Sunday, November 17, 2013
Stories from the Streets: Hope a Little Longer
As most know, or should know, I've spent some times on the streets. It made its definite bends in my personality and not something I will ever forget. In those times, I met some remarkable people whose stories will never be told, names never known. Every now and then some of those times whisper to my creative ear and I feel the need to tell a story- some of them fictional, some of them based on actual events, people.
The following story is fictional, but it can be stated that of course its based on the very true reality of what happens every day to those that are forced or choose to live a life on the streets as displaced or homeless persons.
This is such story that has been nagging my brain for the past week. And perhaps its due to the holidays-- make sure you give a gift at this time of year to someone you may never know the story of, or the name of....but know you made a difference without needing the return. Or so you think...for what you give...always comes back to you in one way or another.
Volunteer, donate-- give something.
Thank you- J
"Mommy, I'm hungry."
She looked down at her two-year son and felt guilt wash over her. She had tried to get them to the Southside Mission on time before they met their quota of space by 6pm, but got there minutes too late. Now they were facing another night on the chilly streets with empty stomachs. She dreaded a night of holding her son tight, crying with each grumble of hunger her son's tummy sounded.
How had it gotten this bad so quick? They had an apartment and his father to help just a mere 6 months ago, but it all went away when she lost her job. Her boyfriend had decided that there was no reason to stay and there went their only income. The landlord has been less than forgiving and had evicted them after only missing one month of rent. She and her son had come home to the small, cold apartment being padlocked from the outside with a trash bag of their clothes sitting on the stoop and the rest of their belongings locked up inside to be sold to pay the debt.
She had frantically tried to find a job and child care. Had signed up on the housing program wait list that was three years backlogged. So far she had found nothing and each day was a struggle to just get food and find a place to sleep. Competing with each other homeless person and family seeking the same. The shelters and missions only had so much space, so much food, before they had to turn people away and it was a first come, first serve basis. Some days she was some of the first. Other days, like today, she was not.
"I know baby. Mommy's trying." Her son pressed himself against her leg, wrapping his arms tight as she shifted the heavy tattered backpack on her weary shoulders. It held all they owned-- clothes, toothbrushes, hairbrush and their id's and his birth certificate. Long gone were the days of toys, except of the one stuffed puppy her son would not let go of. She had no fancy lotions or soaps, no makeup or shiny hair adornments. She had almost forgotten what those were like as she kept the few ponytail holders that remained on her wrist so she could keep her greasy-- washed whenever she could-- hair in a ponytail. As her fingers brushed through her son's hair, her eyes looked around desperately for some solution, knowing it was useless. She was too tired to go across town to only be turned away from the other missions as she did not even have the few coins to take the bus. She fought back the urge to cry. To just sit and let herself give in to the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness of what her life had become. It wouldn't be so bad if it was just her...but knowing she couldn't take care of her son?
She could have given up by now. Ended it in front of a bus, jumped from a bridge, given in to the hunger and the cold and hope she'd be forgiven on the other side. But as she looked down at those big always trusting eyes of her son, she knew she'd keep trying. For him. She was all he had. And he was her everything. And as much as it seemed to be better to give him up to one of the adoption agencies or the state, she couldn't and wouldn't break that trust. Not yet. Maybe soon...she knew with heartbreaking realism... but she wasn't there yet. But almost...
As she looked up the block, she made a decision and squatted down to whisper to him. "Wait here okay?" He nodded and she gave him a hug with a kiss on his dirt smeared cheek. "I'll be right back. Promise." He searched her eyes, squeezing that tattered stuff dog and then whispered back. "I promise too."
She made sure he was hidden behind a off-duty cab and trash cans as she jogged across the street, the heavy weight of the backpack feeling like it was loaded with rocks. On the corner, a sandwich vendor was selling hot sandwiches as he called out his menu to passer-bys. She put her head down as she moved through the late day crowd, unnoticed. She always wondered why the homeless became invisible to those that were not. She used to get looks from men with her petite frame and wide hazel eyes but not now. Now she was just another forgotten, unwanted, unwashed and useless waste of humankind. It was easier not to be seen than it was to deal with the wrongs of society.
As she approached the sandwich cart, she paused as the vendor became occupied with a customer before she moved forward and past to snag a sandwich as she walked by.
"Hey! I saw that! Stop." She hadn't made it but a few steps before the vendor was grabbing her arm and yanking the sandwich from her grasp. "You stole this? From me? I am sick of you street trash thinking you can just take what you want and not pay. Police! Hey you..." A police officer was walking a few yards ahead and turned to appraise the situation. She felt fear paralyze her as the officer walked over.
"What's going on here?"
The vendor went on to say how she had stolen and he wanted her arrested. The officer, who had the kindest brown eyes, looked down at her. "That true ma'am? Do you have money to pay for the goods?"
The officer most likely knew she did not, and she felt tears sting in her eyes as she shook her head. She didn't. She didn't have a single dime. Not a sole penny. Her eyes drifted over to see her small little blonde haired boy who was hugging the light post amidst the trash cans. Panic filled his eyes with fear bleaching his skin pale. Oh god, if they arrested her, he would be alone on the streets. What had she done?
"I don't. I'm sorry. I just..." The vendor ranted and raged about how he was tired of losing inventory to street vermin and wanted her to be taught a lesson. To her his words became a dull white noise as she closed her eyes. She just needed to get back to her little boy. "Please. I was just hungry. I just needed....I tried the mission." She was fully crying now as she pointed down the street where the mission was located "But they were full. No more allowed tonight. It's just a sandwich." Her eyes went back to the little boy who was starting to step forward as if to make a stand for his mother. To save her as she always saved him. She shook her head no to him. They'd take him. They'd arrest her and put him in the system. She wasn't ready for that to happen yet. She still had hope.
The police officer had just been minutes from being off-duty. The last thing he needed was a confrontation between a sleazy sandwich hocker and a street woman. But as he watched the woman, he noticed where she was frantically looking and that's when he saw the little boy. Oh damn.
"How much is the sandwich?" The vendor stopped his tirade to look at him. The thing with street vendors was as soon as cost was brought up, their indignation usually vanished if they were going to get paid.
The officer's eyes went to the hand-written menu on the cart and saw the price was actually five dollars and smirked. "Fine. Then give me two of them and lets call this done. It's the holidays and shit."
The vendor let her go and handed the officer another sandwich to go with the first one she had stolen and the officer handed the guy a twenty-dollar bill. She was confused and not sure if the officer needed dinner before he arrested her or what. Her mind had not even considered what it meant until the officer pushed the two sandwiches into her hands. She frowned and looked down at the cellophane wrapped food and back up at him. "I don't understand...?"
The officer moved her away from the now "all good" vendor and leaned in to say low to her. "Take the sandwiches. And this" pushing a few bills in her hand "and don't try that again. Your little boy is watching. Set a better example if you could lady."
Her tears started anew and she nodded. The officer looked away and thumbed on his shoulder walkie-talky. "Stan. You at the Holy Mother mission?" A voice came back with an affirmative as the officer then replied back. "Good. They got space?" The voice responded with a yes.
The officer looked down at her and said into the walkie. "Tell the sisters to keep a space for a woman and a kid? I'll bring them myself. Hardship and a favor. Let them know I'll coach two extra games if they'll save em for me." His co-officer laughed and said no problem.
She had no idea what to say. Or do. She hugged the sandwiches to her and gave the officer a small smile. "Thank you. So much."
The officer smiled and nodded with a tip of his hat. "No problem ma'am. We serve all. Not just those that don't want it or think they deserve it." He walked with her across the street as her little boy came running up to cling to his mother's legs. The officer squatted down and said with a smile. "You like police cars kid?"
The little boy's eyes went wide. "Are we arrested?" The officer felt a sadness that the kid's mind went there without too much thought as he shook his head. "No. Just special guests. We give all special people rides."
The little boy looked up to his mother for confirmation and she gave him a tear-filled smile. He then too smiled, something she realized she rarely saw anymore and said in a voice full of hero-worship awe at the officer. "I like police cars. I think they're cool."
And she felt hope once again....
for just a little while longer.