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.