Yesterday was my son's 26th birthday. Knute and I hid in our room watching Netflix while the kids celebrated with junk food, small gifts, lighting effects, and music. It was a good night, warm and cozy and full of friendship and laughter. Meanwhile, friends were struggling to provide for our homeless neighbors. Here is one volunteer's story about how the evening went and about how it feels to care about these people. Please excuse any grammatical errors -- it didn't feel right to change his heartfelt words.
Tonight was a different and unique night due to a few circumstances falling together to make the perfect storm.
Pamela and Amanda was helping with the sweep in Clackamas and was not able to make it to Free Hot Soup at Director Park downtown by 6pm. By the time I had arrived at DP by 6:20pm, most folks presumed that we were not going to show so many had left.
As I approached Director Park from the south side from the back of the Elephant Cafe, I saw a thin figure from behind, but the knitted cap was unmistakably familiar and I knew it was Penny. She has really lost a lot of weight over the past two years. Dave was the other person who immediately greeted me with a gentle smile as he always do. Beside them are Gerry, Terry, Ally and Amy sitting down at the tables waiting for FHS to arrive. These were the remaining 6 folks left waiting for our soup batch to arrive.
I received an update from Pamela that they're trying their best to make it downtown, but they've been delayed with traffic and did not have hot food with them. At our current pace and without hot food, with only 6 people left I did not want to make them wait only to be disappointed, so I asked Pamela to drop off the pastry and what donated goods they had left with them to the shelters. I ran to Pieology, the closest thing nearby and ordered 3 individual pizzas to share between 6 people. I ran the other end to Subway next to the Virginia Cafe and ordered 2 6-foot long turkey sandwiches, sliced into 4ths. I don't believe in the 'savior mentality' and I'm definitely not made of money, but this is not about any of that. This is about what we stand for, food justice and the rights to eat as people deserve to with dignity and integrity, not pity. We cannot tell people that we have food to share and then not, after they have walked for miles with heavy luggage. After waiting on a cold wet night like this anticipating for some comfort of hot food to come, I couldn't send the few that are left away on an empty stomach. People on the street lose hope and trust in society because society has failed them. Promises are made and broken often for those managing day by day living on the street. I choose not to, and try not to break that fragile trust that we have left. So, this was the best I could do with the circumstance. I came stocked with only Penny's gifts and other than a small cake for her specifically, I had no food, which is not fair the others. So for the evening tonight, and in light of Penny's recent birthday, I decided we should celebrate -- so we had Pieology pizzas and Subway for dinner.
We celebrated Penny's birthday after dinner the way she very politely asked for. She truly has improved a lot from her old sticky fingers days. Gerry even offered his portion of the sandwich to Penny due to denture issues that made it hard from him to chew, and Penny offered it back to Terry. My heart sank.
We had a single candle on a single served, two-tier cake I got for Penny and everyone sang to Penny for her belated birthday. The light in her eyes glowed with joy -- true happiness -- and the unmistakable spirit of a 5 year old was lit inside her. I didn't see an image of a middle age woman in her 50's, but just a child made to feel loved on her one special day. After everyone celebrated and parted, Dave and I drove up to his resting spot and I returned to check up on Penny. She was cleaning up.
PENNY. Penny was picking up after herself and cleaning up, putting things in the trash.
I walked over towards her smiling and asked if I could help her clean throw away some of her collected trash. We packed up her belongings into the cart and walked over to TartBerry Yogurt next to the Starbucks. Penny wanted to go inside to warm up. She left her cart outside the store, but insisted she must carry her one pink bag with her inside. It was her birthday bag from Central City Concerns along with the photo frame I made for her and her single served cake.
Each year, I update Penny with her photo from last year's birthday. Not to remind her of how thin she has gotten or the new wrinkles on her neckline and the grey in her hair, but that her birthday isn't forgotten and that she has a family -- street family -- who still say her name and remembers her. This has become our tradition over the years and is another way that Penny and I bond. For me, this is a great entry way for me to work with her on behavioral improvement and the principles of sharing. It takes time, but I can really say with certainty that I am seeing progress. She is trying.
Listening to Penny talk, we sat down after getting some hot tea as she eagerly asked me to open her gift bag to go through, one by one, the gifts she has received from her friends and counselors. A cat tape wallet that's waterproof, a nail filer, nail polish, nail corrector, combs, forks, Fuzzy the teddy bear were amongst the prized items. We sat down and I looked at her gifts as she explained where each one came from, and from whom. I looked at her fainted nail polish and asked if she would like me to touch up on it for her. She lit up, and said, "please, I would love that." Penny has extensive chronic pain and cannot always bend easily to do so herself. So I painted her nails as she update me on her life.
She told me about how her lanyard with her ID and bus pass was stolen from her at night while she slept. They stole her pass along with any money she had in it, her ID, and she showed me evidence of the theft that slit her jacket pockets opened and stole from her. I can see the slits were neat cut lines that did indeed look like a sharp object was used to slice through her faux leather jacket. She told me of how she got sick and went to get Theraflu and apparently overdosed on it and passed out on the max. She woke up in the hospital after that. She told me how another man, like myself (she said), bought her clothes at Ross and had to leave shortly after he paid for it that when she went to change her clothes and try it on, the employees at Ross accused her of stealing the clothes that the man had just paid for (and left). I believe Penny because I have a working relationship with her after many years and she would often confide in me where she would typically not with others. I believe Penny, also because she has lied to me about stealing food when we picnic together and I told her how it hurt me and it was not a nice thing to do when we all have to share what we have and other people depended on this. I believe Penny has learned this lesson as I have witnessed her progress over the years, and this is evidential when others who would 'steal from her', she is very quick to point them out (as a child would as she has learned that this is bad behavior). So I believe Penny. I choose to.
Momentarily after Penny got up to go to the bathroom, the clerk working at the Yogurt place voiced his discomfort with us 'idling' in the shop because they're meant for yogurt customers. We were patrons as I just bought tea for Penny, but I understood from his stance and did not want to give him grieve as an employee so I went to get a small cup of yogurt. But it reminded me, and validated Penny's stories of the prejudice she deals with as a houseless person. With me, as someone with money, she had immunity while she's in my company, but when she is alone, she is an autistic woman with the spirit of a child left to fend for herself. I understand the young man working was doing his job, but the soulless gesture pierced my heart like a spear because it brings out every fear I have for Penny when she is not with someone who has money or "decent presenting/looking" (whatever the fuck that means. At the end of the day, I get to go home to my bed and a roof over my head while I know Penny is outside struggling to just be. I am angry about a lot of things for those who knows me personally, but every time when I encounter prejudice not directly at me, I loose a piece of faith in humanity and I despair.
I feel no matter what I do my action does not matter in the end, and that none of us have a solution to any of this. None of us have the answer to solve the world's problem. Still, I can't help but wonder at the slightest possibility that if we were all to just live and show each other a bit of humanity, and not label ourselves as employees, as volunteers, as professionals, as experts at this and that, but just people-- mother fuckin' humans -- maybe, just maybe, we would be better off to exist exactly just as that. People.
By 9pm I had to leave. I parted with Penny at the yogurt store to keep warm until they would close at 10pm. I gestured in silence to the clerk to please allow her to stay and he gestured back at me with his hand made into an inch mark.
I walked back to my car in the rain and for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel numb, but just pain.
I sat there for a while listening to the rain to try to drown out my worries and images of Penny drenched in the rain flashing through my mind, along with all the other Pennys out in the street with mental health disabilities left to fend for themselves in a prejudicial world to face the harsh weather to come.
Then I, too, finally drenched my face from my own fear and worries.
I lost the battle to my own mind, and I just sat there, numb.
I do not think we have the solution.
I do not know of a solution.
Those of us who spend time with the homeless don't have much money. If you're able to help me reimburse my friend for his generosity last night, please make a donation here. Thank you so much.
I hope this short video from last night plays for you. https://www.facebook.com/BenjiVuong/videos/10100637718499231/
If it doesn't work and you'd like to see it, please contact me.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.