Last Night on Outreach

Last night on homeless outreach, a young woman came out from under a bridge. She was dressed in shorts, a camisole, and shower shoes with white athletic socks and had a thin blanket around her shoulders which she held tight to her chest as if some passerby might rob her and leave her naked and defenseless out the sidewalk. Her hair was brown and shoulder-length, scrambled and tangled in knots that looked like they had been there for days.

            My job when the outreach bus pulls up to a stop is to put a hot meal, a bag lunch, and a bottle of water in a plastic bag and hand it out the door. After people get their meals, my job is to work with another volunteer to respond to their requests – for socks, underwear, sweatpants, hoodies, bug spray, tampons, blankets, tarps, and tents. And shoes. We give people shoes. Sometimes they ask for shoes but already have some, the team leaders say, joking that now they ask to see their soles before giving people shoes. I laugh but know they’re probably serious. If they say it, I bet it’s true or will be soon.

            While I am doing these things on the bus, other volunteers with a lot of experience and an air of confidence and compassion that I admire but don’t have just yet are outside of the bus talking to people. They chit chat, like friends would, they ask what people need, ask if they’re interested in shelter or housing and, if they are, they take their names. They joke with people and hug them and I watch when I can although getting the meals and supplies together is usually too intense to lounge around listening in.

We travel a 25-stop route through the city three nights a week. The group keeps up this schedule but I only go once in a while but I am trying to do more. Our bus is stocked with food and supplies and when we stop at an encampment, we beep a signal and wait. People come out from the woods, from under the bridges, from their cars parked in park and ride lots and then the expert volunteers stand outside the bus and talk and listen and bring order to times when there are many people and many requests and others of us on the bus fetch things that are needed. After a short while, we pack up and move on. Other people are waiting so we can’t linger.

            I gave the woman in boxer shorts a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. She took both while holding the plastic bag of food and then set off back under the bridge as I watched from the bus window.  I wanted to bring her on the bus, smooth the hair off her face, and tell her we could call her mother. Because I am so fresh to this, I think people’s mothers would come. There were seats on the bus but nowhere to take her. The shelters were full and she seemed sick with drugs, drenched with drugs, even I could tell. She wasn’t ready to go anywhere but back on the ledge that is at the top of the concrete incline that runs from just under the street to the edge of the river. It is precarious up there, so high, so hidden, and it made me sick to watch her shuffling off, but nothing more could be done. Not tonight, maybe next time, or the time after that. When she’s ready is when something more can be done.

            At the next stop, three men came out of the woods, each with clothes stiff from weeks of wear, their faces streaked and gray. They took food, looking into each bag wanting us to tell them what was for dinner but we’d forgotten because several different volunteers bring dinners each night and we never know what’s inside. It could be spaghetti or a cheeseburger. All we care about is that it’s hot. It’s a hot meal that we want to deliver. It’s a lot different than handing somebody a sandwich. Homeless people get handed a lot of sandwiches.

Then the men asked for things they needed, I don’t remember what, probably socks because everyone wants socks. When they get really dirty or wet, socks are thrown out. No one washes their socks except a few guys with established camps on the river. They have clotheslines sometimes crammed with t-shirts and pants and the clotheslines and their campfires make their places look homey like Grandma’s place at the lake. But mostly, people just peel off their old socks and leave them. You can see the debris back in the camps, shredded clothes moldering. It used to bother me, the wastefulness of wearing clothes until they fell off but it makes sense to me now. People who are homeless don’t have closets. They are wearing or carrying what they have. Dirty and worn out clothes get left. It’s just the way it is.

One of the men was so happy to see us and so glad for his new pants that he came up the stairs of the bus to hug me and because I wanted to not shy away I hugged him and then he kissed me on the cheek and shouted, “I’m so lovable!” And he was. He had dimples when he smiled and winked when he got off the bus like an old flirt at a niece’s wedding reception. He was a drunk homeless man but, in that moment, because of us, I think, and our bus, the light we brought and his dinner and dry socks, he had true joie de vivre and it made me happy. Then he faded back into the woods with his fellows.

            Our last stop was the biggest, with waves of people coming out of tents and from under a big freeway bridge to crowd around the bus and part of me felt panic rising like, at any moment, someone in the group could get angry or have a gun and something would happen. I learned long ago after being jolted by catastrophic surprises in my own life that anything can happen. I would’ve had a tattoo made with that phrase had I been so inclined. Instead, the phrase stays imprinted on my memory.

So, even though nothing bad has ever happened to me on outreach, I froze for a bit on the bus with the requests coming through the door in huge thick chunks – underwear medium, shoes size 10, sweatpants XL, a pillow, blankets, batteries, AAA and AA, and flashlights, everyone needs a flashlight because it’s scary out there in the dark. I think of myself out there with a flashlight I can hold in the palm of my hand, a blanket from the bus, and a fresh pair of socks and I shake my head. Where would I go? Would I just lean up against a tree in the park and go to sleep? Would I keep the flashlight on all night? What would I see with its light?

            We gave away dozens of blankets. It had been warm earlier in the day but now it was like early spring again and so people needed blankets, their old ones having succumbed to wet and rot. Finally, the last man standing was a young guy with blond hair cropped old school like in my brother’s high school picture. He wore cargo shorts and a button shirt, athletic shoes, and wire-framed glasses. He looked like he might have just come from class at the university down the street. He’d hung back while others came ready with their requests. And he waited a good long while to decide it was his turn. Finally, he came to the bus door and peered in. “Do you have any blankets?” he asked. “No, I’m so sorry,” I said, “we’re all out.”

            He shrugged and asked for other things, a t-shirt, a pair of underwear. We had those things but there is no replacement for a blanket when you need one and my mother’s heart sank that we couldn’t give him this one thing. Next time, we said, next time we’ll have more blankets and he nodded and smiled and walked off into the dark. It bothered me even though it didn’t seem to bother him so much. I thought I should come back later, after outreach is done, find him, and give him a blanket. But I’m not like that, not yet. I stay on the bus. That’s my job.

I Know My Place

On the bus last night, doing outreach to homeless people in our town, bundling up hot meals in plastic bags, forgetting sometimes to include a fork because I always make at least one error when I am doing this work, I loved my colleagues for their matter-of-factness about life and situations, ours and theirs, and their distilling compassion into tangibles like underwear and bug spray, and I follow one of them deep into the woods where a man is sitting waiting, his speakers blaring rock music that has him mesmerized, so loud it is that I stand back by the trees and wave to him, his friendly visitor who asks no questions until we are on the path back and then the answers are spare because that’s not how we do things, we wait for information to find us not the other way around and back in the bus my friends talk about how they loved New Kids on the Block when they were younger and how their bedrooms were plastered with posters and I remembered but didn’t tell them about Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and because those things felt like artifacts from a hundred years ago so I just sat and listened which was just as well.

On the Question of Homeless Photography

The homeless outreach group I work with has established a new policy asking volunteers to not post photos on social media of the homeless people we visit on outreach or their encampments.

It was a tough call.

Photos make homelessness real. A photo of someone carrying a bag lunch back to his encampment in the woods or standing at the side of the outreach bus with a new pair of socks in his hands has an impact on people. Very often, a person who is homeless looks like the guy who stood in front of you at the line at Kwik Trip, just a regular guy, and that is surprising to many. There is no homeless costume, no living on the street get-up. People look all different kinds of ways. So taking and posting photos makes homelessness not only more real but more realistic. It could be you, the photos say. Or me.

That’s something of great value in light of the tremendous stigma attached to living on the street.

The flip side is that the act of taking pictures can have a bit of a safari feel to it.

Oh my God! Did you see that guy perched up on that ledge?

I took a picture of Joe’s tent, he’s the guy who doesn’t come out all winter. There must be twenty blankets in there. Unbelievable.

And what is expressed as genuine amazement or alarm is often the photographer becoming viscerally upset at what they are seeing because what they are seeing is people living their lives outside, making their homes in precarious, dangerous places. So, naturally they want to record that because they want other people to see what they’ve seen and to be as shocked as they are.

I get that but I also get that posting photos gives the photographer a lot of street cred because, you know, there’s an undeniably large bad-ass quotient to doing homeless outreach. Who wouldn’t want their friends to know how bad ass they are? And, of course, being legitimately bad ass requires documentation.

Hey! I was there! Out in the dark and the rain visiting all the homeless folks.

It all comes down to privacy. A person has a right to privacy, a right to not be photographed or to have their home photographed, even if their home is a sleeping bag stuffed in a crevice under a bridge with a steep concrete incline down to a fast-running river, a situation that is so wrong and so frightening that the world ought to know about it. But if telling the world about it means that the authorities come and evict the person from his ledge without any other place to offer him, maybe that’s too big a price to pay to indulge our own shock and discomfort.

Sometimes folks want their story told. They want people to know what led them to living outside. Maybe they want the world to know they have a job but can’t afford rent or that they got injured and can’t work anymore. They have stories to tell about survival and triumph, getting through the winter with their friends, deciding to get treatment for their addiction, or reuniting with kids they haven’t seen for years. Sometimes they want to say thank you. And they’re smiling and they want their pictures taken.

That’s when we get the cameras out. For them, not us.

Good Morning, OB

To the left of the stairs leading up to the pier at Ocean Beach in San Diego, there is an overstuffed couch. A couple of guys with heavy blond dreadlocks are sitting on the couch and smoking while others in various types of homeless thick-wear (wearing everything you own) are wandering about, chatting, looking bored already. It is just 8:00 in the morning. The guys on the couch are too far away to say hello to, I tell myself. Plus they seem oblivious to me and why shouldn’t they. Another tourist looking at them. I go up the stairs to the pier.

At the top of the stairs, on the little space that is available to stand and admire the ocean and watch the surfers, the rest of the pier shut off to pedestrians for some reason not explained, there is a young woman in a black shirtdress that is gathered snug at the waist with a skirt that puffs out like there is a petticoat underneath. She looks ready for work, sprightly and tailored. She is wearing flip flops which seems incongruous given her dress and when she leans against the bridge railing and stands on her tiptoes to peer at people below, I see that the bottoms of her feet are black, as black as a five-year old going barefoot all day in the summer, but more, days’ worth of black. It has been a long time since her last shower. Still the dress, it seems fresh. I wonder how she keeps it that way.

Next to the pier, a parking lot has every space filled by residential vehicles, mostly vans but not all, some cars. The windows are covered with towels and shirts. People may be living in their cars but they want privacy, for heaven’s sake, reminding myself. People create places for themselves and the places have walls and doors that close even if those things are cars with windows covered with towels or tents with zippered flaps. The parking lot looks like a village. People have lived there a long time.

It is one thing to be homeless but have your place, however ginned up it is, and quite another to be out in the open with nothing, to sleep on the low wall along the sidewalk at Ocean Beach, say, completely exposed to everyone and everything. There are two women doing just that, both wrapped in blankets, sitting up wearily as I walk by, looking as if they are surprised they are still where they were the night before. I consider what it would be like to shut my eyes while I lie out in the open, to sleep exposed to the world although I’ve been told some people would rather be out in the open and see what’s coming than be in a tent and be surprised by what is outside. I don’t know.

None of the homeless people I see approach me. No one asks me for anything. One man says good morning but only one. It’s as if I don’t exist in their world, like I am invisible and I probably am. There are so many of us tourists walking by guarding our phones and our wallets, it must get tiresome, to have to live your life with all the onlookers, especially ones you know will go home and talk about you, all the homeless in San Diego, how they are all over the beach, and what a terrible problem they are.

The Peculiar Zen of Meal Prep

Every now and then, on no particular schedule, when I think I should or when I feel the need for total immersion in a task that is immediate and elemental, I do meal prep.

Meal prep is what Street Angels calls preparing and packaging hot meals for the homeless people on our outreach route. So depending on the time of the year, anywhere from 40 to 120 hot meals are needed for each night of outreach – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Volunteers do this. They buy, cook, package, and transport hot meals to the Street Angels bus by 5:45 p.m. on outreach nights. It’s both a science and an art. Food has to be generally appealing, nutritious, but most of all, hot. The food has to be hot. There’s a trick to that. I haven’t perfected it yet but liquid is key – sauce, gravy, soup, chili – liquids stay hotter than solids. Cold food won’t do for a hot meal plus there’s the matter of food safety.

I’ve taken to doing meal prep as a sort of meditation. For me, it is a zen experience. I can’t think of anything else during meal prep except the barbecued drumsticks or mac and cheese or tuna casserole, how to multiply a recipe for 20 to one for 60, what pans to use, how to coordinate my oven and Nesco cooker, and how to keep everything hot. Very hot.

For a while I was doing meal prep with a friend and then I realized, oddly, that I wanted to be alone in my kitchen. Talking disrupted the zen, consultation scattered my focus, what I gained in companionship, I lost in the clear sense of purpose and utility that meal prep can bring.

After I package up all the meals and deliver them to the bus, I drive away worrying about things I could have done better. I made pasta with sauce and Italian sausage and it was beautiful but had no Parmesan cheese. The tuna casserole was too dry because I’d panicked and added more noodles. Not all the barbecued chicken legs had a nice sear on them.

One night, though, I made chicken soup from scratch, simmering two big chickens for hours and then adding carrots and celery and noodles. The soup was a triumph but I delivered it on a night of the Polar Vortex so I knew it wouldn’t stay hot. I wished I could load a cauldron of soup on to the bus and ladle it out person by person. Instead I dropped off my cups of soup and went home, later that night getting a message from a homeless woman relayed to me by the outreach worker, “The soup was divine.” I almost cried. She said the soup was divine!

People all over Milwaukee, all over the country, do things like meal prep. I watched a man in a warming room kitchen dump three canisters of quick-cooking oatmeal into a huge foil tray, pour boiling water over it all, stir it, and scatter raisins and cinnamon over the top and then stand back to admire it like he was presenting a Beef Wellington at Christmas dinner. I know that look, I thought. It’s his Zen.

For those of us who come from go wash your hands, it’s time for dinner, this is what we have, we’ll have to make it stretch, who came to the table where meatloaf and mashed potatoes were waiting, steam rising, who listened to their parents talking in the kitchen while dinner cooked, who hated but loved family dinners because it was proof you belonged somewhere, meal prep has a lot of meaning.

Why Not Friday Round-Up

Why, Arizona can be a question or a place depending on whether you use a comma. The first time we came through “town” I saw the official sign for Why that included when it was established and how many people live there. So the whole time we were somewhere else I thought about how clever it would be to Instagram a photo of that sign with the caption, “This is Why,” but we couldn’t find the sign coming back without making a dozen U-turns to check out signs which you don’t want to do on AZ 85 when the sun is setting.

We’ve been gone for much of March, first to Alaska and then to Arizona. In both places we drank their local beer and we came home fat from thinking every night was a special occasion. We live now in the land of corporate beer and an unforgiving scale which I constantly adjust to make sure the line is exactly on the zero before I weigh myself. I lost half a pound that way this morning.

I stopped writing for a week and it felt good. It felt like I was out from under for a while, free of practically every obligation (being out of town and on the road a fair amount of time will do that), and free from thinking about whether anyone was reading what I had written. I quit the constant checking of my phone, turned off the reinforcement faucet for a while. I decided not to write anything until I missed writing which I did, finally, this morning. In anticipation, I started to make a list of themes last night but I forgot them until now.

Being physically present is no accident. We took a bit of a detour on our way from Phoenix to Organ Pipe National Park to see our grandkids in San Diego. And their parents. But mostly the grandkids – 5 year old twin boys and a 14 year old girl. It was six hours each way which is a lot for most people but not really for us because we like being on the road so much. The next morning while I sat watching TV with one boy, the other one, slow to wake, came out of his room, climbed up on the bed  and hugged me. I sat feeling his blond head resting on my back, his little wordless morning self. I didn’t want to breathe or speak lest he quit to run off and begin his day.

I delivered 4,379 tampons and pads and 60 pairs of women’s underwear to the Salvation Army today. This was after lunch with a good friend who asked me, quite pointedly, if delivering menstrual supplies was my end game for my Time of the Month Club effort or was there a bigger agenda and I told her, yes, that collecting menstrual supplies for homeless women gives me ‘talking rights’ on policy and programs which is true but also true is that packing my pink bags with boxes of tampons and pads and new underwear for women I don’t know and will probably never meet is weirdly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Don’t even ask me why. I have no clue.








Mornings in the Polar Vortex

She was an old woman who sat with her purse on her lap like she was waiting to be called to have her blood pressure checked. Instead, she was waiting for breakfast to be served at the homeless warming room and watching the TV mounted on the wall. It was all about the polar vortex, the wind chill, and how dangerous it was for people to be outside where the temperature was 23 degrees below zero.

She wore pedal pushers. That’s what I noticed first. Old fashioned pedal pushers with a rolled-up cuff falling just below her knee, pants I might have worn fifty years ago riding my bike on the dirt roads near our house. Maybe she has long pants stowed somewhere else, that happens, people look like they don’t have adequate gear but then their backpacks explode with jackets and hats. I didn’t think so. She just seemed to have her purse.

She wore white sneakers, substantial ones, not the thin skimmers, and white crew socks which were very thin. Both look like they’d come from the donation bin. Somebody else had put a lot of miles on her shoes before she’d laced them up. And the socks had come from well-meaning but thrifty folks who bought the 10-pack at Walmart, bless them, though, because without them, her ankles would be bare.

The space between her rolled up pedal pusher cuffs and the tops of her thin socks hit me hard. Her bare skin, her calves, swollen like thick poles from knee to ankle. Before she came in here – to this warming room that opens when it is 20 degrees or colder – she was walking around on the streets of Milwaukee in her pedal pushers.

I didn’t talk to her. She was sitting in the middle of a row of people watching TV and waiting for breakfast so there was no opportunity to sit down and chat, figure out if she wanted some pants that went all the way to her shoes. She didn’t ask. Neither did I.

Yesterday, my victory in the warming room was finding Depends on the very top shelf of the storeroom for a woman who had whispered her request to me, her not wanting anyone to hear meant I could barely hear her but I pieced together her request. So I was happy when I scored the Depends on the top shelf and I packed six in a plastic bag and took them to her. She was surprised, I think, because she’d pegged me for someone who couldn’t find the Depends or who wouldn’t try to find the Depends. No, sorry, they’re all out.

Today, a man got upset with me because I couldn’t hear him. He talked fast and so, so low, his voice trailing down his shirt. There was much he wanted to tell me but I focused again on his clothes, how spare his jacket was and how fragile his shoes which were duct-taped together. He had no patience with my preoccupation with his clothes and had other things to tell me and then finally backed up, exasperated with me when I asked yet again for him to “Say again.” It felt like a failure and a defeat and like I shouldn’t come back.

But then in the kitchen, I saw a man from last year’s warming room and he remembered me and hugged me. And we stood and talked because I could hear him easily, his voice being of the tenor and volume that work perfectly with my cochlear implant. It was good to see him although not in that place; I wish I’d run into him at Target when he was buying towels for his new apartment. But maybe that will happen later.

I volunteer at the warming room because I think I should but I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never know what I’m doing. I just go there in my long pants and my unreliable hearing and it feels like a solidarity thing but it’s meager, so meager. Today felt really meager, between the pedal pushers and the frustrated, unheard man. But I’m going back. I’m not sure why but I am.