Saturday, May 29, 2010
A friend of mine runs a program that helps people who've been in the streets for the longest time re-enter the workforce. Folks many would consider lost forever, she takes these guys and lifts them up. She invited me to visit yesterday, to see her in action.
So I walk into a crowded room but full of life, guys joking around and friendly. I see a couple guys I know from back in the day and their faces light up and mine does too. We hug long and hard and get right down to it man it's good to see you you too hows the baby did you hear I got my own place now? I sit down smiling, already my day has been more than made.
So the meeting starts and it is awesome, folks going around the room sharing successes for the week. The man next to me starts sharing I was given 25 years to life for something I didn't do, I spent 12 locked up before I was released. I've been in the streets ever since and my friend her face is beaming but what's different today she asks and he says today I go home. I got myself an apartment and he leans back and he's grinning like the cheshire cat, he grins and we all grin and the room breaks out in applause. And where are your keys to this fine new apartment she asks and he grins again right here in my pocket and he reaches down and pats them and smiles again. I reach over and squeeze his arm, the rock solid kind of arm that comes from too many years inside and he looks at me and squeezes my hand right back.
The room breaks out into cheers again, the most supportive kind especially when it comes from guys who are still in the streets. I feel myself getting teary, because no matter how many years and what's come in between, I never failed to be moved by this most beautiful display of everyday humanity, the kind that has no bullshit and has been hard won.
I am sitting next to an old friend, a guy who 3 years ago lived in my program for the longest time until one day my friend scooped him up and put a broom in his hand and turned things around. He worked for her for a year, daily getting up off my floor and going out the door. The following year he came back to my place but this time as an employee rather than a client. I remember that day so clearly, he poked his head in to my office and held up his work shirt. I'm scared, he told me. What if I can't do this and it's ironic, this guy is huge and tough and has seen all kinds of things and I remember telling him who else could do it better than someone who knows all the tricks? Yesterday and three years later those days are long past, he's got his own place and a car to get around. He's still got a job but here he is, coming back to volunteer for my friend.
The meeting goes on, folks sharing leads and rides and even some shoes and as folks are clapping all over again the meeting winds down, they have their assignments for the week and are off to work. The doors open and the guys spill out into the sunshine, joking and jiving and I am carried out the door on this great wave of hope.
As I walk to my car I chat a bit more, guys that most people would give wide berth to walking me out and it hits me again as it always does when I'm back in the mix that no matter where I go or what I do I'll never stop being moved by this. I am so lucky to still have this in my life because these guys make me want to do better, to try and do more. Whether in this country or the next we are all humans here.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Every morning I get up very early and work out with a group of people in a nearby park. It's one of those organized things, where the guy in charge very nicely yells at you to do more run more jump more and you do it because you need to and also because it's fun. I've been doing it for awhile now and the group is friendly enough, companionable in the sense that we are all doing this together.
Two days ago we were on a little run and in a line we passed by a parked car. I see the people in front of me turn their heads as they go and when I pass I see a cat, a pile of blankets, and a kid and I immediately know it means some folks are sleeping in their car.
So I drop out of the line and run over to the car and I see a woman and a few kids and a couple of cats all piled inside. She's nervous when I approach so I talk to her through the window a bit, I tell her what I used to do and that I mean no offense but if they are without a place to stay maybe I can help. So she rolls down her window and we talk a good long while and I promise I'll connect her as soon as I'm done with this jumping around stuff. As it always has, my heart breaks for the kids, especially the one not much older than mine who jumps out of the car to get dressed in the street before school. Her little face is dirty but her smile is bright. They've been living like this since February.
They've been living like this since February.
So I fall back in with the class and there are some whispers, what was that what's going on are those people in their car and I briefly share and I also share that this is what I used to do and do in different ways today. Folks react in a way I am surprised by, they start telling me I am so good for doing this and I get embarrassed and a bit weird because I haven't done anything yet and this family is still in their car and it's awful. Later at work I recount it for my in the business friends and they understand my awkwardness because to them these sorts of interactions are normal and certainly not worth making a big deal over, it's simply what they do.
So today I go back a bit happier, because in the meantime I've connected the family with some housing options but am frustrated because it's going to take a few days. So I bring some food to give to them after class was over but during class others said they've brought food too.
So after class is over I walk over with some food and several others are coming too. So different from yesterday, today we are all gathered around the car, one woman is giving the kids all kinds of food. One of the guys is looking under the engine of the car, another helping load things in the back. There is talk of other ways to help, bringing dinner, clothes, a mechanic. They are inspired to do more.
All of a sudden the littlest girl starts jumping up and down Look mama, water! Look mama, bread! And in that space my heart cracks in half, little girls excited over bread and water is wrong on so many levels it nearly makes me cry. Our new friend looks at all of us, she does start to cry and thanks everyone over and over. She hugs us and we hug her and I promise to get in touch with her tomorrow. I know we'll figure this thing out.
I look at my peers and I see their faces, the generosity and kindness and everything else. I see they are moved by this moment and I am too. What created discomfort yesterday turned into love and action today. Strangers are now friends. It's so easy to do the right thing.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
My dad emailed this to me today after I sent him a link bemoaning the screwed-up-ed-ness of Cali and our government:
Civil rights used to be a value in this country. Then 9/11 happened and our leaders decided we couldn't afford those values.
Equal treatment under the law used to be a value. Then the State of Arizona decided we couldn't afford that so long as desperately poor people continued to come across the border in order to feed their families.
Bi-partisanship, a spirit of "we're all in this together" used to be a value in this country. Then extremists hijacked the political process and we had to lay that value aside, too.
Common decency used to be a value in this country. Then a person of color got elected.
Paying our bills used to be seen as personal responsibility, a value in this country. Then any tax increase became "socialism" and we couldn't afford to pay for public services anymore.
Get in line, Arnold. The pile of broken values is just over there. Lay the needs of children on top of the stack before it gets any higher.
He's such a bad ass, my dad.
Posted by jen at 6:02 PM
Saturday, May 01, 2010
One of my early mentors and forever heroes was the woman I was assigned to work under in my first days inside the shelter. I was immediately taken by her strength, her ability to understand the multiple issues facing homeless families and manage to hold them close until the seams came together. She was fierce in her commitment you will do this mija, you can do anything hermano she would speak with passion and folks would listen. They would listen and do as she said and by the time they left us they had jobs and homes and money in the bank. Over the years I watched her change more lives than I could ever count and she did it entirely from the heart.
In many ways it was her calling, she was a single mom who'd fled a terrible situation, abuse and more and so one day she took her kids and ran, she ran and ran and for awhile and many years she was scared, she was alone and on her own and without a home. Yet she was a warrior, she fought for her family and for herself and used all she had to help others and over the years things came together, she ended up working at the place that sheltered her, she stabilized her life and had a roof over her head and then she gave back, did she ever give back. She gave back more than anyone I've ever met.
We had crazy times, she and I, like the time she stepped between me and the guy with the knife, the one with the wild eyes. As calm as I'd ever heard her she looked at him square, mijo, put that knife down and the blue eyed man dropped that knife where he stood. One other time a little boy was so troubled he decided to jump out a window but she was there, she was there and she caught him as he fell and she held on three stories high as he dangled out the window for endless minutes until others could come and help. I remember after she was crying and she said I was so afraid I couldn't hold on but I said God, you keep my fingers strong and He did.
There aren't words for the love and respect and awe I feel for her and have felt for her for 12 years or more. There aren't enough words for how much of an impact she'd had on others, for the thousands of children she's fed and clothed and housed. There aren't enough words to describe her grace of spirit and her ability to mother.
But there's a part of this story I forgot to tell you. Back when she was fleeing that terrible situation she was in, the man who wanted her dead, she grabbed her babies and she ran. She ran so far she ran all the way from Mexico to here. She ran her in the dark and she emerged in the light. She's a citizen now, she pays her taxes and owns a home and has for many years. She is grateful every single day to this country, this country who in her eyes saved her life.
Arizona, you've broken my heart. You've broken it because you are blind, because you are afraid, and because if you'd arrested my friend all those years ago on the night she saved her own life she'd never been able to save so many others and we'd all be worse off today.
You've done a bad thing, Arizona. You've done all of us a really bad thing. Shame on you.
Shame on you.