed.  His life spiraled downward until, unable to hold a job, he ended up on the streets, and somehow found our shelter.  The second man, Chuck, had been a very successful businessman, a devoted husband, and a loving father.  This all changed tragically when his wife was brutally murdered, and their ten-year-old son came home from school to find her dead, her skull crushed.  For many weeks after the murder Chuck himself was treated as a suspect.  So, not only did he have the overwhelming grief from the loss of his beloved wife of sixteen years  and the responsibility of caring for his son’s anguish and horror from his discovery, but he also had to deal with the suspicion of the community, and had to struggle to clear his name.  Sometime later Chuck tried a second marriage  but this didn’t work.  He began to have problems with alcohol, began to have financial difficulties, and finally found himself on the streets. One night, while I was working at the shelter, I witnessed a magical moment that Harvey and Chuck shared, a moment that was a gift to them from a child…

 

This particular night a family had come to the shelter to help serve dinner. One of their children was a young girl about six years old.  At the end of dinner Harvey and Chuck were sitting together at the end of one of the tables.  This little girl walked up to them and asked “Would you like to see my new dance I learned?”  They seemed somewhat taken aback, but agreed that yes, indeed, they’d love to see it.  She spontaneously held out her hands to each of them and after they had grasped her small hands she began to dance.  Harvey and Chuck began to smile, then began to laugh, and the harder they laughed the more delighted the little dancing girl became.  For me, and I believe for Harvey and Chuck, the rest of the world melted away, and there was only that crystalline moment of pure delight.  It is a moment and an image I will not soon forget.  To have watched these two men, whose lives had been filled with horrors few of us can imagine, find renewal and hope in the innocent, unsophisticated dance of a child, was to have experienced true Grace.

 

My husband once told me “You cannot think yourself into new ways of acting, but you can act yourself into new ways of thinking.”  I have heard this described as both a philosophy and a theology.  However you choose to classify it, I believe it has a message that is important and powerful.  When you act, when you DO the right thing, when you reach out, when you serve others, your own life is expanded.  The simple act of putting oneself in the service of others can open our hearts and minds to the present moment.  If we can reach out one to the other and feel, for even a brief moment, a connection to each other, a commonality in spirit that transcends our status, our race, our creeds, then we have achieved, or at least begun to achieve, a new way of thinking about each other .

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sons

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2013 at 7:07 pm

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I found out this past week that Nate, a homeless man I have known for many years, died this past week. I do not know all the circumstances but I heard that his body was found under a bridge. Nate had been coming to my church, The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, for years. He had occasionally stayed at Central Night Shelter but not often. There were definitely mental health issues and these issues made it difficult for him to stay in the Shelter. Often, when you  talked to him, it was hard to make sense of what he said. But he had a sweet nature and a gentle way about him. He came and went, sometimes doing odd jobs around the church. The last couple of times I saw him I could see that things were going downhill. He had not bathed and was unkempt. His body odor was strong and his conversation was unintelligible. The lines on his face seemed carved there. I had no idea how old he was until this past week. I thought he was in his late sixties at least. Nate was fifty years old when he died.

This past October, right before the Shelter opened, I received an email while I was at work from a friend of mine saying that one of my favorite Shelter guests had been murdered. Price had been staying at someone’s apartment waiting for the Shelter to open and two men broke in looking for drugs and shot him and another man.  Price, coincidentally, was also fifty years old. I had met him the year before when he stayed at the Shelter. He  was very funny and had an infectious laugh. He was always quick to help out and the volunteers loved him. The Yoga class on Sunday nights was a favorite of his. I will never, ever forget the class when Cheryl was teaching us to do handstands. Price and I were partners and I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard in my life as both of us kept trying to help each other but , mostly, we kept falling down. My favorite Price moment came last May after the Shelter had closed. After our daughter’s wedding ceremony, she and her husband came out of the front door of the church  to make their way to the reception. Lined up waiting to congratulate them was a big group of the men from Central Night Shelter. Jessie and Cathal were so delighted to see them and the men loved hugging the beautiful bride. Price was the first in line and the photographer caught this sweet picture of him embracing Jessie in her Cinderella wedding gown. Though we had no idea at the time, it was the last time we would ever see him.

Life is cheap in the streets. Poverty and violence are close kin. Desperation can lead people down paths most would be loathe to take and the journey down those paths is fraught with danger. Both Nate and Price were sons and I cannot help but think of their mothers. Are they alive? Are they living with that terrible grief? Do they wish they could have done more? Or was their life much like Nate’s and Price’s? I will never know the answers to these questions but I do know that WE could have done better. We should not let the mentally ill be forced to wander untreated in the streets of this country. We should not force the poor to live in drug-infested areas where violence is common place. We should invest in our children and their education so that poverty does not become a family legacy.

 

Miracle

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2013 at 12:22 am

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As some of you know, Sunday is my usual night to work at Central Night Shelter. This season, for some reason, I have had multiple opportunities to be down at the Shelter during the week. And, though this makes for a long day, I feel each time that it is a sort of gift–a gift because, even after 30 years of serving at the Shelter, I am struck each time that I happen to be there on a different night by the miracle of it all. The volunteers are there, the meals show up, the lunches appear, the guests come, and all of it together makes for hospitality and community and home. And that seems nothing short of miraculous to me. We come from different faith backgrounds, from different political views, from all age brackets, from different motivations, from different socio-economic statuses, from all kinds of definitions of family and we work together in service both with and to our guests and to one another.

Though we come to the Shelter to serve, more often than not, it is we who are served. For in the act of service, we often discover true Grace. I have borne witness to many instances of Grace at Central Night Shelter over the years but one that stands out for me is the beginning of the tradition of the Christmas Party several years ago. It was started by a friend of mine whose son died tragically, shortly before Christmas and days shy of his 27th birthday. At the time, she told me that she would never celebrate Christmas again. But, the next year, she approached me with the idea of Mac’s Party–a celebration of her son’s life and Christmas for the guys.

Mac’s Party was a grand thing with heaps of party food, beautiful decorations, wonderful presents, and a multitude of children to help serve. Though I never found out how, word spread to the guests of my friend’s loss. I watched as, one by one, they went up to her to give their condolences and to thank her for their wonderful party. The healing that began for her seemed to me to be a palpable, living thing, suffused with light and warmth and breath. She had taken the devastation of grief and loss and forged it into new life with her service to these homeless men. They, in turn, with their gratitude and love, helped her find peace and hope and healing. Miraculous indeed…

 

Concrete Resurrection

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

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It was Easter Sunday, 1997, my last night to work at Central Night Shelter in downtown Atlanta. The shelter was closing on March 31st, two days away. I have always hated the last night. Each year I get to know so many of the men over the five months the shelter is open, and then suddenly, they’re gone from your life and you from theirs. Occasionally, we hear from them again, but often they simply disappear into the anonymous facelessness of the street. But I have to admit that my displeasure that evening did not stem solely from my altruistic motives. Quite frankly, I was tired – tired of leaving my family and friends celebrating the holiday, tired of the late nights on the phone begging for volunteers for the shelter, tired of the calls in the middle of the night from shelter emergencies. Fourteen years of working with the homeless seemed like more than enough – maybe it was time for a more “normal” life.

Needless to say, I was not in a great frame of mind to be at the shelter. However, we all came together – the overnight volunteers, the people who prepared the meal, the servers, and we made it happen one more night. As I was admitting the guests to the shelter, one of the “regulars” came running up to me, begging me to come with him around the corner to help this old man. He said the man had been there since early that morning. He and others from the shelter had been watching over him all day, waiting for me to arrive. I told him I would come as soon as I had let the rest of the men into the shelter. When I had admitted the last person, I looked up and he had reappeared, literally carrying an elderly white man in his arms. As they approached, the stench became overwhelming. The old man had soiled himself and vomit covered the front of his shirt. My first thought was, “He’s a drunk”; my second thought was, “Dear God, don’t put this in my path tonight.” I knew I could turn him away. I knew it was my decision. I knew I did not have to deal with this. Then I looked into the eyes of this black homeless man, carrying this white man, stench, vomit, and all, heard his pleas for help, looked and saw his compassion and felt my own shame. I opened the door wide to let them pass.

Still I knew we would have to deal with the reality – this man would have to be cleaned, clothes would have to be found, space would have to be made. While my mind was occupied with these problems, another knock at the door came. This time it was a young black man dressed in green surgical scrubs that said he worked at Grady Hospital and had been evicted from his apartment. He was asking for shelter for a couple of nights until he could get his affairs in order. Gesturing toward the old white man, he offered his assistance. Figuring that we needed all the help we could get, I let him in. In the meantime, the two volunteers helping me had gone up in the elevator with the elderly white man, still being held in the arms of James. As we waited for the elevator to come back down, I explained to Eric, the nurse’s assistant from Grady, that I would appreciate it if he would help me get the old man cleaned up as I really didn’t want to ask the volunteers to deal with this.

Going up in the elevator, I began bracing myself for the unsavory ordeal ahead. “Just do it and get it over with is the way to get through this”, I told myself. As we got off the elevator, I looked around the gymnasium, through the flurry of activity, trying to find the old man among the sixty other guests. Another one of the “regular” guests, Virgil, came out of the shower room and approached me, handing over some papers and a watch. Virgil told me that everything was under control- they had undressed him, were getting him in the shower, and had organized a collection among the guests for clean clothes. He hurried back to the shower room with Eric to bathe the man. I later found out that they had to get in the shower with the man, one holding him, the other bathing him, as he was too weak to stand on his own. Other men came up to me, one proffering a clean pair of pants, another a worn white shirt, another underwear and socks. I stood stunned and immobilized in the face of such compassion and generosity. Another volunteer took the clothes to the shower room while I examined the papers Virgil had given me. On one slip there was an address and name of a care facility. Lacking a phone book, I called my husband, Mark, at home with our two children. I explained the situation and he agreed to get on the phone and try to track down where Mr. Jones lived. Over  the next couple of hours Mark called periodically with progress updates. Yes, he’d found the nursing home. No, there was no administrator on duty because of the holiday. Yes, they were attempting to contact someone at home.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jones emerged from the shower with his two attendants. He was clean and dressed in fresh clothes. They had put his soiled ones in the washing machine. Closer inspection of the man revealed that he was blind in one eye, toothless, and barely able to walk. We had saved dinner for the three of them and sat down with them to see if we could garner further information from Mr. Jones. Virgil had to feed him as his hands were too shaky to allow him to feed himself. We quickly realized the extent of Mr. Jones’ confusion and accepted we would have to rely on Mark’s sleuthing abilities to find out where he belonged.

Another phone call. It was Mark again, telling us that they had located the administrator at home. Mr. Jones was indeed one of their patients – he had wandered away over 36 hours ago. The Atlanta Police had been notified but had not been able to locate  him. Mr. Jones was a diabetic, in precarious health, and they were extremely concerned about him. Mark and the administrator had spoken with the police and they were sending a police car to pick up Mr. Jones and return him to the care facility.

I returned to the now sizeable group of people with Mr. Jones and gave them the update. Mr. Jones, at this point, was looking comfortably settled in and quite pleased with all of the attention. I went downstairs to wait for the police officer. As I sat there alone for a few moments, I reflected on the selfless compassion exhibited by this group of homeless men, themselves thought of as the dregs of society. I pondered their generosity, giving clothes off their very backs to a stranger, spending that Easter Sunday watching over this man till the shelter opened, while scores of churchgoers passed by, no one helping. I looked squarely at myself and realized how much I had to learn from these men who were supposedly nothing more than a drain on our society. As I looked out the window, waiting for the police, I saw the rain and heard the cold wind, and I knew that, in all probability, Mr. Jones would not have survived this night were it not for the compassion of these homeless men.

The policeman arrived in his cruiser – a young, black man. I briefed him on what had happened as we went up to the shelter. He seemed truly amazed at the events of that night. We approached the group with Mr. Jones and the policeman shook everyone’s hand, telling each one they should be proud of themselves. Mr. Jones wanted to finish his coffee, so the policeman kindly offered to wait a few minutes. One of the volunteers brought him a plate of food and coffee. As we prepared to leave, the policeman looked at me and said what a truly incredible place this was. He seemed genuinely touched by the heartfelt scene he had witnessed. As we made our painstaking progress toward the elevator, Mr. Jones propped between two of us, the men called out goodbyes and good wishes. Mr. Jones nodded and waved, acknowledging his celebrity. A whole group of us crowded on the elevator – Mr. Jones, the policeman, myself, a couple of volunteers, and Virgil, James, and Eric (his caretakers). We explained to Mr. Jones that he was going home in a police car, though, in truth, he seemed more concerned about whether we had brought the rest of his dinner with us. The policeman made room in the front seat for him and we bundled him in, his wrapped plate of food on his lap. We all touched his hand, wished him well. The policeman shook our hands, thanked us, urged us to keep up the good work, and they drove off into the night. We stood watching them go, then turned to each other, laughing and hugging. Without words, we acknowledged we had been part of something rare and wonderful that night.

Later, as I drove home, tears came and I knew that on this Easter I had seen the holiness of humanity and witnessed resurrection. The resurrection of Mr. Jones from certain death on the streets, the resurrection of selflessness over race and class, the resurrection of heroes in the guise of poor, homeless men, and, from their example, the resurrection of compassion in myself.