"They said you would help me if you could."
I was cautious, a little stand-off-ish. I'd never met her. What did she want from me?
I've learned I don't want to be seen as an object, as a giver of goods. I, too, like the homeless, want to be seen as a person, someone who matters simply because I am.
When I started going out on the streets nearly two and a half years ago, I had this strong sense I was supposed to go without offering anything ... anything, that is, except myself. Don't get me wrong. It is good to offer things, if that's what's on your heart to do. But it was not on my heart. I knew it was not my "call." My call was to be there and be present and sit on sidewalks and share stories.
I have since found myself resenting people who ask me for something right off the bat. It's as if I want to say, "I'm just people, like you."
So when this lady came up to ask me for help Tuesday, I recoiled. I thought she just wanted me for what I might be able to offer her, like she was using me.
I should have withheld judgment. You see, the homeless woman who referred her to me, well, she took a long time to come around. She thought I was some do-gooder chick who came to the hood and was going to split again after patting myself on the back. She warned me, "You better carry a gun."
I laughed. I said in my head, "You don't know me," and out loud, "I've been doing this over two years. I'm good."
That's when it all changed. She realized that, though I might look a little out of place, this place was my place, too. She accepted me, told me her needs, and with Elissa's genius researching skills, we helped get her resources for housing.
That same skeptical woman was now the one referring her friend to me because, "she will help you if she can."
What an honor. What an honor to be known as someone who will help when I can.
As we got to talking, I asked her what was going on. She started listing ... "I was carjacked, just got out of the hospital. I have kidney failure. I don't even know what to think of that. I lost my I.D. I have 3 days to get it renewed, but I don't have any money to pay for it."
I tried to distill it down, "What is your biggest need right now?"
"To find out where I stand with housing." She has been entered into the housing system. She needed to find out where she is on the list, but she no longer has I.D. or normal means of figuring it out.
I told her, "Unfortunately, I am not a social worker or anything, so I can't access housing lists from the back end."
We're always trying to get to know the individual so that we can find out their truest, deepest need. We don't want to hit the "presenting problem" necessarily, because it is often not the thing contributing most to homelessness.
So we stand, and we talk, and we ask questions, and we build relationships -- over days and weeks and months and years.
In the end, that day, since I couldn't help with the housing list, it turned out what she most needed, that I could offer, was someone to cry with.
A few moments later, she burst into tears about her recent health diagnosis. She felt afraid. Who wouldn't?
That's when the compassion finally entered my heart, and I said, "I'm so sorry I can't help with housing." I was silent. Though it felt small compared to her tangible need, I asked, "Do you pray? Would you like me to pray for you?"
She looked at me. "Oh yes," she said.
I put my arm around her, she put her arm around me, we bowed our heads.