Sit still, fold your hands
Worms wriggle on their own hooks
Tie themselves in knots
Sit still, fold your hands
Worms wriggle on their own hooks
Tie themselves in knots
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.
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.
The room is full of nuns. They’re easy to spot with their short hair and pastel blouses, elastic waist pants, and sensible shoes. More than that, they have an aura of calm and camaraderie that I think comes from having been together a long time. They were probably girls when they first met, when they first started out on their nuns’ lives. They’re old now. It’s so rare to see a young nun.
The nun sitting next to me looks up only slightly when I greet her. She is a famous nun in our community but very quiet. She seems to be at critical places as a witness, her witnessing legendary in its length and consistency. During the panel discussion, she writes tiny notes on a piece of paper. Her handwriting is so small that the pen scarcely moves. She writes as a student given a single piece of paper to last all through the school year.
We are listening to a panel discussion about sex workers in Milwaukee. I’m here because it seems like homelessness would be a big problem for sex workers and because I’ve been thinking about making the program that is working with sex workers one of the distribution sites for my Time of the Month menstrual supplies collection for homeless women. I’ve thought about this in the past but something always stops me. I shuffle the idea around in my mind. Are these women really homeless? Do I want to collect donations to support sex work? I knew something wasn’t resting right in my mind so I signed up for this panel discussion. I need to listen to some wisdom, I thought, rearrange my head.
We are three or four speakers into the discussion when the program director stands up, shakes her head as if to clear it of all the talk about public health and housing and gets down to the nub of it all. She looks out over the audience and says, “It’s about who’s deserving and who’s not.” She goes on to explain that somehow we’ve decided that women who are trafficked are deserving of our help and women who aren’t, who are engaging in sex work to “do what they need to do to get by,” get through the day, get money for food or drugs or a room, those women are seen as not deserving. And so these undeserving women are draped in stigma even through they have been victimized by sexual trauma, violence, racism, poverty, and oppression that repeats every day.
And I think, damn. I have held this stigma in my heart, unknowingly maybe, but surely. I have regarded women who are sex workers as less deserving than women who are homeless, held back on this little bit of help I offer – my donated tampons, pads and underwear – because of what, what they have to do to get by, or because, as the speaker says, they are doing something I would never do?
I know without asking that the nuns in the room have long ago sorted this out and made the choice to embrace all women as their sisters. Their acceptance is palpable, like it is a real thing living in the room with us, and I wonder why I hadn’t noticed it until this moment. It isn’t that easy, though, to be surrounded by acceptance and become accepting oneself. It takes more time, more work, but I begin and am glad for this time and this place.
She slept with her partner on an inflatable mattress that they carried around with them. They had their own blankets, too.
When I came to the homeless warming room in the morning, they would always be set up against the wall, same spot every night. He would be up and about, busy folding their blankets and seeing to getting her coffee and food. She would be sitting on a metal folding chair, sometimes on the seat of a walker.
She was heavy and unwell-looking. Her look was so fierce that I avoided her. I never once went to talk to her. I talked to some of the men, the friendlier ones, but mostly kept to myself and my task of folding blankets and cleaning up. I steered clear, having it in my head that she would ask me for something I didn’t have. It was a worry that came out of nowhere and was just attached to her. I don’t know why.
Earlier this week, I was told she had died. She’d had a terrible cancer just diagnosed on top of her other problems, many of which caused her constant pain and probably explained her fearsome countenance. It is very difficult to smile when one is hurting badly. I might have known that had I asked but I didn’t. I just assumed that she was a mean character.
Now I’ll never know what she was really like.
There is a memorial service for her in a couple of weeks. If I go, I’ll probably learn more about what she was like as a person. And I’ll probably kick myself for being scared off by a mean look. It was a rookie error. I want to think it was a function of being new, not knowing my place, not knowing what to say. Next time will be different, though. I know what to say now. I’ll say hello, how are you, tell her my name, ask how I can help, chat about the weather. I learned how to do that from her, even if we never spoke.
In today’s news, we have this. It’s good news that will, at least temporarily, wash away the grime of everyday news. This is about heroism and gratitude.
Five homeless men saved our son. We are still in awe and almost speechless that anyone would run toward a fire instead of away from it. But these men did and my son lived to thank them. Or start to thank them.
Watch the whole story here.
She packed the stroller with books and bags of heavy things but no baby. The baby had grown up to be a teenage boy. Sometimes he went with her but mostly she walked alone, fast and determined like she had to get somewhere far at a certain time or there would be a big price to pay. To make the trip harder and really worth it, sometimes she would pack a backpack so full of heavy things that it would sag down below her waist. She was thin and muscular from all that walking and focused, very focused, always looking straight ahead and pushing, pushing, pushing. Passers-by would stare the first few times they saw her with her loaded-down stroller and wonder where the baby was and they’d think that maybe she was homeless or crazy. Some would conjure up a dead baby and make her a grieving mother. Others talked about her to their friends. She was their oddity.
Photo: Josh Wilburne