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]

Homelessness and Respect, Part One

(I’ve changed the names of my friends to protect their privacy).

It’s been 39 days since I have heard from Jack. I’m assuming that his wife, Vicky, has died. I’ve called and texted him repeatedly but received no response. I’ve tried to reach our one mutual acquaintance, but she has not responded to my email inquiring if she has any news. I’ve looked online for an obituary or death record but found nothing. I’ve even considered calling the police in their town but have decided against that. Jack and Vicky are uncomfortable with the police. I doubt that law enforcement would give out any information anyway. I’ve wondered about showing up at their apartment building to see if the management will tell me what has happened.

I wanted to be there for both Jack and Vicky at Vicky’s death—be there from a distance, at least, because Jack turned down my offer to come in person. Instead, he promised he would keep me posted about all developments, and then, 39 days ago, after texting that Vicky was having a better day than she had for a long time and wondering if that signified the calm before the storm, he dropped off the radar screen.

I fear all sorts of traumatic developments. Perhaps Jack broke down after Vicky’s death, could not cope with the loss, and was hospitalized. He cared for her almost entirely by himself since her last hospital stay—90 grueling days and nights, aided only by minimal hospice support. I even imagine that he might have given her a lethal dose of morphine to end her suffering and has been charged with causing her death. I’m good at imagining the worst.

Or maybe he’s been evicted from their apartment, which they could only afford because of a Section 8[1] housing voucher issued in Vicky’s name. (All attempts to get Jack’s name on the voucher failed.) Perhaps he is homeless again, without a cell phone, so he is not getting my messages. Maybe he is even in jail. Who knows what grief may have led him to do after Vicky’s passing? Or perhaps he wants nothing more to do with me. I promised Vicky I would stay in touch with Jack after she was gone, but possibly he wants to be left alone.

Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve waited years to write about Jack and Vicky—the story of our relationship and what I have learned from them. Knowing them has been an intimate encounter with homelessness, its causes (personal and systemic), and its effects on the body, mind, spirit, and family. The story is not only theirs; it is mine also. Getting deeply involved with a homeless couple challenged and changed my life.   

I can’t pretend to know anything more about homelessness than what I have learned from Jack and Vicky. Those who work with the chronically homeless may find my interactions with this couple and my observations on homelessness naïve and simplistic. If so, my only defense is that my responses probably represent many educated white people with relative financial security and a network of friends and family who offer us support in difficult circumstances. (Jack and Vicky are white, by the way.)

So, let me begin with how they came into my life. About ten years ago, Jack was panhandling at an intersection I passed through each day on my morning and evening commute. It bordered the town where I worked and was the final stoplight before the highway leading west to my home. I met him for the first time at about 7:00 p.m. during rush hour on a dark, cold winter evening. As I inched along toward the intersection, I saw a medium-height man bundled in a bulky winter coat several sizes too large, with a wool cap pulled down over his ears. Because of the ice and snow, he shuffled slowly and carefully back and forth along the line of cars stopped for the light. He held a cardboard sign—I don’t remember what it said.

A panhandler was a familiar sight to me. At that time, I saw them regularly at any number of intersections in the Boston area. But it was unusual to see them as late as 7:00 p.m. or in such cold temperatures. Panhandlers were usually not that dedicated. I slowly approached the head of the line and rolled down my window, rooting through my purse to find a one-dollar bill.

“Hi! Cold for you to be out,” I said

“Sure is. How are you tonight?” he responded with a smile.

The light turned green, and with a brief, “Fine, how are you?” I held out the bill and then pushed the up button on the car window. He smiled again, waved, and started walking back along the line of cars.

We repeated this impromptu rendezvous nightly for months. Whether I left work at 5:00 or 8:00 p.m., he was at the intersection, walking up and down the line of cars in worn-down sneakers, offering a smile and a greeting to everyone in the traffic queue. His eyes did not have the dull glaze of an addict, and his discipline and commitment far outweighed any other panhandler I had met. After a week or so, I made it a habit to save all my one-dollar bills and keep them ready to hand so I would not have to search for one in my wallet. Over time we exchanged first names, and he would speed up to get to my window when he saw my car approaching. I noticed he was having more extended conversations with the drivers in front of me. He’s made some friends, or, perhaps, regular clients, I thought. That pleased me.  His hard work and perseverance were paying off. I admire hard work, am a disciplined worker, and understand the toll it takes on the body and spirit. I felt Jack and I were kindred spirits, in a way.  Both working long exhausting days.

Spring inched along like the line of cars, and, depending on the traffic lights, I could keep my window open longer and have more than a two-sentence chat with Jack. Off came the wool cap to reveal medium-length curly greying hair. His mustache, oddly enough, was always neatly trimmed, though sometimes his beard showed several days of growth. He looked skinny beneath his oversized winter coat. I reckoned he was about my age, perhaps a little younger.  Even though his face was weathered, it was not wrinkled or scarred but attractive and babyish, in a way.

I don’t remember how long it was before my curiosity about who this man was and why he was panhandling overcame my shyness and reticence to pry—maybe six months, perhaps a year. I decided to invite Jack to dinner to ask him about his life. I chose a restaurant near his intersection and made the invitation. When I think about it now, he must have wondered who this weird woman was, inviting a homeless man to dinner. He seemed skeptical and hesitant. Why had I imagined he’d be enthusiastic? I guess I thought he’d welcome a hot, filling meal. Finally, I owned up to wanting to hear his story, and he reluctantly agreed on a day and time. For the next several days, I reminded him each time I saw him, but on the agreed-upon evening, I stood outside the restaurant for more than half an hour before I gave up and drove home. When I passed through Jack’s intersection, he wasn’t there.

The next time I saw him, I asked what had happened, joking about him standing me up. He looked embarrassed and made some excuse which I don’t remember. Suddenly I felt embarrassed. Perhaps he thought I was trying to start a romantic relationship. I wasn’t, though under different circumstances, I admitted to myself I might have considered it. There was something compelling about Jack. So, I gave it some time, and things became comfortable between us again—easy chatting for a few minutes each day, freely asking about each other’s wellbeing.  

A few months later, I tried a dinner invitation again, and Jack accepted readily and showed up this time. He was uncomfortable when he arrived, but I figured his curiosity got the better of his caution—curiosity about this strange woman who wanted to get to know him, of all people. We ordered, and I dug in, but he only picked at his food and ate little. Finally, I asked him to tell me why he was panhandling. When I think about it now, I am shocked at my intrusiveness. What right did I have to pry into his life? None, but I intensely wanted to understand what motivated him—someone, whose life was so different from mine but who seemed to share the same work ethic?

He told me about Vicky, his wife, who was sick, saying that they lived in a nearby motel. They had been homeless for a long time, more than a decade, since a place they were house-sitting was sold out from under them. They had both lost their jobs. I’m now unclear why, but I vaguely remember he said the company he worked for went out of business. They had stayed temporarily with friends, but ultimately, this motel was the only place they could find consistent shelter together (they hate the homeless shelters, which separate couples unless they have children.) It cost them about $70.00 a night to stay there, so Jack worked all day, every day, panhandling to raise that amount. Many days he didn’t reach the required total, fell into arrears, and they were always afraid of being thrown out. If it were just him, he said, he’d sleep outside except in winter, but Vicky couldn’t do it.

His story was rambling, and it was hard to keep him on track. He wanted to know about my life, too, so I told him where I worked and that I lived in a western suburb, was married but had no children—the bare minimum. My spouse, you see, was extremely nervous about me getting involved with a homeless person—afraid that Jack would show up at our door demanding money or break into the house. It had been the source of several arguments between us, and I knew she was anxiously waiting at home for me to return from this dinner.

That night when we parted, I handed Jack five twenty-dollar bills, explaining that I had kept him away from his work for over an hour and he would have lost income. This cash was to make up for that deficit. He seemed shocked and flustered but accepted the cash. We said goodbye, and he shuffled off toward the intersection. I got into my car to drive home. On my way, I passed the motel he had mentioned and looked at it for the first time. It was a fleabag. I was appalled they were charging that much per night.

Jack and I continued to see each other through the car window on my daily commute. I learned that he had to arrive at the intersection early in the day to claim his turf before some other panhandler did so. He told me that some of his colleagues were not homeless, and many were addicts. Fights sometimes broke out over turf. Jack stayed all day at his intersection in all kinds of weather and as late at night as necessary to make the nightly motel fee.

He told me people gave him all sorts of things through their car windows: food (from fresh sandwiches to canned soup), bottled water, clothing, shoes, cigarettes (he didn’t smoke, but Vicky did), and money. The food could be pretty bad sometimes, he said. From time to time, I would see him talking on a cell phone. I learned later that it was a burner, and he could only use it when he could afford to purchase a phone card to activate it. That’s how he stayed in touch with Vicky during the day.

I began to tell him when I would be away on vacation and to give him a little advance cash to help in my absence. Once every so often, I would give him a twenty instead of a one. I’d ask about Vicky, and he’d tell me about her health. Sometimes he’d look exhausted, but no matter how slowly, he kept going. He was just as committed to his job as I was to mine for the same reasons.

Our relationship went on this way for several years, two or three at least. And then, it came time for me to retire. I told Jack this was coming and that I would miss seeing him regularly. He didn’t complain, though he would lose a client and a regular income source. Instead, he focused on me—my retirement plans, the things I would enjoy about it. He seemed truly happy for me. I struggled with wanting to stay in touch and whether to give him my phone number. In the end, I did so against the better judgment of my spouse. He, however, did not offer me his. [TO BE CONTINUED]

[1] The housing choice voucher program [Section 8] provides assistance to very low-income families to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Housing can include single-family homes, townhouses and apartments and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by Public Housing Agencies (PHAs). A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.