Sunday, June 17, 2007

american beauty

A few days ago I wrote about a recent struggle we had with keeping one of our programs open. I had asked if there were a few clients who might be willing to speak on our behalf, no small request given the crowds and the pressure I knew would be associated with it. A few clients took us up on it and one woman in particular was so incredible I can't not share it with all of you.

I saw them arrive and noticed them hanging around outside. I walked over and thanked them for coming, all of them looking mildly petrified. This woman in particular seemed very nervous, chain smoking and panic stricken, and a bit rumpled in a hot pink linen blazer, the old kind with shoulder pads sewn in. Stockings on her feet, I noticed a run. Shoes were older but dress shoes just the same. She'd obviously pulled out all the stops and looked absolutely lovely. Heartbreakingly so, because of the reasons why.

You know, you don't have to do this I say. I want to. I have to. I just have no idea what I should say, and there are so many people in there, she replies. What should I talk about? Oh honey, I can't tell you want to say. Just speak from your heart.

The process moved along and eventually it was time for the public to speak. At a certain point her name was called and she glanced at me, still stricken, and walked down to the front of the room. She stood in front of the audience facing the chief and his council, and voice shaking as she began: I was a nursing assistant for 30 years. In all those years I never once considered I'd become homeless one day. But I stand here today homeless. I lost my job and slowly lost everything else. I had nowhere to go. And these people took me in and gave me a place to live. It may not seem like much, but to me it is everything. They saved my life. And they save people's lives every single day. They make sure you have what you need and help you find a new place to live. I don't know what I and so many others will do if this place isn't there for us because this is our home. People think of homelessness as a nuisance, but I am here to tell you it's much more than that, that we are people with lives and dreams and that this can happen to anyone. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. And then she paused, and looked each one of these important people in the eyes, and for a minute time stood still It can happen to each of you. So as you sit there, remember that.

And she thanked them and turned and walked back, meeting my eyes on the way up, the panic still ripe on her face and yet now it was tinged with relief. I realized I hadn't been breathing during her words and inhaled deeply, tears in my eyes. She was extraordinary up there.

And it drove the point home for me and hopefully for everyone in that room. We are a part of these decisions, sure. But no matter the outcome we go back home to our lives, our four walls and beds and food in our fridge. But to some it is a matter of life and death. It is their home.

I keep thinking of her and her disheveled bravery, about how much she cared, about how fiercely she stood up. I will never stop being humbled by the people, all the beautiful homeless people that I've had the honor of meeting over the years. They have so much to say and we still have so much to learn.

36 comments:

slouching mom said...

"disheveled bravery"

love this phrase, jen.

that woman's words made me cry. thanks for sharing them.

meno said...

It would be the height of arrogance to assume that homelessness could never happen to us. And she was there to remind us of that.

Beautiful.

Christine said...

I am realizing just how many heroes there are in this world. And I don't mean to throw this word around lightly. It can be used over and over again and we become numb. What i mean by hero is a person with such conviction and love in their hearts that they can MOVE people. Really move them in a positive way. I can just see that beautiful woman in pink, holding her head up and driving her point home.

loved reading this, jen. thanks

Oh, The Joys said...

we are inextricably connected she and I and you and us.

Bon said...

such dignity, that woman in her pink blazer...stricken but holding her head high, making herself heard. making herself present.

i hope her words made a difference to the decision makers in that meeting.

they've made a difference in my day, way out here. thanks, jen.

thailandchani said...

One time, a very long time ago, I accidently met a woman in a bookstore. It will be a post one day. To get to the point, it has been said that angels roam among us, sometimes in a package we might not recognize. That woman was one of them. Her words resonate in a straightforward, no-nonsense way that were meant to be heard and understood by all.

I hope they were.


Peace,

~Chani

thordora said...

I know we're about 2 paychecks away from poverty.

It's a humbling thing.

It IS easier than people think-so many people squeak by, barely doing it, trying to have a little extra, and some don't manage.

Anyone who thinks it can't happen to them is deluded.

Marymurtz said...

Oh, God bless her----what powerful words, and how brave of her to get up and say them, knowing how important it was, even as she was terrified.

She is right. It can happen to anyone.

flutter said...

What an amazing, beautiful, brave woman. She is. So are you.

Julie Pippert said...

I cannot imagine who wouldn't be humbled and moved by that. You tell her WTG.

crazymumma said...

jen

what an amazing woman what amazing and perfect words.

That one will sit with me for a few days, as your posts often do.

kgirl said...

thanks for introducing us to yet another amazing soul. i hope her words mean as much to others as they did to us.

Lawyer Mama said...

I love it when you share these stories of the extraordinary, ordinary people you work with every day.

Tabba said...

"disheveled bravery"
Those two words just popped right out at me.

She did a wonderful thing.
She should be so proud.

Little Monkies said...

I think it freaks people out to have someone like that stand in front of them...it's so much easier to think of the homeless as people who are sleeping on the sidewalk covered in their own waste. Not the people working and living in their cars. Not the moms moving their kids from couch to couch. Not the woman held a job for 30 years. No, that's not the American dream and we can't bear to see ourselves reflected in those whose lives take an unexpected turn.

I visited San Francisco recently and was overwhelmed by the folks on the streets. I'm trying to find the words for it, but it hit home in a profound way...more than it has in years. Thank you for doing the work you do, Jen. And bless you, because it is damn hard work.

painted maypole said...

thank you for sharing her story with us

Beck said...

Gorgeous.
Thank you for making me think about this - I'm always complaining about how poor we are, when we have savings and people who love us enough to make sure this would never happen. It's a good thing to understand what REAL poverty is and that it happens to real people.

KC said...

I really don't know what to say- what inspiration to come out of her mouth. Thank you for letting us all feel that too.

Cristi said...

Shivers went dowm my legs reading this.

"I never once considered I'd be homeless one day." Powerful.

Absolutely Bananas said...

Wow. Great post.

Orangeblossoms said...

I love the tender awareness in your writing. You see people with love in your heart and then reflect it back to them and again to us in these posts. Thank you. Thank you for caring with such beauty.

Jocelyn said...

How those tears stayed in your eyes, I don't know.

Floored here. By her and by you, for your ability to appreciate.

in the pink said...

Thanks for this wonderful post...I learn a lot...

QT said...

I agree, it is so much easier to deny things to the homeless when they are not standing in front of you. Thanks for sharing a wonderful story ~

Hel said...

O Jen. This is so beautiful in so many ways. My heart is breathing deeply.

We have to find you a publisher.

deb said...

It's too true, it could happen to any of us. We all need help at some point in our lives. We shouldn't have to beg for it, it should be offered with kindness and compassion.

Jenn said...

I have chills.

Her bravery; your compassion--so sweetly woven together to make me cry that there is so much beauty and heartbreak around us.

The tears that didn't spill from your eyes spilled from mine.

You are amazing.

kristen said...

"they have so much to say and we still have so much to learn."

That's the answer right there. And I hope that the bigwigs heard this strong beautiful woman when she spoke.

ewe are here said...

What an incredibly brave woman. And she's right, it could be any one of us. But for the grace of God...

I don't think people really 'think' about homelessness sometimes because it makes them frightened and uncomfortable. Because it can happen to anyone if the stars align against you: a divorce; an illness with huge medical bills; unemployment without a safety net; some horrible combination of events...

I'm delighted to read that you and your colleagues were able to save housing slots for about 100 homeless people. I really am in awe of what you do.

Kyla said...

Wow. Her words gave me chills. What she said was perfect, absolutely perfect.

Florian said...

hey jen,

very touching words - in some cases, i feel that the most unlikely-seeming people speaking in the right time and in the right moment sometimes link into something greater than themselves, something that speaks through them to others and brings to them insights deep and meaningful, that touch the soul.

this episode sounds something like that.

it is so convenient for most folks to pretend that this kind if suffering, destitution and homelessness does not exist, or that it is the righteous reward for immoral behaviour or unwise choices. it is not. this suffering can be completely impersonal and impartial, it can strike any one at a moment's notice.

the fabric of this life is like gossamer, thin and fragile. by speaking with such clarity, your homeless friend did her audience a great favour - she reminded them that this fragility is a fundamental part of our shared humanity.

this realisation is perhaps what gives rise to the compassion that allows us to transcend the many boundaries we so carefully set up for ourselves.

Deezee said...

Jen, I applaud this woman, but I also applaud you for taking her voice beyond that room. These are the stories we all must hear to alter our assumptions and make our souls more generous.

alejna said...

Thank you for sharing this story, and spreading her message.

She was so brave to stand up and speak out. It's inspiring.

The Expatriate Chef said...

You are a goddess and a saint.

The Holmes said...

That was beautiful, thank you for sharing it.

NotSoSage said...

I hope those people heard what she said. It's such a hard thing to face that I think so few of us admit how close we all are to it...how brave of her to share her history, to give them a glimpse of how close anyone can be to the edge.