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Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Power Play

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2013 at 8:26 pm

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I drove towards home from downtown Atlanta this morning in a gray drizzle. I was listening to a book on tape and thinking about brunch and friends and the cozy Sunday afternoon ahead. Suddenly, I saw a figure ahead. Surely it couldn’t be but it certainly looked as if there were a man walking down the middle of the road towards my car. As I slowed the car and drew closer, I realized that yes, indeed, it was a man walking down the middle of Dekalb Avenue. I pulled left into the suicide lane (the middle lane that changes directionally to accommodate rush hour traffic) and went around the man walking. As I passed him, our eyes locked for a moment and there appeared to be what I would call a gleam of triumph in his eyes. I kept sight of him in the rear view mirror for a bit after I had passed him. He never seemed to waver as more cars did the same slowing and drift to the left maneuver that I had employed. He had appeared to be one of the many homeless souls walking the streets of Atlanta–ill-fitting, unkempt clothes, overgrown hair and beard, a torn bag slung over his shoulder, a walking stick in one hand. His walk was plodding but determined.

What had moved him to abandon the sidewalk for the middle of the road this particular morning? Mental illness was the most likely culprit or, perhaps, he had grown tired of walking on the sidelines of a city that did not see him, did not acknowledge him. Maybe he was tired of being locked up in jail for sitting his weary body down in yet another forbidden place. Maybe, this one time, he was going to force us to look, force us to accommodate his trudging walk down the road.

When our eyes met as I passed him, he seemed to be saying, “Yeah, it’s somebody else’s turn to get out of the way today. Y’all have your big fancy cars goin’ to your big fancy lives but TODAY you be gettin’ outta MY way.” Maybe this small (albeit dangerous) stand in the middle of the road gave him some sense of power. And there is a serious deficit of power in the lives of the homeless. Inconsequential things can take on enormous significance when you have nothing. This explains the petty squabbles that can erupt in the Shelter over a particular mattress or its placement, over a seat at the dinner table, over a spot in the shower line, over what programs are watched on the television. They are usually quickly settled but there is a definite hierarchy that develops within the community and newcomers learn to respect it.

Many of us feel powerless–powerless over a government that often does not speak for us, powerless in the face of greed and corruption in corporations that run our planet, powerless to stop the unrelenting forces of time. But, imagine if you will, the impotence felt by homeless people. Imagine not knowing where your next meal is coming from, where you will sleep at night, where you will be able to go to the bathroom, where you might bathe or find clean clothes, where you might stay warm and dry. Imagine the shame in being kicked out of public places because of the way you look or smell. Imagine the humiliation in strangers crossing the street to get away from you. Imagine the countless indignities of getting through each and every day. We cannot imagine it because it is unimaginable. Yet, homeless people live through this every day.

So, maybe my guy walking through the rain down the middle of the road this morning was making his power play, grabbing at a small piece of the pie. Maybe it was a way for him to stake a tiny claim.  Maybe moving those cars out of their lane  was the only way for him to get through one more day. Maybe it was the only way for him to feel noticed. Maybe some people actually looked at him today…

 

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

 

Rescue Missions

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

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When I arrived at the Shelter one night this season I was greeted by some of the guests on the Clean Up Crew with that infamous dreaded opening line “Katie, we need to talk.” Now you and I all know that those words generally preface a problem. They proceeded to tell me the story of Roger, an elderly, homeless man who had been sleeping in the streets. He was a bit confused, very unkempt, and at times incontinent. They had witnessed others teasing him, making fun of him, cruelly taunting him. Warren said, “Katie, something needed to be done so we brought him home with us.” They took up a collection amongst themselves and bought some adult diapers. They cleaned him up, combed his hair, washed his clothes. They put his mattress near theirs and watched over him. Since he had come in without a referral, their question to me was, “Can we keep him here?”. After hearing this story of compassion, I felt unworthy to be ASKED the question much less ANSWER it. Can we keep him?? These men had seen past the stench and the filth, had seen through that all too raw and human exterior to the child of God.

Roger continued to stay with us for the next few weeks, never saying much but seemingly content to be near Warren. And then one Sunday when I arrived he was not there. The guys said that some family members had come for him. I thought that was great but the guys seemed less than enthused. I asked them what was wrong. They told me that they were afraid that the family had come for him because his check had come in and what they were really after was his check. I thought, “Surely not!!” Warren said the timing made it certainly a possibility because checks arrived at the beginning of the month.

A couple of Sundays later Jessie and Cathal arrived at the Shelter and asked where Warren was. I said that he had already gone upstairs. They had seen Roger on the sidewalk near Grady Memorial Hospital on their way to the Shelter. Warren, when he heard of the sighting, grabbed his coat and said he was going to get him. Jessie told him to get in the car and she would take him over there. Sure enough, a short while later, they returned with Roger in the back seat. Warren took him upstairs to the Shelter and got him cleaned up. You see, the guys had been right–his family had used him to get his check and then dumped him back in the street.
Jessie told me that, while she was well aware of the fact that they were on a rescue mission, she was emotionally unprepared for how tender Warren was with Roger. He got down and talked gently to him as one would a young child. He scooped him up and got him in the back of the car and directed Jessie back to the Shelter. There was a kind of fierceness to Warren’s tenderness with Roger that was a true privilege to witness. I can remember thinking that I hoped I would be treated with this same tenderness in my old age.

Roger disappeared again a couple of weeks later and we were all worried. But he showed up again one Sunday dressed in a hospital gown from Grady wearing paper slippers and carrying a few belongings in a bag. Warren came down and got him to take him upstairs in the Shelter. I voiced my concerns that he had escaped from Grady Hospital and perhaps we should take him back. Warren said no, said that he was better off for the night here with us and they could see about Grady in the morning. And, once again, Roger laid down on his mat next to Warren’s and peacefully fell asleep.
I am sure that Roger was in some way a gift to Warren as well as Warren being a gift to Roger. Most of us want and need to be loved and cared for but it is a blessing to love and care for another being. The opportunity to be of service to someone else reminds us of our own capabilities and compassion. It taps the wellspring of our humanity.

Photo credit: Andrew McQuade

Disturbing The Peace

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2013 at 2:10 am

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On November 1st Central Night Shelter opens its doors and welcomes 90 to 100 homeless men inside. Each year this welcoming begins the evolutionary process of creating a new community. Some of us know each other already but many of us are strangers. We talk; we work together; we share our stories; we get to know one another.  Some assume leadership positions while others remain on the fringes, preferring to not overly engage.  Each year has its own particular flavor and style, the result of the combination of many different individuals with vastly different backgrounds and personalities. Each season of Shelter is its own unique community. And, like other communities, we have rules and expectations that each of our guests must agree to abide by in order to remain part of the group.

Some of those expectations include arriving at the Shelter by 7:15pm, no alcohol or drugs, no fighting, and, of course, our most important obligation: being respectful of other guests and volunteers. Each of our guests, upon referral to us, must sign a contract agreeing to these rules. There is no tolerance for those breaking the contract. We are a large group of people living in very close proximity and boundaries must be in place for all of this to work. The guests, for the most part, appreciate the rules because the rules keep them safe and give them structure. Those who do not appreciate the rules rather quickly find themselves gone.

One year we had a guest who was in a motorized wheelchair. He stayed on the Shrine side of the Shelter as that space is on the ground floor so it would be more accessible for him. One Sunday, after he had been staying with us for a couple of weeks, a contingent of the other guests approached me and asked to speak with me. Agreeing, I asked what the problem was. They said that the man in the wheelchair, Joe, had been a problem. He was surly with the other guests and disrespectful to the volunteers. They wanted me to speak to him. I approached Joe later that evening and told him that there had been complaints about his behavior. Of course, he said everyone was lying. I went through my spiel about respect and living in close quarters. He went through his about how difficult his life was living in that chair. I warned him that he needed to comply with his contract with the Shelter. I told the other guys that I had spoken with him and we would see how it went through the next week.

I had to go down to the Shelter unexpectedly midweek for some reason or another.  As I let myself in the back door, I witnessed what the men had been talking about the previous Sunday. Joe was in mid-tantrum, throwing his plate on the floor, yelling at the volunteers, refusing to comply when told to settle down. It got very quiet as the guys all realized that I had arrived. Now, no one LIKES putting someone out of the Shelter but I REALLY was not looking forward to putting a man in a wheelchair out on the street. Yet it was clear to me that it had to be done. I walked over to Joe and told him to get his stuff together, told him that clearly we were not meeting his needs, told him that the best thing he could do was leave quietly. He proceeded to call me some very colorful names and pulled out my personal favorite: “And you people call yourself Christians?!?” The whole time I kept thinking about what I was going to do if he wouldn’t leave, what if he started chasing me in his chair, what if I was going straight to hell for throwing out someone in a wheelchair?!? After a boatload of invective, I finally got him out the door and turned to face the men and volunteers. They all started cheering and thanking me. And I realized that Joe had held us all hostage with that chair. His bad behavior had been allowed because of that chair and the fact that we could see from that chair that he had plenty to be angry about. I knew in my gut that the view was very different from that chair and the anger emanating from Joe probably felt justified to him. But the reality was that the community could not support him when he held us hostage. His anger and rage kept us at bay and prevented any real relationship. And so he had to go…

I still think about him and that night. I know there was relief on all our parts when he left, but the image of his wheelchair motoring down the driveway into the darkness of the streets has always stayed with me. I do know that I did the right thing. The greater good of the Shelter had to come first and if we could not help Joe, we could at least help the rest of the men for the remainder of their stay with us. I know also that we all have things that hold us hostage–anger, fear, self-loathing, hatred–and I know that we are the only ones who can rid ourselves of these destructive attitudes and behaviors that deny us full acceptance into community.  But the other side of this is that people need help. There should be more programs and access for those with emotional and mental illness. People living in the street simply cannot get well alone and emergency shelters such as ours are simply not equipped to deal with these problems.

This afternoon Mark and I went down and met a dozen young men from Georgia Tech who helped us put the Shelter to bed for the season. Mattresses were moved to closets, refrigerators and freezers cleared out, shelves emptied, trash thrown away. After the students left and we were locking up, turning out lights, I looked back at that empty Shelter space and I gave thanks for its nurture of so many communities over so many years.  I know that we do the very best that we can and I felt that I could hear the faint whisper of the communities yet to come…

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

 

Homeless No More

In Uncategorized on April 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm

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The call came about eleven in the morning last Sunday. It was Easter Sunday.

“Katie, this is Cheri. I spent the night at the Shelter last night and I am afraid that I have some bad news.”

“What happened, Cheri?”  Car break-ins, lost keys, forgotten belongings were some of the possibilities running through my mind.

“John, one of our guests, came to me about 12:30 last night and said he felt like he couldn’t breathe. Ken and I called 911 and they responded very quickly. They worked on him right there and then took him out to the ambulance and worked some more  on the way to Grady Hospital but he did not make it.”

I felt like I had been hit in the gut, sucker-punched. How could this be? We open these doors to keep people alive, to keep our guests safe, to give them some sense of normalcy, of life. We do not open these doors for death to come in.

“Katie, the guys are going to take this hard and I wanted to make sure you were going to be there tonight.”

“Yes, I will be there tonight. I am always there for the final night of the season, Cheri. I will talk to the men but I don’t know  what I am going to say. Thank you, Cheri, for everything.”

 

Really, God, really??? This is the best you’ve got?? This man hasn’t lived a hard enough life?? So now he gets to die alone in a shelter. I want a do-over. I want the Resurrection. Show me some of that stuff. I have seen enough of the other to last me a lifetime. Sorrow and resentment and fatigue curdled in my stomach.

We made our way to the Shelter that night-Mark, Jessie, Cathal, and I. Some other friends of ours along with their three sons were there with us as well as a multitude of volunteers from a congregation in Peachtree City. The volunteers had made a big effort to have a fabulous dinner and Easter treats for all the men. You would expect to find a somber scene, knowing that this was the last night.  But the mood is always surprisingly upbeat. Before dinner when we said Grace several of the guys stood to give thanks  for what we had given them over the last few months. I made my little speech and then we spent some time walking around talking with the guys, careful not to ask about plans unless they offered. There were lots of hugs and promises from the men to return not as guests but as volunteers. But I could not get the image of John dying in the parking lot outside the Shelter out of my mind. I could not shake loose of my anger. The sorrow from John’s death along with the sadness of the last night of the season crystallized into a bitter, dark resentment of WHY??

A couple of days later I received an email that was written by Stuart, one of our volunteers who helps coordinate the Foot Clinic. The Foot Clinic takes place every Wednesday night at the Shelter. I personally think it is the happiest night of the week at the Shelter. Every guest who wishes to participate is given foot care–basically, a pedicure–and a new pair of white socks at the end. The volunteers who undertake this ministry (and it is certainly ministry in its truest form!) are truly angels and provide such an incomparable service to our guests. John had started attending the Foot Clinic the last few weeks of the Shelter, coaxed to participate by the volunteers. In his email, Stuart wrote a lovely tribute to John and to the other volunteers of the Foot Clinic. He spoke about how the somewhat reclusive John had found community and caring and relief with this committed group of caregivers. He spoke about the last night of the Foot Clinic and how relaxed and happy John seemed. Stuart gave thanks for the comfort our guest had found at the Shelter.

After reading Stuart’s tribute, I looked at John’s death from a new perspective and I realized that John had found a sense of family and community with us and that had been a gift not only to him but to us as well. There were people within that community who remembered him and mourned him. And the lesson I needed to take from the passing of this life was not one of anger or resentment but one of possibility and hope. Negative emotions and self-righteous anger can have a paralyzing effect. We throw up our hands in despair that nothing changes and throw blame at God and government. But the reality is that we must be the change and we must help bring possibility to those who need it.

  John came into the Shelter a shy recluse, embarrassed about his lot. Through the hands of caring, compassionate volunteers he became a person who belonged. He died having found community and acceptance and therein lies the resurrection…

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade