bashorkatie

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Witness

In Uncategorized on September 30, 2013 at 3:02 am

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I replayed the message on my voicemail. “This is Ms. Martinez from the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office. I am representing Jackson Williams. He has listed Katie Bashor as a possible character witness. Mr. Williams has a bail hearing set for next Tuesday. Please call me back at 404-566-xxxx as soon as possible.”

The month was May and the Shelter had been closed for a few weeks. I knew Jackson, of course. He had served on our Clean-Up Crew, a group of five to six guests from the Shelter who help set up and break down the Shelter each evening and morning. These guests assume somewhat of a leadership position in the Shelter and help provide continuity for the guests and volunteers. Jackson had been a wonderful addition to the Crew with his even-handedness and calm demeanor. He was respected by both the other guests and the volunteers. I was surprised but not shocked to hear that he had been arrested. Homeless people are frequently arrested for sleeping in parks or panhandling or public urination or any number of offenses that come from having nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go to the bathroom, nowhere to eat. I decided to call Ms. Martinez back the next morning.

“Ms. Martinez, my name is Katie Bashor and I am the Director of Central Night Shelter. I am returning your phone call in reference to Jackson Williams.”
“Ms. Bashor, thank you for returning my call! Mr. Williams has a bail hearing scheduled for next Tuesday and I would like to call you as a character witness.”
“Ms. Martinez, can you tell me what the charges are against Jackson?”
“Yes, he has been charged with Aggravated Assault. Ms. Bashor, why don’t you tell me how you know Mr. Williams and what your relationship is to him.”

I explained my position at Central Night Shelter and how I knew Jackson as one of the guests who resided during the winter months at the Shelter. I went on to tell her of his leadership position among the guests and how well-liked he was by all of us. I asked her if she could elaborate on the charges against Jackson. She told me the story. One night there were several homeless men and women hanging out in one of the parks downtown. There had been an argument between two of the men, apparently, over a woman. A gun materialized and one of the men was shot in the hand. By the time the police arrived the victim had disappeared and so had the weapon. All of the witnesses were homeless people and accounts differed but more than one person said that Jackson had been the shooter. He was arrested and taken into custody. Further investigation revealed that the victim had sought medical attention at Grady Memorial Hospital but had told medical personnel that he had accidentally shot himself in the hand. The victim apparently had an outstanding warrant against him in Alabama and disappeared from Grady before he could be questioned further. Ms. Martinez seemed to feel that she had a good chance of getting the charges dismissed because they could not find the victim or the weapon and all of the witnesses were unable to be contacted because they were homeless. Jackson had already been sitting in jail for more than a month at this point. The bail hearing was an attempt to get him released until his case could be settled.

“Ms. Martinez, while I appreciate your efforts on Jackson’s behalf, I teach at an elementary school and it is almost impossible for me to get away during the day. I would have to take the entire day off and May is a crazy time of the year with sooo much going on. Is there any way I could write something up and email it to you?”
A long silence followed and then she said quietly, “He has no one else to speak for him.” I felt the color rise in my face and I was ashamed – ashamed of my selfishness, ashamed that she had to point out Jackson’s plight to me. I told her I would try and make arrangements and let her know later in the day. She assured me that she would call me first in order to get me back to school quickly.

The following Tuesday I made my way downtown to the Fulton County Courthouse. I made my way to the courtroom where Jackson’s case would be heard. Ms. Martinez had told me to ask for her so she would know I had arrived. The courtroom was packed, packed with people of color. In fact, the only white people were the Judge, the Prosecutor, and I. The spectators were mostly African-American women and children. The Defendants were overwhelmingly African-American men. A Bailiff approached me and asked if she could help me. I told her I was there as a character witness and was supposed to meet Ms. Martinez. She told me that they were reading the docket and she would inform Ms. Martinez that I was there. I took a seat with the other women. I began to feel uncomfortable at my presumption in asking to have my schedule accommodated by testifying first, my presumption that my time was somehow more valuable than all of these other women’s time.

“Ms. Bashor, thank you for coming. We have a fifteen minute recess and then Mr. Williams’ case will be called first. The Judge understands your time is limited.” My stomach churned again at my arrogance. The Prosecutor made his way over to me and asked if he could speak to me. I was unsure (isn’t he on the bad side? Was I supposed to talk to him??) but I agreed (steeling myself not to be tripped up by this guy!). I repeated the things about Jackson that I had told Ms. Martinez—responsible, trustworthy, calm, reasonable, respected. And, finally, I said, ”Look, he attends the Yoga class that I teach at the Shelter on Sunday evenings! Does that sound like a violent person to you?!?” He laughed and thanked me for coming.

I watched as Jackson was brought into the courtroom. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut as he walked in chained and shackled, clad in an orange jumpsuit. He no longer looked like the man I had known but rather like the prisoner he had become. He refused to make eye contact with me. His expression was a desperate amalgam of defeat, anger, resignation, humiliation. Always a thin person, Jackson appeared positively gaunt having lost about twenty pounds. I took the stand and answered the questions asked of me, earnestly trying to convey my sense of the man before us. I think I had a vague sense that if I could somehow help Jackson, if I could just convince this judge of his worth that I would in some way be atoning for my own arrogance and thoughtlessness. I willed Jackson to look at me but his eyes remained downcast.

I left a message for Ms. Martinez asking her to call me and let me know the outcome. She kindly called later that afternoon and left her own message. Surprisingly, Jackson had been released on his own recognizance. She felt that I had swayed the Judge’s opinion of Jackson.
The Prosecutor was making a deal as well, agreeing to drop the charges if Jackson attended anger management classes. Ms. Martinez thanked me for my help but it was I who had been helped—helped to see that we who are able must speak for those who have no one, helped to see the blindness of my arrogance and presumption, helped to see the disparity in our system of justice, reminded once again of the injustice of poverty.

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

Incoming

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm

In the Fall of 2008 my family had to make the heart wrenching decision to put my father in the  Alzheimer’s unit of an assisted care facility in Idaho where my parents had moved to be closer to my brother and his family. His care over the previous months had simply overwhelmed my mother and taxed the resources of my brother and his family beyond what any of us could have anticipated. It was a time of grief and brokenness for all of us but, most especially, for my mother. She was being separated from her spouse of over fifty years. Their life together as she had known it was at an end. We decided that Mom should come to Atlanta for a few weeks to remove her from the situation and give Dad a chance to settle into his new surroundings.

Her flight was due in late and then later still because of delays. When my sister and I finally saw her at the airport it was close to midnight. Mom looked frail and exhausted sitting in the wheelchair. My sister took off saying that she would get the car and bring it to the front of the airport. I got to Baggage Claim and quickly realized that I could not negotiate the wheelchair, the luggage, and my mother’s walker which we had to retrieve from a different site. At this point I just felt undone. The unsettling sight of my mother’s frailty, the horror of my father’s dementia, the lateness of the hour, the uncertainty of what the future held for my parents and for all of us came crashing down and I thought I might burst into tears right then and there. As I looked down at the walker which had been sent as checked baggage, I could see that it had been folded and secured with zip ties. Mom kept insisting that if we could open it up she could walk with the walker while I handled the luggage. I told Mom that no, I would call my sister and tell her to come back and help us. As I pulled out my phone a man in a security vest walked by and my mother called out to him, “Excuse me, could you help us? Do you have a knife?”. I am thinking, “MOM, please do not be talking about knives in the airport in this age of Homeland Security!!!”. The man stopped and said that no, he did not have a knife but could he help us in some other way. I said, “My sister is bringing our car around. If you could just help me get my mother outside while I get the luggage, I would be so grateful.”

The man looked down at me and smiled and grabbed the handles of my mother’s wheelchair, saying, “Katie, I would do anything for you.” With that, he took off towards the outer doors. I stood for a moment, stunned. Had he really said “Katie”? Had I inadvertently left my ID badge on? Did I know him? I grabbed the luggage and took off after him. When I caught up with the wheelchair I said, “Excuse me but did you just call me “Katie”?”.  He looked down at me again and smiled that smile. He leaned in a little closer to me and said, “Katie, I am one of your guys, one of your guys from Central.”.

As we waited on the curb for my sister to come, he filled me in on his situation. He had stayed at Central Night Shelter eight years ago. He now had an apartment, a job at the airport, a life. He asked for Mark and wanted to know how Ryan and Jessie were doing, even remembering their names. I think I offended him when I attempted to give him a tip. He told me what a blessing it was to help me and my family. My sister arrived, introductions were made, and he carefully handed my mother into the car. He embraced my mother and told her what a privilege it was to meet her. He hugged me close and I did not want to let him go. I know this might sound strange but it was as if I could FEEL his strength and his courage somehow buoying me up, supporting ME. It was as if I could feel the  strength and courage it must of taken for him to break out and through and beyond the chains and cycle of homelessness and now, he was pouring that strength back into me. Of course, there was no way for him to know what my family was going through at that time, but it felt as if he knew on some molecular level that we had troubles and he wanted to soothe us. As we drove off into the night, he stayed on the curb waving us onward as if to give us heart for the journey.

Five years later in June of 2012, I was interviewed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and, as part of that interview, I told this story to the reporter who wrote it into her piece. In November of 2012, I stood outside Central Night Shelter, letting the guests in for the night. One man hung around until the end. As the last of the men entered the Shelter, I asked the man if I could help him. He looked at me and removed a worn, folded newspaper from his jacket. He held up the story and simply said, “It’s me, Katie.”. He had read the story in the paper, carried it with him for those last six months, and knew that he could find me at the Shelter on a Sunday night. We hugged and laughed and felt blessed twice over. He was on his way to the airport so he could not stay long but his visit carried me through the Shelter months last season. He came again on the last night of the Shelter in March and was able to see Mark and Jessie who had come down with me.

I have been shown over and over again that we can find strength and courage and heart in all kinds of places and in all kinds of people if we only have the eyes to see it and the openness to feel it.

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

 

Proof

In Uncategorized on September 16, 2013 at 12:36 am

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I sit on the Board of a non-profit organization called Hands Around the Hill that raises funds for other organizations that help homeless people.

One of our fundraisers is an annual 5K race in downtown Atlanta in the early part of June. I LOVE the race! The starting line is right outside Central Night Shelter and across from the gold dome of our state capitol building in the heart of downtown. I coordinate the volunteers for the race and recruit heavily from my school as well as from our considerable wealth of Shelter volunteers. Many of our guests watch and cheer from the sidelines. We have a DJ and face painting and awards. The combination of my love for the Shelter and my love of running is one I find very satisfying.

This year at the race my friend Jackie found me at the end of the race and told me that she had someone she wanted me to meet. She brought over a gentleman who had run in the race and introduced him. Willie stepped forward and shook my hand. He said, “You know, Katie, I have been clean and sober for the past eighteen years. And I have spent the last eighteen years telling my story and giving thanks for Central Night Shelter. The Shelter saved my life when I was so far down I might have died in the street. I have given thanks to God but I never thought I would have the chance to thank you and Mark so THIS is a real blessing.”

There was much hugging and more than a few tears following this introduction and me dragging Willie over to tell Mark the story. We stood together and reminisced about those days long gone at the Shelter. Willie is doing fine, clean and sober, housed. He works out at a gym. The gym is where he met my friend Jackie. She told him about the race one morning and mentioned the Shelter. He honored her by sharing his story. Jackie bought him a race entry and begged him to come, assuring him that I would be there.

I have carried this story with me all summer, taking it out now and again for the hope and encouragement I keep finding within it. There are times when I wonder if what we do makes a difference—the need seems impossibly huge and overwhelming at times. I believe these stories are sent to me to bolster my sometimes faltering faith. I know in my heart that there are countless similar stories from the last thirty plus years but, like Doubting Thomas, it is reassuring to see the proof at times.

As we prepare to open Central Night Shelter for another season, I can feel eighteen years of gratitude lifting me up, eighteen years of gratitude helping to throw open wide the doors of the Shelter, eighteen years of gratitude giving hope to another community of guests, eighteen years of gratitude giving the dedication of our volunteers a firm foundation. And for this, for all of this, I give thanks…

 

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade