Clothes in the Street
She was screaming and emptying out her backpack all over the street.
I was sitting outside a coffee shop with my husband. Several others were around sipping coffee, chatting and working on computers. A few yards away, a petite woman with shoulder-length gray hair was screaming profanities — raging about how no one acknowledged or cared about her.
She was throwing the contents of her backpack all around and into the street — toiletries, a notebook, some clothes.
She went on like this for several minutes. I noticed others watching her. My heart was racing.
Should I go over there? The thought scared me. Would she turn her anger on me?
I whispered across the table, “Justan, should I go talk to her? What would Heidi do?” Heidi is my Quaker friend who writes raw accounts of interactions she has with people on the streets.
She once told me about a time when she saw someone repeatedly hitting another person at a bus stop. With a sense of peace, she slowly moved toward the one doing the hitting and gently placed her hand on their shoulder. This small, brave gesture brought a calm that changed the atmosphere.
Something about that story has stuck with me.
Still, Heidi has encouraged me to not put pressure on myself, but to respect my limitations. In these kinds of situations, it’s important to be discerning. So what about this moment? Was this a time to act? Would a silent prayer be sufficient?
I didn’t want this woman to be left alone in her despair. I wanted to stand up, but I was frozen.
I thought maybe if I walked past her to my car to “grab something”, a bit of courage might come.
I stood up, heart pounding, and felt my frozen legs begin to thaw. I was moving toward the screaming woman. There was no turning back. I stopped a few feet from her. Quietly, awkwardly I asked, “Is there any way I can help?”
“No! I don’t need anything from you. No one gives a damn about me, and they prove it all day every day!”
I tried again, “Can I buy you a drink?”
“No! I don’t need that! I’m tired of carrying all this shit I have! It hurts my back!”
My words felt flimsy. “That backpack gets heavy, doesn’t it?”
“How do you know?! You don’t know! Have you ever been homeless?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Then you don’t know! I need a sleeping bag! I’m tired of freezing all night! No one gives a shit about me!”
“I know it hurts… you’ve been through a lot.”
“You don’t have any idea what I’ve been through! People are always stealing from me! No one listens to me. No one cares! I wish I was dead… Just kill me, God! I wish you would kill me! … I just wish he would kill me.”
She’s right, I don’t have the slightest idea what she’s been through.
I attempted another meager response. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry you’re hurting… Living in this world can hurt so much… I hope you know your life has value… you’re so valuable.”
“No, I’m not. My life isn’t worth anything anymore.”
I told her it wasn’t possible to lose her worth. Nothing could take that away from her.
She started to calm. She warmed up a little. We talked a bit more. She still screamed in spurts. A security guy walked toward us telling her, “you need to clean up your stuff right now.”
He let her know that she’d be arrested if she didn’t clean it up.
“I won’t touch it. But I’ll kick it over to that donation bin!”
We started working on it together. I folded some clothes into my arms while she kicked things along. The security guard hovered.
I asked, “are you sure you want to donate all this stuff?”
“Does anyone listen to me? I don’t want it. It’s just stuff. I’m tired of carrying it around.”
There was a pack of colored pencils and some drawings in a notebook.
I asked her if she’d like to keep them so she could do more drawing.
“No! I don’t want to keep those. I’m not good at drawing. It’s not my gift! I’m a singer. I sing! But does anybody care about that?!”
It all went into the donation dumpster. She wasn’t screaming anymore. I asked if I could sit with her for a while.
She said, “I’ve gotta go, I’m trespassing now. Is there any way you can help me get a sleeping bag?”
I gave her the cash in my pocket.
Her tone warmed. “This is enough to get a sleeping bag. Thank you, sweetie. God bless you.”
As I was walking back to my table, an older man with a white beard looked at me tenderly, nodded his head, and mouthed “thanks.” I was touched by the humanity in his eyes.
A while later, a young man walked up to our table. “Hey, thank you for helping that lady.” He told us he was a photographer. He would wake up early to take photos downtown and often noticed homeless people, and how they helped each other survive.
I shared with him about my friend Steve Malakowsky, who spent his life creating art for the homeless and addicts and other people on the fringes. He would hang his paintings and poems on the chain-link fences down at the shelter. His message was simple. “Your life has value, and there’s hope.”
My friends Heidi and Steve have given me the courage to care and to act.
I didn’t do anything grand that day at the coffee shop. I just stood up and moved toward another human being. For those few moments, I was allowed to enter into the immense grief of one woman. I felt it more intensely and I cared more deeply than I would have if I had stayed frozen in my chair.