Homelessness and Respect, Part Three

Photo of Jack and Vicky’s memorial stone in my garden before I added their names.

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

A couple of weeks later, Vicky received an ordinary letter via USPS, delivered by a friend whose address she had been using. It notified her that she was eligible for a one-bedroom apartment in a new luxury high rise with a quota of affordable units. The Section 8 voucher would pay for most of the rent, and about 30 percent of her Social Security income would cover the rest. Jack’s name was not on the voucher, so he would not be able to live there legally. He could only stay as a guest for a certain number of nights per month. Vicky was ecstatic, and Jack was relieved but also angry and resentful. I was relieved but outraged by the stupidity of the system. How could it be good or right to split a couple who had been married for many years by housing one and denying it to the other, especially when Jack had been the primary breadwinner and had kept them alive for years? I was confounded.

I vividly remember the day I drove Vicky to the apartment to see it for the first time. The building was new and fresh, the landscaping gorgeous, the apartment small but ultra-modern, clean, with in-unit laundry, hardwood floors, and top-of-the-line appliances. Neither Vicky nor I could believe her luck. The rental agent was respectful and kind as she gave us a tour, helped Vicky sign the lease, and arranged a move-in date. If she had any doubts about her new tenant, she hid them well. Afterward, back in my car, Jack and Vicky argued, and Jack stalked off, acting like he felt abandoned and scared. Vicky’s world was changing, but what would happen to him? Worried but not knowing what else to do, I dropped Vicky back at the motel. The next day she called to say that later that night, Jack arrived at the motel to make up, and again, take one day at a time.

Besides a few items of clothing, some rudimentary cooking utensils and dishware, and the essential papers they must have with them at all times, Jack and Vicky had nothing to furnish an apartment. Feeling exhilarated by our success, the week between lease signing and moving in, I and others who had befriended them at their intersection rustled up some furniture. One provided a dining table and chairs. A couple of the large home furnishing companies in the area had programs for people moving off the street into subsidized housing. We got a free mattress, box spring, and couch through them. A family in my neighborhood was cleaning out their father’s home after his passing and donated end tables and lamps. Financial donations purchased towels and bed linens. From somewhere, a TV materialized. That was an absolute essential, I soon realized, as Vicky, sick and exhausted from years on the streets, wanted to do nothing but watch it all day long. 

After the portion deducted for the rent, the remainder of Vicky’s Social Security check allowed her to connect basic cable service and a telephone landline. Jack continued to panhandle for food and household supply money. When they first became homeless, they had stashed some of their belongings in the basements and garages of friends, so gradually, they reclaimed these. The most significant stepping stone to relative normalcy was getting Vicky’s engagement ring out of the pawn shop.

Vicky and I had fantasized about a housewarming party to thank those who had helped along the way and celebrate their new home. But that was indeed a fantasy. Neither Jack nor Vicky had the energy or self-confidence to interact with a large group. Though relieved to have a home of their own, they were disoriented and would take a long time to adjust to their new life and break the habits of years of homelessness. They would not open a bank account but paid all their bills with cash or money orders. They did not want a donated computer or an email address, believing that would expose them to the scrutiny of state officials, police, and debt collection agencies. They had an apartment but still did not feel safe and secure. It was not yet their home. Watching them during this transition time showed me that homelessness is not just an outward condition but a state of mind; it takes a long time to change deeply ingrained patterns. They had wanted housing for so long, but now they didn’t know what to do with it. Though Jack was allowed to be in the apartment during the day and kept his things there, he was restless, had to be out on the streets, on the move, and couldn’t relax.

Vicky had smoked compulsively since she was a young girl. She had advanced COPD and congestive heart failure and was a cancer survivor several times. As soon as she moved into the apartment, her legs and abdomen began to fill with fluid. She could hardly move, was nauseated constantly, and couldn’t eat or sleep. Because Jack and Vicky were on Mass Health[1] and Vicky qualified for Medicare, they were not strangers to the healthcare system. I insisted that Vicky make an appointment to see her doctor and planned to drive her there. We arranged a date, and when it arrived, she canceled the appointment saying she was too sick to go.

Several cancellations later, and frustrated with her, I finally accompanied Vicky to the doctor. She was in such bad shape that he immediately recommended hospitalization. She absolutely refused. I argued with her, begged, and finally threw up my hands in frustration. Her excuse was that she couldn’t leave Jack alone, or he might start taking drugs again. This was the first time either of them had said anything to me about drug involvement. Perhaps the early naysayers of my friendship with Jack and Vicky had been right. I was shocked and disappointed. Vicky later denied that Jack ever took drugs. She said she had just used it as an excuse to get me off her case. Still, she refused to go into hospital.

Often, I would plan to visit Vicky and Jack in her home and would receive a call at the last minute saying she was too sick to see me. I began to feel she was avoiding me and wondered if she was tired of being grateful for the help I had given. Oddly, I saw less of them now that they were more stable. I had imagined our relationship would evolve from the helper and advocate to friends now that we could see each other without standing around in the cold or oppressive heat.

Finally, I accepted my powerlessness to persuade Vicky to attend to her health issues. She was more stubborn than I. She continued to smoke, though the apartment building was a smoke-free zone. She would get Jack to take her outside in a wheelchair for a smoke several times a day. He pleaded with her to stop, but she would not listen. Part of her desire to avoid hospitalization, I was convinced, was her addiction to cigarettes and the knowledge that she would not be able to smoke in her hospital bed.

Jack stayed in Vicky’s apartment during the day when he was not panhandling and as many nights a month as allowed within the guest rules. Neither would tell me where he went on those nights he was not with her. Gradually, as he experienced more hernia and hip pain and cut back on the panhandling, he spent more time indoors. Eventually, they disregarded the rules entirely, and he lived with her in the apartment, and after a few years, they mustered the courage to put his name on the lease. The building management saw them as stable and reliable renters and overlooked the rules. Vicky kept trying to get him on the Section 8 voucher, but as far as I know, she was never successful.

I moved further from them the summer after they moved into their home. I left the state to live in a retirement community three hours away. But we exchanged phone calls regularly, and when I returned to the area to see other friends, I visited Jack and Vicky too. 

Now that she had an apartment, Vicky seemed to be in touch with her children again after years of estrangement. I had always been puzzled why her sons didn’t help their mother and stepfather when they were homeless. She never said whether or not her children had helped, and I didn’t want to pry. I can only imagine what I have heard about homelessness and family dynamics applied in this situation. Family members try to help out initially but tire of repeated requests for assistance, resent the drain on their own, often limited resources, and are ashamed of their relatives who cannot pull themselves together and get work and housing. Unable to fix the situation, they avoid their homeless relatives.   I do not know if this was the case with Vicky and her sons. I know she loved them deeply but seemed to expect no assistance from them. She was excited to hear from them on the rare occasion they called, usually to announce the birth of a new grandchild. She would call me all excited to pass on the family news. 

Over the next couple of years, Jack finally had hernia surgery, two hip replacements, and cataract surgeries. He gained weight, took his social security income early, signed up for Medicare, and began to take better care of himself. He stopped panhandling (I believe) and bought a used car. After one visit, I gave him a seat cushion to cover the upholstery tear in the driver’s side seat. He drove me to my next destination when I left their home after a two-hour visit. During that short drive, I felt an easy camaraderie. I marveled at how far he had come. Life seemed relatively normal for him now.

As Jack got stronger, Vicky got weaker. Instead of resisting hospitalization, she was continuously in and out of the hospital to drain the fluid that rapidly built up in her body. Sometimes her stays were thirty days or longer. She might be home for only a few days when Jack would find her unconscious on the couch and call 991 for another trip to the ER and ICU. I talked to both of them by phone and sent them cards and flowers. Vicky was determined to fight for her life. The doctors had begun to speak to her about hospice, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted with all her might to go on living. I wondered how she could consider her life worth living with all its pain and suffering, and she admitted she was exhausted. But she talked about praying that God would miraculously preserve and heal her.

As I watched hospital stay after hospital stay, where she often spent a week in ICU, I thought it ironic that the social safety net was working for Vicky for the first time. I felt sure if it had started supporting her earlier when she and Jack first became homeless, the state may not now be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses for her care.

When she was at home, the social service system provided a caregiver who bathed her, washed her long hair, and did light housekeeping. Jack learned to cook with Vicky’s verbal instruction, carried her from the living room couch, where she spent all day and night, to the bathroom, and did what he could to take care of her. It wore him down, but he would say when I asked how he was doing, “What can I do? It is what it is.”

By now, my spouse accepted my friendship with Jack and Vicky. After each phone conversation, I would report the specifics of their lives, and she shared my concern for them. She no longer feared they would take advantage of me. Other friends would ask, from time to time, how Jack and Vicky were doing. Their movement from homelessness to a stable, somewhat secure home life was considered a success story. People rejoiced for them. Though Vicky was very sick, she wouldn’t die on the streets.

As I watched Vicky’s life ebb away, I thought more about the root causes of the long years of homelessness that destroyed her health and contributed to her imminent death. I knew only a few details about her early life, but what I knew indicated that violence, abuse, and instability had rocked its foundations from the beginning. Her chaotic childhood prevented her from developing the inner psychological resources to cope with illness, job loss, financial insecurity, and homelessness in later life. She lacked the habit of staying organized and focused, of planning for the future. Impulse control was missing, and she was often volatile and verbally abusive. Accessing the social safety net, as full of holes and weak as it is, requires discipline and patience, and Vicky’s early life did not foster those qualities. And she did not have the support of friends and family at the beginning of the slide into homelessness. No one stepped in to hold her up while she got her feet under her again. 

I knew less about Jack’s past. He didn’t mention his family, other than Vicky. Instead, he talked proudly of the work he had done for an interior design business at one time. I’m convinced he had come to think of panhandling as a job, if not a profession. He earned the money he received; I don’t believe he thought of it as charity. The physical effort of standing and walking back and forth for hours on end and the mental effort of reading traffic patterns, recognizing familiar vehicles, and interpreting drivers’ attitudes, absorbed all his energies. He was good at it. He built relationships with his clients by offering something positive to their daily commute experience—a kind inquiry into their health and wellbeing, a comment on the weather, a reflection on what was happening worldwide. He was alert and engaged as he worked hard and long, giving it all he had.

Though Jack and Vicky argued frequently, they loved and relied on one another. Vicky took responsibility for filling out paperwork and making the necessary calls to keep them connected to social services and managing the household once they were in an apartment. Jack went out into the world to earn what he could and make the meager purchases that kept them alive. Jack was Vicky’s second husband and not the father of her children, but she said he had embraced and taken care of them. They were a team, pooling their talents and sticking together no matter what. As she got sicker and finally gave in to hospice care, Vicky had nothing but praise for the loving care Jack offered her. She could be a difficult patient, but he never wavered.

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On the 40th day after Jack went silent on me, I received an email message through the then-defunct Go Fund Me account. It was from one of the other commuters, who had befriended Jack and Vicky, helped them financially and with donations of household items, and stayed in touch with them over the years since they moved into their home. It read, “As you probably know, Jack and Vicky have passed away, so if you wanted any money left in this account to go to her son and granddaughter, please contact me,” and gave a phone number. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes! Vicky dead, yes, I had been expecting that, but Jack too! How could that be? A deep sense of loss washed through me.  I called immediately, but the emailer was in the middle of dinner and couldn’t talk. When we spoke the following day, I expressed my shock, and she shared the few details she knew about their deaths. Jack died of a heart attack on July 2, and Vicky thirteen days later on July 15. Like me, this friend had left multiple messages on voicemail toward the end, and Jack’s brother had retrieved them and called back with the news. “It’s a love story,” the woman said. “Jack would have cared for Vicky forever, one day at a time, and Vicky was not going to let go of life while Jack needed her.” I agreed. Jack and Vicky were so intertwined and interdependent that it was impossible to imagine what kind of life Jack could have made for himself after Vicky’s passing.

The woman gave me the address of one of Vicky’s sons, and I intend to send my condolences and ask if or where Jack and Vicky are buried. I found a beautiful smooth beach stone and have written their names on it. I will place it among the flowers in my garden as a reminder of my friends. I loved them and felt loved by them, and I am grateful for what they taught me about resilience, hope, and caring about others whose lives are very different.

They offered me a window into the world of homelessness I would never have encountered otherwise. I’m grateful for the brief glimpse they provided because it showed me that the problem is far more complex than I had imagined. Everyone’s story is different. Homeless people can’t be lumped together in one category or put in one box. I wanted to tell Jack and Vicky’s story to honor their strength, resilience, and dignity. It’s my way of paying tribute to them and their accomplishments against all odds. I feel sad about how we—those with resources, security, and social connections—have misunderstood, avoided, and even vilified people like them. Their deaths have made me sad, and I miss them.

You might imagine that being Jack’s and Vicky’s friend and a participant in their move from unhoused to housed spurred me on to involvement in a movement to address systemic homelessness, but it did not. I’ve never been one for espousing causes. I’m better at getting to know and helping individuals, and I recognize that quality in myself. And now, when my energy is running out, I find myself wanting to tell stories. The overarching theme of this blog is respect, and I respect Jack and Vicky. They were worthy of far more respect than they received. I want to show them to you and invite your respect also.


[1] MassHealth provides health benefits and help to pay for them to qualifying children, families, seniors, and people with disabilities living in Massachusetts.

Homelessness and Respect, Part Two

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

I retired in January, and almost six months passed before I heard from Jack. In mid-June, my phone rang, and an unknown number popped up, so as usual, I let it go to voicemail. When I played the message, I heard a raspy female voice identifying herself as Vicky,  Jack’s wife, asking for my help, my financial help. They were, she said, on the verge of being thrown out of the motel and needed money to pay off their room fee debt. Could I help, even a little? I had been dreading receiving such a call. It fulfilled my spouse’s concerns about being taken advantage of by a homeless couple. Still, I felt I shouldn’t turn my back on Jack and Vicky. I had not forgotten Jack during the months I had not seen him, and I wondered why their financial situation had gotten worse. At the time, I considered myself a Christian and routinely asked myself what Jesus would do in challenging situations. I was convinced he would not turn his back on Jack and Vicky.  I called Vicky back and arranged to meet them in the motel parking lot. When I arrived on a hot June day, she hobbled out of the motel toward me, reeking of cigarette smoke. She was as thin as a rake, had long, full, dark-grey hair pulled up in a ponytail, and very few teeth.

“Where’s Jack?” I asked after we had introduced ourselves. I had made a point of telling her I wanted to see them both. 

“He’s inside,” she responded, “too embarrassed to come out. He didn’t want me to call you, but we had no choice.”

“Go ask him to come out, please.” So, she did.

Jack appeared with her a few minutes later. Hands shoved in his jeans’ pockets; eyes cast downward.

We chatted for a few minutes before I handed over the hundred dollars I had settled on giving them. They thanked me profusely. Vicky said she knew my birthday was coming up soon. That felt a little scary, but I must have told Jack my birthdate years ago, and he had told her. She said she was good at remembering stuff like that and that hers was in September. We figured out that we were the same age. Jack was about seven years younger. I told them they couldn’t make financial requests a regular thing because my income was less in retirement. I didn’t mention that my spouse was opposed to me giving them any money. She promised they wouldn’t. I asked for a receipt from the hotel documenting their payment, so Vicky went in and handed over the cash, returning a few moments later with a receipt on hotel letterhead, and I went on my way. On my birthday, I received a voicemail from Vicky wishing me a happy day.

That summer, the department of highways decided to change the traffic pattern at Jack’s intersection, making it a traffic circle. This change had a dramatically negative effect on his income. For a couple of months before construction began, police started enforcing “no panhandling on state highways” laws and forced him and others off this turf to prepare for the work crews. Jack had to find a new intersection. He chose one about a mile away, further from the motel, with less traffic and, therefore, less lucrative. So, he had to work even longer hours, and Vicky started helping. She could hardly walk from leg and hip problems, and her COPD tired her quickly. She had to take a taxi from the motel to the intersection, which added an expense and cut their profits. They fell further behind in their payments to the motel and asked again if I could help. I felt between a rock and a hard place.

I had been bringing them food, toiletries, cookies, and other treats I made, as well as handing out ones and fives, but I felt very uncomfortable about this second large financial request. So, I consulted a friend who does a lot of social justice work and, as an economist, understands the systemic roots of homelessness. She was sympathetic but had no simple solutions. However, she had two suggestions—connect them to housing assistance resources and consider a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for them more broadly. Neither proposal was uncomplicated. I knew nothing about housing resources and expected the learning curve to be steep. I didn’t even know where to start, and I knew doing the research and making the right connections would take a lot of time. Nevertheless, Jack and Vicky’s situation was urgent, and there was no other route to permanent housing.

As for Go Fund Me, the mailing lists for their campaigns come from one’s personal email contact list. I would put my reputation and trustworthiness on the line by soliciting funds for a homeless couple. What if they misused the funds I raised? I risked embarrassment, at the very least.

I was nervous, but I presented both suggestions to F and D, who were not enthusiastic about the potential success of the first, but relatively comfortable with the second. I learned they had been in the housing assistance system for a long time, encountered barriers at every turn, and were disillusioned and frustrated by the bureaucracy and the people who operated it. They were hesitant but ultimately okay with asking my friends for money through Go Fund Me, even though it would compromise their privacy by displaying their circumstances and pictures on the internet. Nevertheless, they were desperate and felt they had no other choice.

Jack had developed a painful hernia by this time and needed surgery. That provided the specificity required for fundraising. I launched the Go Fund Me campaign with a goal of $2,000 to pay the motel bills so Jack could take time off to have the surgery and recuperate. Money started coming in, not pouring in, but there was a steady stream. I was encouraged and humbled by the trust and generosity of my circle of friends and others I didn’t know, who were moved by Jack and Vicky’s story.

We raised about $1,900, and I withdrew the funds from the account and handed them over to Jack and Vicky, who promptly gave them to the motel and provided me with a receipt. But Jack did not have his surgery and continued panhandling. They were further behind in the payments than they had let on, and he had to keep walking and begging to avoid eviction. I was frustrated and annoyed at both of them for not being upfront with me. The situation was unsustainable, their source of income was drying up, and both were getting physically weaker. We had to put more energy into finding permanent housing.

With a great deal of cynicism about the process, Vicky gave me all the information she had collected about housing assistance, all their personal data, their social security numbers, and the contact numbers of some of the social service people they had dealt with over the years. I started making phone calls and waiting for callbacks. It was slow and discouraging. When I did get a callback, I met with cold skepticism from the social workers. Yes, they knew Jack and Vicky and their complicated situation. They said it was hard to work with the couple because they often didn’t show up for appointments, answer phone calls or submit the necessary paperwork in a timely way. But sure, they’d meet with them again if I could get them to an appointment.

I confronted Vicky about their failure to meet the requirements for housing assistance. She angrily showed me the other side of the picture. Sure, they missed appointments. The Section 8 housing voucher they were seeking must be in Vicky’s name because Jack had a criminal record and was ineligible. (I didn’t ask what he had done, and she didn’t offer that information.) Vicky was often sick and found it very hard to use public transportation to appointments. They couldn’t afford taxis to the housing office, which was miles away. They didn’t return voicemails because they didn’t have the money to add minutes to their cell phones. And the social workers didn’t answer voicemail messages either, she retorted. They had no permanent address, so they had mail delivered to the addresses of friends or relatives who sometimes lost it or took so long to bring it to them that they missed deadlines. They were afraid to have it sent to the motel because they suspected the front desk clerk often opened or threw away renters’ mail. They had been working the system for years and were discouraged and disillusioned. Ironically, it seemed to me, to get housing assistance, one needed all the advantages housed folks have: a permanent address, a phone that was always active, stability, good health, a reliable income, and trustworthy friends. Jack and Vicky had none of these. The system didn’t work for them; to me, it seemed backward, convoluted, discriminatory, and broken.

Nevertheless, as they say, we persisted. I started sitting with Vicky to complete paperwork and began driving her and Jack to appointments. At times I got frustrated with Vicky and with the social workers. We’d have a crucial meeting, and Vicky would be too sick to go, or we’d get the paperwork back after weeks of waiting with a demand for more information. Why hadn’t they asked for such and such in the first place? I learned that Vicky had been on several housing lists for years, but nothing had ever come through. Jack and Vicky said the system was unfair. Other homeless acquaintances had gotten housing more quickly and then broken the rules by allowing friends or family to live with them or by living elsewhere and sub-letting the Section 8 apartment. The system was susceptible to fraud. That made all the social workers jaded.

Amid all this, I started getting criticism from, of all places, a member of my church. She had heard about my involvement with Jack and Vicky and living in the neighborhood where Jack panhandled, she believed she had seen him and Vicky at their intersection. She felt that I was incredibly naïve about homeless people. She insisted that all the panhandlers at that particular intersection were addicts who used the money they collected to buy drugs, and she was sure Jack and Vicky were tricking me. She was only trying to protect me, she protested. I admitted to myself that she might be right. Jack and Vicky had told me of acquaintances who had died of overdoses—women and men who went to rehab, got clean, and then OD’d as soon as they were back on the streets. Jack and Vicky did not look, talk, or act like addicts, but how could I be sure? And yet, I told myself, trying not to be judgmental, even if they were, did they not deserve secure housing? How could they ever escape from addiction unless they had it?

My spouse was also suspicious and afraid that I would be drawn into a bottomless pit of need that would consume too much of my time, energy, and resources. Her concern was not unreasonable either. That sort of thing had happened to me before, most recently with my job and our church. We argued about the situation constantly. Feeling out of my depth and unsure about so many things, I tried to walk a fine line between genuine caring and effective involvement and a healthy distance—reminding myself that I should do what I could but not feel responsible for the whole situation.

As fall progressed and the weather got colder, Vicky got sicker. She had to stop panhandling and stay indoors at the motel all day. Jack’s hernia became more painful, and he shuffled more slowly back and forth at the intersection. I felt a kind of desperation, but they seemed resigned. Winters had come and gone before, and they had survived by putting one foot in front of the other. “One day at a time,” Jack would say, or “It is what it is.”

Then one day, Vicky called to say that she had received notice of a hearing at the local housing office. Her case was to be heard by an arbitrator who would make a recommendation to the housing authority. Could I drive her? We made plans for me to pick her up, and we arrived early to get advice from her housing counselor about what to say at the hearing. We were both nervous, feeling as if everything hung on this brief opportunity to be heard. Vicky, who knew she could be offensively outspoken at times, might say the wrong thing and turn the arbitrator against her. 

Four of us—Vicky, the arbitrator, the counselor, and I gathered around a large table. The arbitrator asked Vicky a series of questions about her current homeless situation. The social worker made a bland statement about Vicky’s worthiness. The arbitrator turned to me last and asked why I was there. I responded that I was Vicky’s friend and advocate. She wanted to know a little bit about my background and whether I was likely to continue to help Vicky. I assured her I planned to stick around.  

At the end of the hearing, the arbitrator explained the next steps and when we might hear from the housing authority, and then wrapped up by saying, “Does anyone have anything final to add?” We all looked at each other, and then, shocking myself, I said, “If Vicky doesn’t get housed very soon, she is going to die this winter.” Jaws dropped around the table. No one else said anything, and the arbitrator gathered her files and got up to leave. 

Outside the room, the counselor, Vicky, and I discussed how the hearing had gone. The counselor took me aside and told me that my final remark would probably make or break the case, depending on whether the arbitrator judged it a stunt or the truth. Great, I thought I may have ruined Vicky’s chances. Back in the car, Vicky thanked me with tears in her eyes but admitted that what I had said about her possibly dying scared her. It scared me too. [TO BE CONTINUED]