Yesterday I volunteered at Minneapolis Project Homeless Connect. This is an event where volunteers help homeless or nearly homeless people find many of the services they need. A volunteer, like me, meets with a homeless person, identifies their needs and then guides them through the services provided at the event.
I had the good fortune to get a Native American lady who loved to talk. She has a beautiful name but I will call her Sue for the sake of privacy. She sat down in front of me and, with a cheery smile, introduced herself. I would have guessed her age at about thirty, maybe even less because living homeless can be very hard on a body. But when we came to the question of her birthdate, I found she was fifty.
As we worked through the list of questions we came to one that asked “Do you have any physical or mental disability that prevents you from working?”
With her still cheery smile, she answered, “Yes, I tried to commit suicide and jumped off a bridge. That broke my back and pelvis.”
Then pointing at the cast on her foot she added, “I have this foot problem that the doctor said will continue to get worse until I can’t walk. Oh, and I take meds for obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
We finished the questionnaire and headed off to the first stop as we chatted.
“So,” I asked. “You are a Native American. Where are you from?”
“I was born at the Red Lake reservation but my father was murdered two days after I was born. My mom managed to keep us together for a while but we were poor. Then I was sent to a Caucasian foster family. They were wonderful; they taught me about Jesus and that’s what keeps me going even today. But it was hard there. When I went to school the kids teased me about the color of my skin. I think it’s beautiful now but then the teasing really hurt me.”
We had a break in the conversation while she was helped by one of the service providers. Then we moved on to the next issue from her list and again we started chatting.
“Did you go back to the reservation?” I asked.
“No. Later I was married to a guy on a reservation in Montana but he was shot and they took my baby girl away from me.”
This was the first time she lost her smile and stopped talking for a moment to hold back tears.
Once more the conversation was interrupted as she was helped with the next issue. Our next stop was the Oral History service where she could tell her story and have her picture taken. (Some of these stories are available at www.OralHistoryOfHomelessness.org). I was going to find a chair and wait for her to finish before taking her to the next stop but she didn’t want me to go.
“No, Joe, you come with me.” She insisted.
So we went in and sat down together as she began her story. The attendant there set up the equipment and explained the process. Sue signed the consent form for the use of her story and the attendant began the interview with the first question.
“Can you tell us how you became homeless?”
“Well, my partner burned my place and I had nowhere to go. I didn’t want to go to a shelter because I was ashamed. I never asked for anything before and I was too ashamed to tell them I couldn’t take care of myself. So I lived under a bridge for a while.
“Then I got in with a group that was living in some bushes. They were nice people. We all looked out for each other and watched each other’s stuff. Then the city cut the bushes down and we all had to find a new place. I spent a couple of nights riding the bus but finally I had to go to a shelter.
“That’s when things got bad. Some nights I couldn’t get into the shelter and I had to live on the street. Sometimes a guy would let me share his room and I would have to pay for it with sex. That’s when I started drinking. Finally I tried to kill myself. I jumped off a bridge but I ended up in the hospital. When I was released, I was back out on the street.
“I was back to trying the shelter every night and finding a way to get by on the nights I couldn’t get in. Then one day I was sitting in a McDonalds with a friend, trying to keep warm. She had a medical problem and was going to go to the emergency room and I decided to go with her. I knew I had a small gallstone from my last stay in the hospital so I thought I would claim that it was causing pain and I would get a night in a warm bed.
“We went in and I doubled over and wailed like I was in terrible pain. They examined me and decided to admit me. I was so happy; I would sleep in a clean bed in a safe place and get some food. The next day they did a bunch of tests and told me that I had a gallstone and asked if I wanted the stone removed or the entire gallbladder removed. I told them I didn’t know, I need to talk with someone to decide which would be better.
“They never sent a counselor or anybody to explain things and I kept delaying the decision. Finally, after several days they wanted me to make a decision or they would discharge me. I told them to take the whole thing out. I had the surgery and managed to get three more nights before they discharged me again. And that’s how I got here.”
“If you could talk to the governor or the president, what would you tell them?” the attendant asked.
Sue thought for a while, then said, “I would like the government people to know the desperation. I’m pretty resilient but a lot of the folks are so desperate, they can’t do anything. Those folks really need some help.”
“One last question, what is your dream? If you could have anything, what would it be?”
Again, Sue thought for a while then answered, “My dream would be able to start doing my artwork again. I see the desperation in people and I see the joy I get from Jesus and I want to get that on canvas. The image is so clear, I have to get it down.”
After wiping a tear from my eye, I took her down to the lunch line to get a warm meal that she could eat in a warm, safe place.
My next task is to find her and fill in some of the holes in her amazing story.