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Brave

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2014 at 5:02 pm

photoIt was a hectic night on Christmas Eve at Central Night Shelter. We had a wonderful Jewish congregation spending the night on both sides of the Shelter. They have done this for us for several years, knowing this was a difficult night for us to find volunteers. They had to divvy themselves up and decide who was going to stay where. We also have this extraordinary family who solicits, organizes, and provides gifts for each of our Shelter guests. Bill H. is a force of nature! Each of our one hundred plus guests receives a tote bag stuffed with goodies—toiletries, flannel shirts, socks, gloves, and hats. These all had to be organized by size and divided up between the two Shelters that evening. This was all in addition to the normal busy chaos of housing and feeding a hundred men!

Luckily, our daughter, Jessie, and her husband, Cathal, came to help while Mark took my mother, who was visiting from Idaho, home from Christmas Eve Mass. The overnight volunteers got themselves sorted to the two sides of the Shelter. Bill H. and his family got all the gifts down from the storeroom and divided the gifts and themselves to do the distribution between the two sides. With everything in place, I decided to open the doors a little early to get folks inside out of the cold. Cathal went over to the Shrine side to let in the guests there while I did the door at Central. It was busy at the door over at Central as we had both the guests coming in for admittance to the Shelter and congregants of Central Presbyterian arriving for services but everyone stayed in good humor and it finally came down to the last of the men coming in for the night.

A man stepped forward at the end with his ID, stating his name. I looked but he was not on the previous night’s list. I told him that since he had not been in last night he would have to get a referral to get back into the Shelter. This is standard operating procedure and is explained to each of our guests when they are referred to us. I recognized this guest from the Sunday night prior as he had an issue that night as well. I made an exception and let him in, thinking at the time that it was probably a mistake. I was stern with him on Sunday and went over the rules again, telling him that there would not be another second chance. Now, here he was again, trying to talk his way past me with a story of a medical emergency and a trip to Grady Hospital. I asked to see his discharge papers from Grady, knowing that he most likely could not
produce them. He became belligerent and loud and insistent. I asked him to leave the property and told him he would not be allowed to come into the Shelter. Of course, this is taking place while members of Central are trying to come in for Christmas Eve services so I was more than ready for this guy to move on. Suffice it to say that he indulged in ugly name-calling, verbal abuse, and accusations of racism before finally leaving the property. This kind of episode is fairly rare but never pleasant. Several of the guests were still downstairs waiting for the elevator and witnessed the encounter. They were very upset about it and kept asking me if I was all right. I assured them I was fine but I don’t think they believed me because as soon as they got upstairs they sent down some guys from the Clean Up Crew to check on me.

Finally, we closed the doors and went upstairs. I introduced the overnight volunteers, the food crew, and the Trainer. I asked the Jewish volunteers if they would say a Hebrew blessing for our Christmas Eve dinner. They readily obliged and laughed when someone said “Hats off, Gentlemen!” They explained that in the Jewish tradition they keep their heads covered for prayer so the guys happily kept their caps on. The meal was served and I got ready to go check on the other side of the Shelter. A man who had been downstairs with me during the incident approached me with his arm outstretched to embrace my shoulders. He put his arm around me and murmured, “You were so brave.” His other arm came from behind his back holding a doll. “This is for you, Katie.” I asked him if he was sure and he said yes, that he wanted me to have it. I thanked him and hugged him again.

On the way to our cars after we had wished everyone well and left for the evening, Jessie realized I did not understand the significance of the doll. She explained that it was the main character from an animated movie called “Brave”. To give this gift exchange even more context I need to explain that the guest who gave it to me is African-American and gay. Homophobia pervades our culture but it can be vicious on the street so if there were ever anyone who needed a “Brave” talisman it would be this man. Yet, he had given it to me, the white woman going home to her comfortable home and loving family. I remain humbled by his generosity and caring spirit. I have kept the doll in our living room where I see it all the time so that I will be mindful of bravery in its many forms. The bravery of our guests as they put one foot in front of the other while enduring the harsh realities of the street, their courage as they face a future that is uncertain at best, their steadfast hopes for a better life, their gratitude and faith for what they do have—all of these serve as models of bravery for me. I will hold my talisman close in my heart along with these men who teach me so much about living a life of service and gratitude.

A Gift Returned

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm

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A few days ago we celebrated the holidays at Central Night Shelter with our annual party called “Mac’s Party”.  It is a celebration that was born out of pain and grief for my friend Carol who turned her loss into something quite extraordinary and wonderful. Carol rallies the troops—friends, students, fellow teachers, parents, and grandparents. They all come bearing gifts and donations. There are real Christmas trees to be trimmed with decorations made by First Graders. Children earnestly string popcorn. Bread, lunch meat, and all of the accompaniments are spread out as parents don plastic gloves to supervise young ones packing a hundred lunch bags and a hundred breakfast bags. Garland is hung. Tables are transformed with tablecloths and centerpieces.

 

Oh my! And the food!! Prime rib, shrimp cocktail, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken wings, broccoli casserole, ham, biscuits, and every kind of desert you can imagine. All of it is set up as a buffet and the men are allowed to fill their own plates and go back for seconds and thirds. Carol even brings containers for them to pack plates to go with them the next day. There is a whole crew of volunteers who work tirelessly in the kitchen churning out the food, making sure all of it is hot and delicious. The children stay busy refilling drinks, passing out extra napkins, and making themselves available to fetch anything the men ask for.

 

Santa Claus always makes an appearance even though this is his busiest time of year! He takes his time and goes around the gym speaking to every single person there. He poses for countless pictures and listens oh so carefully to the whispered wishes of the children. I always see him lean in close to talk to our guests. I hear him speak of love and magic and miracles.

 

Carol has gifts for each of the one hundred men: socks, hats, a McDonald’s gift card, and a ten dollar bill. The men are beyond thrilled with their gifts. The gift card gives them not only a meal but also a place to sit and be out of the elements for a bit. And, of course, cash is something they almost never see.

 

Towards the end of the party that evening one of the guests came up to me and handed me the gift card and ten dollar bill, insisting that I take them. I told him that they were a gift and belonged to him. His words to me were, “This Shelter has given me so much already. I cannot possibly accept another gift. You all have done more than enough for me.” And, with that, he walked away with a smile on his face. This small moment from the party keeps coming back to me. In our culture of want and need and must have it seems to me extraordinary that a man with seemingly so little returns his gift out of gratitude for what he has already received.

 

The gift of the party to the Shelter has been returned to Carol in the form of a healing balm. It has been returned to the community of volunteers who now find this gathering to be a highlight of their holiday season. The gift of the party to the guests has made them feel a part of a community that cares for and values them.  The gift returned to me in this small moment during the party has become a small gem I take out to remind me of the rich depth of my life, the magnitude of the gifts I am given each day, and the need to keep gratitude for it all close to my heart.

 

Photo Credit: Jessie Bashor

 

 

 

Citizen’s Arrest

In Uncategorized on November 27, 2013 at 2:25 pm

208095_515009170938_4997_nI was in the kitchen at Central Night Shelter one evening reading notes the volunteers had left about the previous night. I heard a commotion and looked up to see a couple of the volunteers running across the gym floor. As they reached the door to the kitchen, they both began talking at the same time.

“Slow down!”, I said. “What’s going on??”

One of the volunteers took a deep breath and said, “Steve’s wife is in labor and he needs to leave right away. He can’t get out of the parking lot though because some guy is parked in the middle of the driveway. Can you come down and see if you can help us?”

Steve was one of our overnight volunteers and he and his wife were expecting their first child. I grabbed my coat and we made our way down to the Shrine parking lot. Sure enough, there was a black sedan in the middle of the driveway, blocking any cars from exiting or entering  the parking lot.

Steve came over to me and said, “It looks like some guy is sleeping in the car but, man, I have GOT to go!”

I approached the car on the driver’s side and peered in the window. The man had his arms around the steering wheel and his head down in the middle of it. I knocked on the window. No response. I knocked again. Nothing. I began to pound hard on the window and shouted for him to open the door. Finally, the man raised his head and looked around, bleary-eyed. I tried the door but it was locked. I motioned for him to roll down the window. He lowered it just a crack but far enough for the noxious fumes of alcohol to waft over me. I turned my head and told one of the volunteers to call the police.

“Sir, please exit your vehicle immediately.” I thought maybe if I sounded authoritative he would do what I was asking. And, sure enough, he unlocked the door and started to climb out. It was obvious to all of us that he was very drunk.

“Was the problem, Offisher?” Oh great, he thinks I’m the police! Well, I just went with it since we did not have time to fool around with this guy and I did not want him to get on the road in the condition he was in because he would likely kill himself or someone else. My hopes were to stall him long enough for the police to arrive and to try and get the car moved out of the way so Steve could leave and get to his wife.

“Sir, you are under arrest.”, I said. He peered at me and it seemed as if  the cold wind had brought him out of his fog a bit. Finally, he said, “You ain’t no policeman!”  In my best Barney Fife imitation I said, “Sir, this is a Citizen’s Arrest.”

By now, a couple of the guests of the Shelter had come out to make sure I was all right and they stood behind me. The guy looked at me and looked at them and, suddenly, he dove into his car and slammed the door. I grabbed the handle and yelled at him to get out, willing the police to arrive. The two guests were yelling at me to get away from the car. They kept saying, “You don’t know what he might do! He might have a gun!”

The man jammed the car into reverse and hit the gas, squealing his tires as he drove away. I yelled the license plate numbers so we all could remember them. The police car pulled up and I shouted that it was a drunk driver. I gave him the car description and pointed in the direction he had gone. The adrenaline must have been flowing because I pounded on the roof of the squad car and shouted, “GO, GO, GO!” He took off and squealed his own tires as he gave pursuit.

Steve sped out of the parking lot honking his horn as he left. The rest of us stood there looking at each other. Finally, one of the guests who was out there said, “Damn, girl, you’d think you was Hawaii Five-O!”

That’s me, Katie Bashor, Serve and Protect…

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

A Little Help!!

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2013 at 1:08 pm

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I stood close to the dinner tables making some welcoming remarks and announcements about upcoming events. As I looked around at the men seated before me I noticed one Shelter guest gesticulating to me and mouthing the words, “I need to talk to you.” I nodded to him to show that I understood and finished up my remarks with an introduction of the group of volunteers who were spending the night. The evening unfolded in typical fashion. Though it was opening night for the season, it was, after all, our thirty-third season so we were all well aware of what needed to happen. Dinner was served, tables were cleaned, coffee was poured, the shower room opened. It seemed as if a hundred people had questions that needed to be answered.

I finally slowed down enough to notice the man who had indicated that he needed to talk to me waiting patiently. I nodded to him again and he got to his feet and made his way over to where I was standing. He was tall, African-American, fairly young I thought, though it was hard to judge. People age in untold ways living on the streets. He gestured to a somewhat empty patch of floor a few feet away. Over the years I have often taken note of how the men always seek out a bit of privacy for a conversation with me. I think it is not so much that they don’t want to be overheard but rather that they are trying to command my undivided attention. It always reminds me of our son, Ryan, who, as a toddler, used to crawl in our laps and put his small hands on either side of our faces to hold us in place while he said what he had to say.

“People said I could talk to you. I just need a little help.”

“My name is Katie. What can I do for you?”

“I want to thank you for this place. I have been on my feet for twenty hours. I got to Atlanta fifteen days ago and I don’t know anyone. I been stayin’ in the streets but I am afraid to lay down cause I know it’s not safe. I found me a job at a label company but I’m afraid I’m going to lose it if I don’t get some rest. I know the rules say I got to be here every night but I’m afraid they will ask me to work overtime and I won’t be able to get here. Ma’am, I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I want to make my own way in this world but I just need a little help.”

His eyes were glassy with fatigue and he swayed a little as he talked. I put my hand on his arm to steady him and he seemed to relax a little. I explained the process for staying out for work and how he could get an excused absence. I told him that we would try to work with him on his situation.

“Why don’t you finish your dinner, take a hot shower, and get some rest? Everything will look better, will seem more possible in the morning when you feel stronger.”

The relief on his face was palpable. I am sure he already knew all the things I told him. The referring agency would have explained all of this to him when doing his intake. I believe he just needed to have another human being hear his story, know his trials, feel his battle. He just needed a little help. I give thanks for all those volunteers who come each night to Central Night Shelter manifesting that help with a hot meal, a night given in service, a spirit willing to listen.

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

Namaste

In Uncategorized on October 27, 2013 at 9:22 pm

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I was introduced to Yoga about eight years ago through a parent at my school. Cheryl is a Yoga teacher and was focused at that time on children’s Yoga. She approached the school about doing a Yoga Club after school and talked with us about incorporating Yoga into PE. I told her I was intrigued but had never done Yoga. She suggested that I attend a four-day Teacher’s Training the following month. So, without ever having done so much as a “Downward Facing Dog “ pose, I found myself in a class with Cheryl and Amy, her co-instructor (and currently a Shelter Yoga teacher!), and a group of quite experienced Yogis. I survived (barely) with the help of ibuprofen and two very patient instructors as well as a cohort of extremely supportive women. Cheryl and I became friends and, like most of my friends, she was sucked into the vortex of Central Night Shelter and the Sunday Night Yoga Class at Central Night Shelter was born.

We meet every Sunday from 5-6pm in the Shelter space during the months that the Shelter is open. We have guys show up every Sunday—sometimes we have a large number and other times it’s a cozy group. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when Cheryl first broached the idea of Yoga at the Shelter. I was unsure of the response we would get but the guys who come seem to love it. I am sometimes a student and sometimes a teacher in the class but I always feel I have learned something new from my practice with the men. One thing I love in particular is how hard they work and how diligent they are at following instructions. I love that they can laugh at themselves and with each other. Seeing the guys seated on a Yoga mat, unencumbered by their bags and coats and belongings, is almost like seeing them in a different way. The relief of their physical burdens brings an ease to their postures. As they relax and breathe and concentrate you can see the transformation.

I had been reluctant to teach any sorts of partner poses for fear that the men would not want to hold hands or touch each other. One evening though I decided to take a chance. If they didn’t like it we could always change things up. It was the BEST class ever!! I realized that the men are so seldom touched by anyone and this forum gave them a safe place to experience supportive human contact. I discovered that I, too, loved doing the partner poses with them. It gave me a new and different way to interact with the guys. We know in our personal lives the power of touch and human connection. We know the healing power of touch. I cannot fathom why this was such a revelation to me that it would be a powerful way for the men to interact!

The final pose of a Yoga class is “Savasana”  or “Corpse Pose”. You lie on your back with your eyes closed, hands turned palms up, breathing deeply. It is a pose of relaxation and rest, allowing the body to incorporate the physical changes from your practice before re-entering life. Often, the Yoga instructor will go to each student and make adjustments—pressing shoulders down, cradling the back of the skull to relax the neck muscles. Can I just say that the guys LOVE Savasana!?! It is not uncommon for one or two of them to begin snoring! I have to say I love it too! Lying on that gym floor, grounded in what I have always considered sacred space, feeling connected to and a part of this community of homeless men has become an integral part of my life. I know that it has changed me and changed the way I interact with the men.

Namaste. The light in me sees the light in you. Our vision for the class has always been that this would be a community class with homeless and housed practicing Yoga together.  Come join our class and see the light that shines out, through, and beyond all of us…

 

Photo Credit: Thomas Benefield

Room in the Heart

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2013 at 12:42 am

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When our son Ryan was 13 months old, due to some rather unique circumstances, we brought home a gentleman from the shelter to live with us. We were much younger then and perhaps more idealistic and naïve but this man touched something deep within us—touched us in a way that made us take a chance. His name was Randy, and Mark and I had known him through the shelter for several years.  This year was different though because he had gotten a job and appeared to be doing much better.  Unfortunately, soon after he moved in with us, his employer let him go, having hired him, in reality, only for temporary help during the holiday season, though he had represented the job to Randy as a full-time, permanent position.

Randy became quite depressed with this set-back, another in a long line of such disappointments and frustrations, but he struggled out each morning of a very cold winter to pound the pavement, desperately trying to find another job.  He kept insisting that he felt unworthy to continue to stay with us, since he wasn’t working.  He usually came home from these discouraging, fruitless searches after we had already eaten our dinner, in part, I think, because of the shame he felt at being again unemployed.

We always kept a plate of food warm for him to have when he got back.  Ryan had just learned to walk by then, and he would go running for the door when he heard Randy’s key in the lock.  When the door opened and Randy stepped inside, Ryan would throw his arms up in the air and squeal “Ray-ee, Ray-ee!” in the sheer delight of seeing his friend Randy again.  Randy would pick Ryan up and carry him in one arm, murmuring to him softly as he set about getting his dinner.  Then he would put Ryan on his knee, separate a portion of food to the side of the plate for Ryan to eat, and they would have their dinner–Randy’s first of the day and Ryan’s second.  All through their shared meal they would talk together, although neither Mark nor I could ever really understand their non-stop conversations in the way that the two of them could, both of them seemed in complete synch with the other.

Randy stayed with us for nine months–I always thought that was a rather symbolic length of time–moving out just before our daughter Jessie was born.  During these months with us he found a job, one that he held for many years; saved money for all the deposits needed to rent an apartment; and, most importantly, was able to heal a little.  During those nine months of living with us, he went from a man who would cower in the dark in our basement if we were not home, for fear that the police would see him inside and arrest him for being in our house, to a man with a job, an apartment, an extension of our family, and a man with many friends in our neighborhood.

Randy continued, and still continues, to be a part of our family.  He spends holidays with us, visits on weekends, goes to the Shelter to volunteer. Throughout Ryan’s and Jessie’s childhood Randy was there–playing games, giving rides, listening to their latest tales of neighborhood exploits, going to sporting events. He never married nor had his own biological children but Ryan and Jessie are part of the very fabric of his life.  He told me once that he loved Mark and me, and could never repay us for what we’d done for him, but that truly it was Ryan who had saved his life that winter. He said with such earnestness, “Ryan is my heart.” And when Jessie came along she took her place right beside Ryan in Randy’s heart where they both have stayed.

Mark and I took a chance with Randy. It could have turned out badly I suppose, but thanks be to God, it did not.  We took a chance on love and it has made all the difference, not only in Randy’s life, but in our lives and the lives of our children. My hope for each of us as we continue our journey is that we are able to feel the power and healing and forgiveness of unconditional love within ourselves, so that, in turn, we are able to reach out with acceptance and tolerance to those around us.

It has been my experience that the harsh realities of life are an inevitable and universal part of the human experience.  Reaching out to others, moving beyond ourselves, allows us to make those human connections, forge those human relationships where we are able to find love and community.  And it is within this love and community that our lives will be transformed.

Photo Credit: Andrew McQuade

You Ain’t No Brother

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2013 at 12:16 am

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In addition to being the Director of Central Night Shelter, I am part of what we call the “Street Crew”. There are seven of us—we each take one night of the week. For a gazillion years my night has been Sunday. The Street Person is the individual who has keys to open up and let the volunteers into the Shelter. We mainly work outside with the guests before the Shelter opens and are responsible for admitting the guests to the Shelter. This means screening the guests, making sure no problems find their way inside. It is not one of the easier jobs or roles of the Shelter. It takes a certain temperament—someone who can stay calm in the face of chaos, someone who can play mediator, someone who can make the hard call and tell a guest they cannot come inside that night. I can honestly say that there has been more than one night when I have come home and lamented my place on the Street Crew but, at the same time, I have felt it was important for me to be out there in that role. Seeing the numbers of men turned away each night is heartbreaking but it also keeps me focused on the importance and necessity of what we do in providing shelter. Being on the Street Crew also helps me get to know some of the guys. There is some time to talk and joke around while we are waiting for the Shelter to open. Once we are inside, time is short with dinner being served, showers need to be opened, clean up needs to be done. But outside, we have a little time and space to exchange greetings and catch up on the week.

One Sunday, many years ago, my brother, Michael, was here visiting us. As I got ready to go downtown for my regular Sunday gig at the Shelter Michael said he would like to go with me and help out. I welcomed his company and we set out for the Shelter. Upon arrival, we let the volunteers in to start dinner and get the Shelter set up for the evening. Once preparations were under way, Michael and I made our way back outside to chat with the guys. One of my favorite guests that year was a guy known as “Big Mike”. He was African-American and about six feet four inches with broad shoulders. He was not overweight at all but, definitely, a big guy with a big heart and a great sense of humor. Big Mike was waiting outside for the Shelter to open that evening and I introduced him to my brother. Now Michael is also a big guy—a shade over six feet five inches, broad-shouldered with an athletic build. He, too, is a very funny guy with a big personality. Big Mike and Michael immediately took to each other, joking about both being “Big Mike”, just the salt and pepper versions. The other men gathered around them, drawn in by all the laughter and camaraderie. Soon it was time to let the guys into the Shelter and Big Mike went in with the rest of the guests. I sent Michael upstairs to tell the volunteers we could start serving dinner. Once I had finished up at the door I went up to the Shelter and found Michael seated beside Big Mike at one of the dinner tables. They motioned me over and I sat down across from them. I had told Michael that I usually stay and eat dinner with the guys so he and Big Mike had saved me a seat. That particular evening the volunteers who had brought the dinner started the meal with a bowl of cottage cheese with canned pears on top. After we said Grace, Michael tucked into his salad. Looking up, he noticed that many of the men were ignoring their salads, including Big Mike.

“Hey, Big Mike, aren’t you going to eat your cottage cheese, man?”

“Nah, you want mine? You seem like you like it!”

My brother replied, “Sure! It seems like a lot of the guys aren’t eating their salads. What’s up with that??”

Big Mike shrugged and looked down at his plate, seemingly reluctant to say more. Michael pressed on saying, “Really, man, what is the deal with the cottage cheese?” Big Mike looked him in the eye and said, “For real, you want to know??” Michael said, “Yeah, I really want to know!”

After a long pause, Big Mike looked across the table at me and back towards my brother and took a deep breath and said, “Black people don’t eat that crap.” Michael and I burst out laughing, both of us thinking he was kidding around with us. But he was dead serious.  “That is most definitely white people food! Black people are like, man, that’s something you find leftover after a few weeks in the back of the refrigerator!”

Big Mike and Michael spent the rest of the meal bantering back and forth about the merits and distaste of cottage cheese keeping the rest of us at the table in stitches. Finally, Big Mike declared that he was going to prove his point that his people did not eat cottage cheese to Michael. We were seated at a table close to the shower room. As the men finished their dinners and passed by us on the way to take a shower Big Mike proceeded to take a poll. Each guy that went by was asked “Hey, man, you eat cottage cheese?”

“No, man, I hate that stuff!”

“Never touch it!”

“That stuff tastes awful!”

And on it went with Big Mike easily proving his point. Finally, one guy went by and when asked if he ate cottage cheese he replied, “Yeah, man, I like cottage cheese!”

There was thunderous silence and then Big Mike slapped his hand on the table and pointed at the guy, bellowing, “You ain’t no brother!”

We all laughed like we would never stop and the poor guy who liked cottage cheese just kept staring back over his shoulder at us like we were out of our minds as he made his way to take a shower.

Mark’s grandfather used to stop some family squabbles saying, “De gustibus non disputandum est.” This is Latin for “Regarding taste, there can be no argument.”

Laughter can be the great equalizer, helping us to see our common humanity. Black and white, homeless and housed, gay and straight, we are all human and we can all learn one from the other. And if we can have a few laughs in the midst of it, the experience can be that much richer. I, for one, cannot look at cottage cheese to this day without laughing…

 

Photo Credit: Mark Bashor

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