Sunday, January 29, 2006

My Hidden Agenda (hidden even to me!)

My mother is a lot like me. Though she doesn't let on, she's very sensitive, and I would guess is more hurt when others are hurt than when she is.

Over a year ago, she started walking on this little island in my hometown. It's kind of remote, very beautiful, and one can see Bald Eagles soaring over the river. But what interested her more, was an old homeless man (picture an aged Grizzly Adams) that lived between two concrete walls that used to be the foundation of a building. He had all his belongings with him, usually had tupperware containers with food, and almost always was sitting on a bench reading.

She was intrigued by him (as I would be). I cautioned her not to approach him or make contact with him. Not for safety reasons (though no larger than me, she's quite scrappy and, having no evidence, I'm quite sure she could hold her own in a fight), but out of respect for him. I told her he might think she pities him, an action that would horrify many homeless individuals (I feel I can say this only because I've worked closely, and built relationships with many homeless residents in St. Louis).

She abided by my suggestion. She went for her walks, past Rupert (we voted over email about what his name should be. Rupert won out over Oscar, Hal, and about five other names), and started suggesting little scenarios about him. Maybe he's a veteran? Maybe he's a brilliant scientist that's too brilliant to function in the world? (let me say, I think I may have fueled many of these theories).

Then she admitted that she'd said "hello" in passing...after all, it would be rude not to at least say "hello", right? I also suspect she'd had other conversations with him, she's quite crafty at creating small talk when she needs to (another skill we share).

Then I didn't hear about him for a while, until about a month ago.

For Christmas, she couldn't help herself, she took him a plate of Christmas cookies. He wasn't in his usual place, saying he'd been scared off by kids that threw rocks at him, as well as the police telling him he had to be off the island. The weather had been below zero degrees, and somehow he'd made it. Once they were engaged in chit-chat...the floodgates opened. Apparently he was quite wealthy and "they" were keeping the money from him...but his attorney is working on it...then he'll have money. There were several "theys" that fit into the equation. Having worked as a psychiatric nurse, I believe my mother got a clue as to how he came to be homeless. The same way many other homeless are homeless.

She seemed a little heartbroken. The thing that she held onto was that a well-dressed man in a nice car seemed to check on Rupert while she was there. She surmised it could have been his of "they". I asked about him today and she said she hasn't been back to the island, and she feels that she probably won't ever see him again.

I knew immediately why I suggested she keep her distance. I had my own Rupert, but his name was Nathan. Nathan was an old stringy veteran that had an elaborate camp set up behind the flood wall in the city. He was hospitable and loved by outreach workers. He required little, and helped others out that didn't have set-ups as nice as his (keep in mind, his set-up was still outside, made mostly of garbage...but still pretty comfortable in temperate weather). Nathan was murdered last summer. The police say by another homeless man...we (outreach workers) feel it was a group of young white teenagers...the same ones that beat and hospitalized another man we know.

My point is this. I've gotten a lot from my relationships with my homeless clients, but I also know that there are few "happy endings" among this population. I didn't want my mother, who's heart would ACHE if she knew he'd frozen to death or had been beaten by bored suburban kids (both very possible).

I guess I was trying to protect her. If she'd had her way, he'd be living in their guest room (or my old room), but it's more likely he's not doing very well, and will move around to different places, and never do any better. I guess I wanted her to keep her distance because I didn't want her to realize that.


Blogger elanflux said...

Wow, brought a tear to my eye. It also reminded me that I use to go downtown with coffee, blankets,home-made goodies etc..for a family living under a bridge. Two adults and two kids. They just disappeared one day. I like to think they are living in a warm, two story, brick number in the city and they now take coffee, blankets, etc.. to others. I know that may not be the case, but I hope. I need to get back to some of the things I use to do. Thanks for that. Hey did you ever find out his true name?

11:50 PM  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

The street people that really get under my skin are the youth — particularly young women, however sexist it may be of me.

The older folks, I figure they're almost certainly beyond redemption (not that I would ever completely give up hope for any living person).

But the teenagers: I figure they still have a fighting chance. I know that anyone who is living on the street has dug a real hole for themselves, from which it will be very difficult to escape. But youth is full of potentialities, and some of them will reverse course.

Several times I've made contact with a teenaged woman living on the streets. And then they vanish to God only knows where. Maybe it's a change for the better; maybe not.

But it grieves me, because I am emotionally invested in these girls from the first contact.

When my children are grown, and my life simplifies, I fully intend to volunteer time in a ministry to homeless people. I hope it will be a good experience, and not too disillusioning, when I'm finally in a position to do so.

I'm sorry to hear about Nathan. How horrible.

3:51 PM  

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