It was hot on the bus. Especially if we were parked waiting for our friends to emerge from under the bridges or the woods where they were living. The wait was never too long since they knew we were coming – Street Angels shows up in our mini-bus every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. We hand out hot meals, bag lunches and a host of other things – batteries, underwear, blankets. soap, razors, flashlights, t-shirts, jeans, and socks, many socks. You see, when you are homeless and your socks are worn out and dirty, you throw them away. Washing clothes takes a whole level of storage and wherewithal – it doesn’t work when you carry what you own on your back.
A woman shows up at the bus door. She looks exactly the same as when I saw her two weeks before. She is self-sufficient looking, the type of woman who could change the locks on her doors herself, and right away, I wonder what’s her story. Why is she out here? Does she have friends? Does she travel alone? Is she afraid? What was her life before? Does she want to go back there? She walks off after getting a bag full of food and an extra t-shirt, her backpack slung over one shoulder as if she is youth hosteling through Europe but she isn’t. She’s living outside in a park and she has been for a long time.
The men come in pairs and groups. And I wonder how much their being in a group defines who they are and how much they would be surrendering if they left their friends to go alone into subsidized housing. Sometimes people turn down offers of housing and I am slowly understanding why. We can’t imagine it but there is a sacrifice there, a giving up of a way of life that includes shared hardship and little survivals as a trade for what must seem like isolation, sheltered but cut off from the camaraderie of street life. I hypothesize this but there are limits to what I can ask. I don’t have to know everything the minute I want to know it.
We stop where a woman is sleeping on a step covered by layers of blankets. She wakes, smiling. Though it is hot, she is zipped up in a parka, the hood pulled tight around her face making her look like a little girl bundled up by her mother for the worst winter weather. She sits up, smiles widely, and chats with us. The light from the street lamp lights her face and she seems merry almost, which maybe she is in that moment, because we are there with our own smiles and our hot food and supplies. She radiates the kindness we are trying to deliver as if, under different circumstances, she would just as likely be ministering to us.
Driving away on the bus, I want to know the woman’s story. Why is she there? Why can’t she find a place in shelter? Isn’t she afraid to sleep alone in a public place, sleep with her back to the street?
I get home about 11 and head to bed. My husband is sleeping. I turn first to face the window that looks out onto the street and then turn to face his back, his soundly sleeping self. The pillows are rough and I can feel down feathers poking through the pillowcases, my nightgown twists on my legs and needs straightening every time I turn from one side to the other. My arm, which I hurt in a fall a few days before, aches from hustling the hot meals and bag lunches into carrying bags but what is keeping me awake is having been so close to the woman sleeping on the step, seeing the faded crocheted blanket that was the first layer of her bedding, each successive layer spread so neatly and correctly. How had she come to that step?
I will myself to lie still and let go of the need to know. The answers won’t change that she is sleeping on the step. Or that I am not.