I am feeling down and confused, and I am not sure what to do with it.
Today I was at a coffeeshop, working, when a women walked in. She was homeless, and obviously mentally ill. Maybe she was about 60, but it’s hard to say — she may have been younger but very weathered. One of the workers gave her a warm washcloth for her hands — today is a below zero day, a terrible day to be homeless in Minnesota.
She sat at a table next to me, talking softly to herself constantly. Actually she stood, mostly, messing with her many bags. Finally, I said, “Ma’am, you look very cold. Can I buy you something warm to drink?”
She accepted — though I still really struggled to understand her — and I tried to help her off with her coats. One was stuck on her big cross necklace. I had to help her on and off with the necklace — I have no idea how she uses her fingers, which looked calloused beyond having any feeling.
She got coffee and a muffin, and then I tried to figure out where she was going next. Over time it was clear that she was connected with the homeless network — she had a cell phone, a bus card, she knew the names of the main shelters in the area. She would not go to them — people stole from her, she said, and they pushed her husband around. (She had no husband with her.) I asked her about riding the bus. She had a “to go” card for the buses, but she said the drivers were mean to her. She would tear up every time she talked about it.
I made several calls, but if she didn’t want to go to the shelters, obviously I couldn’t make her. I also suggested the hospital — if she were assessed as mentally ill, she could get into special shelters — but apparently she knew that already and did not want to go that route.
In the end I left her sitting in the coffeeshop. When I bought the coffee, she leaned over to me and asked, “How long do they let you stay here? A half hour, do you think?” It was one of more her lucid moments, trying to assess how long she could stay indoors.
“Longer than that,” I answered. “You have to have time to finish your coffee.”
At some point I introduced myself and asked her name. It was becoming clear that there was not much more I could do. Her name was Bonnie. Actually, she said her name was Mrs. Something-or-other-I couldn’t hear, then she said her name was Bonnie. “Can I call you Bonnie?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said.
So I tried to look her in the eye, nod, and call her Bonnie. That was all I could think of to give her, to call her by name.
I was distressed to leave her, but I didn’t know what else to do. I went to the grocery store afterwards, feeling guilty for shopping at Whole Foods, feeling useless and out of touch with the real needs of people in my community. Feeling hopeless for people like Bonnie, who are so needy they cannot even accept the help being offered them.
I’m just posting this because it is weighing on me heavily. I’m not posting it because I think I did a great act of kindness spending $4 on a woman with bottomless needs. I’m not posting it because I want someone to reassure me that I did my best. I just need to tell this story again, to release a little of the pressure inside.
Looking this woman in the eyes and trying to accept her for who she is, without changing her, without rescuing her, was really hard. And yet geez, what a ridiculous thing to say, snug in my office, full of organic squash and a little ice cream — you see the downward spiral I could easily get into here. So I am still not sure where to go with this.
I may have to pull a Patience and delete this post later. 😉