Learning to live: Our town poor
There is a homeless woman my age who sleeps in the bushes overlooking the harbor. She washes her clothes in the town restroom, spends her days at the library. When it closes she heads back to her nest in the bushes.
She is about my age, my size, my race. She has a few parcels with her, containing a water bottle, an electronic device, some extra clothes. Her hair is long, like mine.
I haven’t made eye contact with her, have only recently figured out that she is homeless. And now that I have that information I don’t know what to do.
It rained last night. How does she sleep out in the rain? Does she find a new bush to hide in, out of the downpours? What will she do as the cold of the fall and winter sets in?
What do we do? As a community I know we have churches that offer lunches, also services to help folks find shelter — there is a homeless shelter the next town down the road. I am glad for those services, but I still don’t know what I do. Do I say something to her? Offer to buy her a cup of tea? Do I reach out to get to know her to see if I can do anything?
The Buddha begged for food when he left home, sought places to rest on his quest. There is a tendency to bring judgment and shaming to those whose circumstances don’t meet some baseline standard. We invent stories for how they got there: drugs, alcohol, perhaps a mental condition. We invent these stories to make a barrier between us and them: since I don’t have those issues I won’t become homeless like this woman.
Truth is, while I cannot know the circumstances that got her to a place where she has to sleep in the bushes, we are not far apart. We are much more alike than separate. She is someone’s daughter, sister, ex, mother. She has a past that included birthdays and Christmases and graduations. She has held a job and lost a job. At the moment she is probably looking for work, just like I am.
So what do I do? What do you do? What do we do? We live in a bucolic town, one in which it is jarring to see homeless people with a backdrop of a blue sky day flanked by million-dollar homes ringing our harbor of million-dollar yachts.
The other day I looked out the window to find a police officer crouching over something by the fence in my yard. After I while I could hear, through the open windows, “Shawn, was it just the alcohol?” as the officer jostled the huddled mass. Curious, I went out with a glass of water. As I approached I could see the young boy, about 20, begin to stir.
“Perhaps he’d like a glass of water?”
“No, he doesn’t need any water,” shot back the officer. Rebuffed, I went inside and poured the water down the drain, continuing to watch as the officer kept working to wake the lad. Eventually I saw them walk out of the brush toward the patrol car, the officer steadying the fellow with both arms. And then I saw the patrol car turn the corner, with the young man in the front street.
I don’t know what became of the fellow, but I was glad he was in the front seat, glad the officer had found a way to help instead of scold. Perhaps a cup of coffee at the station and some talk about services to work through difficulties followed.
We live amongst many. We are a community. We have services like the police that are increasingly called on to help with this kind of situation, not so much a public safety matter but a community-of-caring matter. How do regular citizens reach out? A hundred years ago the town poor were also amongst us. Are they more invisible now, more isolated? Are we more psychically immobile and closed off from them now?
In her 1896 collection of stories called The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett penned a sketch called “The Town Poor,” in which a pair of townswomen pay a call on a pair of sisters, Ann and Mandy Bray, who have lost their home and are barely surviving on the stingy but good graces of the town selectmen.
Mrs. Trimble, one of the visitors, is shaken by the sisters’ plight: “It was an unwelcome thought to Mrs. Trimble that the well-to-do town of Hampden could provide no better for its poor than this, and her round face flushed with resentment and the shame of personal responsibility.”
I share Mrs. Trimble’s shame. Here I am, warm, dry, well fed for today. What then, can be done, I ask. As the short story ends Mrs. Trimble rides off with her companion reeling off the action steps she is going to take get the Bray sisters back in their own home. “Don’t talk to about the town o’ Hampden, an’ don’t ever let me hear the name o’ the town poor! I’m ashamed to go home an’ see what’s set out for supper. I wish I had brought them right along.”
I too, wish I had brought our homeless woman home to supper. And yet I did not.