©Jane H. Johann, 2016
This winter, I found myself in Bellingham, a city of contrasts and beauty. Along the waterfront of Bellingham Bay, hundreds of expensive yachts dot the shores and then there are the Homeless People sleeping without comfort or blankets in the doorways of businesses two blocks away.
This is an account of my experience with the people who find themselves homeless in this city with a small town atmosphere.
Since my daughter worked during the day, I had a lot of time on my hands after cleaning the one bedroom apartment. So I would carry my feet out the door, and begin walking.
The “Old Downtown” begins with the Lighthouse Mission, that is just a stone’s throw away from Whatcom Creek. During the day, many homeless people frequent the park, sitting on the concrete steps or on a few park benches that grace the green park. Usually, many just sit on the ground in a group, drinking the free coffee that the library provides them.
For the first several weeks, I shyly watched their activity, passed them in the early morning hours as they lay sleeping in the entrances to many of the businesses down the main street. Some were wrapped in sleeping bags, others, piled with layers of clothes and cardboard. My daughter, who works at one of the Social agencies in town, told me that there is a two year waiting list for subsidized housing in this city. The average rent for an apartment is between $650 and upwards. The average social assistance check for an individual without any financial means, is about $720. So how does a person who is living homeless, raise themselves out of that situation without an advocate?
Perhaps if we could each adopt one Homeless person, we might succeed. How do we begin?
I thought I needed to begin to do something. And my beginning was overcoming my fear and speaking to a Homeless person and to see them as a human being.
The weather this past winter was moderate, not 70 degrees but survivable outdoors. While I was there the temperature lingered around 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C). Still, I could not imagine lying on the cold concrete all night long, with the usual morning fog precipitation, and waking up feeling invigorated.
Each day, I would leave the apartment and say to myself, “Today is the day I will speak to a Homeless person.”
I walked with fear and my usual shyness among them. Obviously, Mother Teresa I was not!
Maybe that is one of the reasons of WHY she is so admired. She stepped out of her comfort zone and did for thousands of people what so many of us fear to do for one person.
I have been away from city life for the greater part of the last 29 years. I read about the Homeless people and do NOT like addressing them as shadow people–as someone graciously corrected me, because if we call them shadow people, we are stripping them of their reality and situation, making them less human to ourselves. We are removing them one more step from ourselves. So, yes, I have read about the Homeless, on occasion I have handed out dollar bills when going into the city. Quickly being admonished by others for giving out money. But then I think, “Hey, once in a while it is nice to have some real money in my hand and make my decision as to what to buy with it.” I have also handed out McDonald’s bags—not too sure about that nutritional value. I have handed out fruit—but more often, dollar bills.
Now I found there were many Homeless people all around me. Every day I walked among them. And in the four weeks that I walked through Bellingham City, NOT once did a Homeless Person approach me or ask for money.
I felt very uneasy…guilty that I had a place to stay…and they had none. I had food to eat everyday, and most of them had none. I was working up my courage to approach one of them and help them in any way that I could. I guess, in truth, it is part of my underlying issue of having a purpose myself, of wanting to stay involved in the human struggle and make a difference.
I thought, “They are people and deserve recognition and dignity. Any one of us could find ourselves in this very situation.”
So one morning, I spotted this young lady, about in her 40’s, sleeping in a door entrance on West Holly Street, not far from Whatcom Park. She had about three blankets piled high upon her, in addition to disheveled hair and layers of clothes. I began walking towards her and was determined I would speak to her and buy her breakfast. I was about three feet from her, when she suddenly jumped up from her sleep, and literally went dancing into the streets, screaming and waving her arms and continued at an incredible pace down the street. My initial reaction was being startled by her behavior and then I thought, “Oh my God, I frightened her!” Then, I did not know what to do because by that time, she was quite a distance from me. She disappeared from my sight and I was left with my thoughts. I didn’t know what to do or to whom to speak to about my experience. And, she also had to no one to talk to…no one to share her experience with…socialization is a missing component when one is homeless. It was obvious to me, that this woman needed medical assistance. This is another missing component of our society–many of the mentally challenged are not helped. Why are they not taken care of by us? Is our neglect born out of fear, born out of legalities of the law, born out of the complacency in our society that these things are NOT our personal issues and we do not have to get involved?
That day passed with no resolution.
The next day, Christmas Eve morning, as I was walked a bit further East and down Cornwall Street, I spotted this very tall lady, wearing sweatpants that were just below her knee, leaving a good 12 inches bare to the wind, an oversized jacket, and some tattered gloves on her hands. She appeared to be about 70ish and had long white hair neatly tucked under the red tuque that donned her head. She was also carrying a trash bag. Then I later heard from another acquaintance that I met there, who has since become a good friend, that Marta makes the rounds throughout the neighborhood and collects all the aluminum cans that she can carry, every Tuesday.
I passed Marta and then stopped myself. I turned around, and returned to her and said, “Excuse me. I know you don’t know me. I am just visiting the city and was wondering if you could give me directions.” It was not that I needed directions, but I didn’t know how else to begin the conversation. Marta responded very politely to me and we talked a little, and she told me where she lived and then we parted. I walked a bit further, and then I called back to her. I said, “You know, tomorrow is Christmas. I want to share something with you. I handed her some money.” She said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Please, it isn’t much but you are working so hard to help keep this city beautiful. You deserve it.” She finally accepted it and went on her way.
I don’t know what she did with the money, but I thought she would put it to good use. I don’t know if it helped or not—what I do know is, that I make contact with another human being and recognized her as a person. I am sure I benefitted more from the encounter than she did. I do suppose it was more for my growth than hers.
The week continued, and I made more conversations with more Homeless people. My uneasiness was beginning to evaporate. Eventually, I carried with me a bag of apples, and would offer a piece of fruit to those I met along the way.
During one of my final weeks in Bellingham, I encountered a man named Chuck, seated on the steps of Lara’s apartment building, under the overhang, and he was nursing a cup of brew, and reading a book. As I was entering the building, I said, “Hi, what are you reading?”
Chuck told me about the science fiction book by Philip Pullman, and I recognized the author from my teaching experience. We spoke for a bit. He told me he was waiting for a ride to a day job, painting and helping a carpenter contractor. He said he didn’t get much work since his stroke, had been in Vietnam and was a vet. He was planning to marry this summer. Chuck was about 60 something, grey-haired and a friendly fellow. Our conversation ended and I entered the apartment. I put some food together in a bag, and took it out to him. He thanked me and then I returned to my warm apartment, thinking, “…this man has done so much for so many. He is trying to do the best he can for himself.”
We met a few more times, and then I told him I would be leaving Bellingham soon to return to Wisconsin. Chuck then said this to me, “I am so happy we met. You didn’t judge me. You stopped to talk to me. You treated me like a human person. I can just feel it when people are judging me, thinking I am nothing. Thank you. Thank you for making me feel like a worthwhile human being.”
I returned the favor to him, saying, “You made my daytime less lonely. It was good to talk with you. Thank you!”
Later that day, I went downtown to a book store, looking for the sequel to the book he was reading. I found the next two books to THE GOLDEN COMPASS and decided to purchase them for Chuck. I created a card, wrote him a note, stuck a few dollars in it, and wrapped the books.
I didn’t see him anymore before my departure…and felt sad about that, but then Lara surprised me and said, “Mom, I will watch for Chuck and give him your gift.”
I was so happy to hear her words!
And last Friday, more than a month since I left, Chuck reappeared on the doorsteps. Lara saw him and gave him the gift. She said he was so happy!
I received so much more than the very little I gave to these people, who are sleeping and living on the streets of Bellingham. I am very blessed to have what I have but I also know I need to do more for others. Now I am again in my cornfields, and I have to find a way out of the maze.
The Homeless People of Bellingham made me feel welcomed to their wonderful city!
I have found several very good suggestions on Facebook about little ways people can help the Homeless People. One suggestion is to get some sandwich bags, put a healthy grain bar inside, a piece of fruit, perhaps a toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clippers, a wash cloth…any small item that would be useful to a person who has no home.
tuque: Canadian term for woolen hat