07 September 2011


15 minutes of honest conversation; the rest of the world ceases to exist.

We debate whether birthdays are worth celebrating. I ask him to name all of the drugs he's ever done, and the best one (alcohol) and the worst one (alcohol). I tell him I've never actually been drunk before, but I've pretended a few times. He tells me he's an awful father. I tell him I have a sugar addiction. He tells me about the times that he's dressed up in nice suits and hid behind the vending machine at a ritzy hotel, just so he can come down the next morning and eat from the free buffet. We talk about depression, religion, appearance, fairness, my fingernails ("What's wrong with my fingernails?!"), and ghost stories. 

"Are you mad at me, because I don't care about birthdays?" He asks.

Today, in this office, souls are bared.

18 May 2011

The People That You Follow

It is not uncommon for me to receive letters from prison. On a pretty regular basis, inmates waiting release send requests for information about our agency's services in order to create a constructive plan for their reentry into society. I always respond. I love letters, and even though these are purely of a business nature, I always add a sentence or two conveying a message of encouragement, and of hope.

A few weeks ago, I received one such letter, though it was unique: Michael Layton had no release date. He is in prison for 'life'. He told me that he has been petitioning for release, and that it's helpful to present a plan during these petitions that shows his efforts to be a contructive citizen if he is ever granted release. He was hoping our services would be part of that plan. I informed him, gladly, stunned by the thought that Mr. Layton had been in the same building since I was born. As usual, I added a concluding paragraph in which I told Mr. Layton of my respect for his efforts and his persistence.

And then he wrote back:

"I just wanted to let you know that for number one just you responding made my day and number two I appreciate the letter and the information also. Thank you for reading and responding to me because for a minute i was beginning to feel dead inside. Also, thank you for choosing to care. There are men in the Bible that has done things that were morally wrong yet God used them to do great things. For some reason some people don't know this or they do and they still don't believe people can change. You hosever are not of the world and I wouldn't be surprised if you had enemies just from letting your light shine.
I sent you a poem that I wrote whil reflecting on my past. I don't know if you could find any use to this but I wanted to share something with you.
Peace, Michael"

He gave me permission to post his poem:

"The People That You Follow"

The people that I followed were not out for my best interest
But at that time "I thought they were friends" so I listened
To "whatever they said" and I did what "they wanted"
Even when it came to doing wrong I was on it.

But my concience told me, "I should have left them"
"But I ignored it cause I was trying to impress them"
"Cause I wanted to fit in and be accepted by them"
"So I began to prove myself worthy in the eyes of them."

So they started small with like, we dare
You to jump over such and such fence and steal the pears
I went from that to stealing out of corner stores
And gocery stores then that gor bored so I began to do more.

Because my appetite for doing wrong grew quick
So by the time I became a teenager I was addicted
To being just like "the guys" even though inside I cried
Cause to be honest I wasn't that type of guy.

I was wearing a  mast I don't know what else to tell you
Scared to take it off cause I didn't want to be a failure
So I wore this image that was far from who I was
And eventually that image had me involved with drugs.

I fell for "anything" because I didn't have integrity
My will to choose was compromised incessantly
And in the end I was in a bad position, "in prison"
And the people that I followed lost interest.

I wish you the best, Mr. Layton, wherever you may ever be.

11 May 2011


I stood, and focused all of my attention on Cassandra. I tried to soak in the volume of her joy, every animated detail of her face as she spoke to me, and her Jesus. I wanted to memorize the moment, to really remember the fullness of human change and movement.

I wanted to remember the words she chose to describe the last few years of her life. She talked about the "chains" of her years of streetlife, the "heavy" boredom of days upon days in the same doorway, the "itch" for another high. She let her 5 ft frame (and 1 ft weave) rise and fall in her recollection, and her her arms wind through her reminiscence. Her eyes widened, her scarlet-red shirt and her shirt-red lipstick portrayed and punctuated her elation.

But it was simple. And most of her explanation was a prayer. She was not speaking to me, but allowing me to eavesdrop on her praise. Because she had her own apartment, and she could sit and soak in her own tub, and even though most of the rooms were empty, her boundless presence filled them for now, and filled them well.

I can't capture all of Cassandra in this moment the way I would like to, and I'm thinking about this as she speaks. I think about the privalege it is to stand so close to the joy of someone else, and to invite it in.  I write this blog to pass on what I'm given, but I'm afraid that today, my words are not sufficient.

21 April 2011

Bora Bora

... at the end of our meeting, I asked him:
"Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

He blinked very slowly, looked up, and then looked straight into my eyes.
"Yes. I want to go to Bora Bora."

"Close your eyes again," I told him.

I have an abnormally big and bright computer monitor. I'm an expert at Google Image searching.

I moved the monitor as close to his bowed, furrowed brow as the cord allowed, hoping I wasn't about to cause some irreparable retina damage. I filled the screen with the aquamarine of Bora Bora.


As he opened his eyes, his entire face lifted. His lips parted to show some very well-kept dentures, and he let out a slow, enduring, overwhelming laugh--the laugh of a man who had lived for so long without permanence, so many days without a companion, a lifetime without a vacation.

In .13 seconds, a search engine found the joy that was buried deep within this old man, and it filled the room.

20 April 2011

Holy Roller / Twisted Sister

Paula told me that she needs a payee because of her compulsive compassion.

"I'm addicted to random acts of kindness... with money."

She says that when people ask her for money, she just can't turn them down. It's too much fun to give away.

"I can give away $2,000... just like that." (She snaps her fingers, her weathered and worn fingers. It's less of a snap, more like a brush.)

Paula lives in the neighborhood, modestly. Very modestly.

"God doesn't give me enough gifts to share."

Her joy is so complete, and so completely immaterialistic.

"A $50 tip for a cab ride! You should have seen his face!"

But Paula, make sure you take care of yourself.

"What do you call a nun who falls down the stairs?"

"A... holy roller?"

"A twisted sister!"

She pulls out an envelope of $20's and counts them. And re-counts them.

"Paula, you should keep your money in your wallet."

"But I like to play with it!"


"Can you do me a favor? Call me a cab."
"Uh... seeya later, Cab."
"No, I'm serious!"


I can't help but think that Paula will probably be okay, by her own standards. She will always feel like she is doing okay. It's a strange thought, to think that she receives money from the government to help meet her basic needs, and she give so much of it away. I wonder, if anyone knew, if they would complain.

18 April 2011

The Winds : The Times : The Pace : Nickles, Dimes and Pennies


Paul never took a shower because he never got another change of clothes. I have not seen him for months.

Gary still smokes crack, but has learned not to overdose on our property (lest he be suspended from our services again).

I am sure Rita's child has been born, and I pray that they are safe. May 12th was the last time I saw her... but not the last time I thought about her.

Rob doesn't pay child support for his son anymore, which has caused his greif to switch from his debt to his son's death.

BobbyJoel's police report successfully secured him a spot in the subsidized apartments he applied to. I hear a rumor that he has a really cool toaster oven that can cook frozen pizzas.

Jarrone and Christina are still together in a "agree to disagree" sort of way, but neither of them have their State ID's anymore.

Gerald came back to my office this week with another gift: a daffodil he uprooted from a nearby highway median. He handed it to me with a shaking hand and said "I'm sorry." Sorry because after almost 2 years of sobriety, he was drunk.

Paulie still drinks as much as he pleases, but has stopped looking for work and stopped pretending to go to school. Never stops smiling.

In this neighborhood, things change, and then sometimes, they change back. But they're always moving, and three years of employment in one place shows you much more than a month, or a year. I've seen the full run of a relationships, what happens after a stint in jail (and what doesn't), sobriety and relapse, and if I've learned anything, it's that change is a constant state, not a single event, but this doesn't mean that it doesn't count, or it's not effective. It's like the turn of a screw--you may look like you're at the same point as you were a year ago, but you're just a little bit deeper; a little bit closer to your destination.
Relapse is part of recovery; sometimes you have to step backward to maintain your balance.


14 March 2011


I once made a point to write down all of the names of those in this neighborhood who passed away. Whether it was acts of violence, addiction, illness, cold, or natural causes, something deep within me feels the injustice of a death without recognition, without any kind of pause, thought, silence.

Ten minutes ago, I received a phone call from the hospital from a nurse, looking for Bartolo's next of kin. He had named me as his emergency contact. Me, the person who made him laugh with broken Spanish, who liked to pluck off his hat to show his lack of hair, who would occasionally stop next to the nest of blankets that enveloped him in his Doorway (http://144southdivision.blogspot.com/2009/12/door-way.html), who called him 'sir', and called him a friend, but couldn't go much further than that. I knew nothing of his next of kin.

But I knew of his laugh, his kindness, his deep and beautiful wrinkled face. And just for now, for this moment, I'm thinking of him.

09 February 2011

Why We Need Places

I visited a home yesterday, which is not something I do very often while working with a predominately homeless population.

I have known Vincent for a few years now--long enough to watch him transition from frequent nights spent in a parking garage, through the application for disability benefits, all the way to the receipt of his own apartment. I have watched one further transition as well: self-sufficiency to dependency; mobility to immobility. This was the reason I was visiting Vincent today: to deliver to him his food pantry staples.

5 pounds of oatmeal
A package of salt-free rice cakes
3 rolls of toilet paper
A loaf of bread
Green Tea

With all of his bland, flavorless food requests, I was not expecting to open his apartment door to such a colorful, stimulating studio.

The walls were full of drawings, gifts from other people, fliers and dried flowers, strange sculptures. Plants (and consequently, dirt) littered the floor, next to stacks of books, and palates of paint. It was truly a 'studio apartment'.

Seeing Vincent in all his glory made me consider the further purposes of having our own housing. We desire to be in all our glory, whatever that means.

Some people fill their places with art and color, like Vincent.
Some people fill their places with people.
Some people want to be surrounded by order,
Or memories
Or collections (anyone who has seen my closet knows all about this).

Some people want their places uncluttered, simple, almost bare.

But most people want to decide for themselves. To extend themselves into wherever they are the most.

Vincent now seems himself, when he's in his place, throwing his being all over the floor and the shelves and the walls.

03 February 2011

Life Snows On

Yesterday, it was cold, and it snowed. According to Carrie, this was nothing new.

"It's always a cold day. It's always snowing. Ain't no different. Ain't no adventure. When everything's closing, when everyone's all hunkering down, we still ain't got no place to go."

I admit to feeling the excitement and thrill of anticipating a historical storm. I admit to thinking of my morning commute as an adventure. And though Carrie's view may seem cynical, who wouldn't be cynical? Who wouldn't be annoyed by all of the hubbub of the homeowners when so little changes for those without housing.

The news called and asked if our numbers had increased because of the storm. The truth is, they remained typical for this time of the month. Though the snowfall intensified, the need was already critical; the visitation already intense.

Carrie was already wearing everything she had. She'd been bundled up since November. She was planning on that. What she was not counting on was all of the services and agencies that were closed. It was a hard day to get any business done.

"Anna, there's goin' be snow and cold 'til spring. And you can always count on that."

26 January 2011


He's been telling me for a year now that I care about him more than he does. I have to admit, now, that it's true. That is why, this afternoon, I changed his socks.

Taking a shower today (and any day) is a big deal. Going from being dry and clothed to being wet and bare is a drastic change, and it's hard to handle. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to be alone, to confront yourself. Sometimes, it's a painful process, but it's what we do. It's what we all have to do in this world, once in a while. So he did it today, but he couldn't take off his socks.

He walked from the shower, soaking his footprints into the carpet on the way to my office. He has been wearing those three pairs of socks for three months.

"These socks are just fine."

"They're wet. They're going to freeze when you go outside."

"I've been doing it this way all along."

"You'll get frostbite."

"If I take off my socks, my feet will fall apart."

"No, your feet will fall apart if you don't take off your socks."

"I'm not changing them."

And now, because he fears the change of his socks more than he fears frostbite, and resists exposing his feet more than my disapproval, he embarks on a valiant attempt at a filibuster, going on and on about something totally unrelated. And I wait. And I wait.

And he pauses, thinking.

"Just tell me when it's my turn."

And he continues. And I wait.
And now he stops.

And I hold up three pairs of new, thick, black socks. And I say,
"Dean, are you going to do this, or am I?"

He starts to talk again, and chews relentlessly on a handful of cough drops, because he can't bear to acknowledge what he is about to expose. But he moves back in his chair, and lifts his feet.

And one by one, I peel off his tattered, soaking, salt-stained socks.

19 January 2011

And Sew On: The luxury, the importance, and the impact of more time.

I do not have a set schedule or time limit for the visits I have during the day. The amount of time I spend with each individual depends on the needs they present. I have the luxury of determining how I spend the six hours that my office is open for business, and though I am held closely accountable by my co-workers (and those still waiting outside of my door), I see the value in taking extra time from time to time to do some unique activities. Like sewing.

Miss Nettie came in because she needed new boots, because the fabric on hers had ripped up the side. We have very few winter boots available to give out, so I decided it was time to take out the sewing kit. Yes, of course I keep a sewing kit in my office.

Miss Nettie and I each took a needle, some thread, and a boot, and got to work. She had not sewn in years. We talked about all of those non-sewing years, all of the threadless thoughts that occupied her mind. We talked about those boots, their strengths and weaknesses, how they traveled with her through the highs and lows of her days. We brough the seams together with only minor injuries (nothing two band-aids couldn't fix), and Miss Nettie walked away with some pride in those boots, and some more energy in her step.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have 10 minutes to take with Miss Nettie, but I stand by those 10 minutes, and I'll defend them to my co-workers, and those still waiting outside my door.

12 January 2011

2 Vitamins, 2 Cough Drops, 2 Starlite Peppermints

When Jerry walks in, we lay them all in two lines:

2 Vitamins, for preventative health
2 Cough Drops, for sinus health
2 Starlite Peppermints, for breath

Capsule Capsule, Paper Wrapper Paper Wrapper, Cellophane Cellophane

If there's anyone who needs vitamins, it's Jerry. He eats ketchup and tarter sauce. He eats really really thick hot chocolate. He eats nothing. He eats french fries mixed with really really thick hot chocolate. He eats nothing. He needs some minerals. Though he doesn't seem to get sick nearly as much as I do.

If there's anyone who needs vitamins, it's me. I get what Jerry calls the Rhino Virus at least once a month, making me the second most prominent destroyer of Kleenex-producing trees in the Northern Hemisphere. I can't be bothered with vitamins. But Jerry called me a hypocrite, so we decided to keep each other accountable. We take our vitamins in unison, keeping eye contact to make sure neither of us cheats.

It's so much easier to take vitamins with Jerry. There's this strange, other-dimensional connection made when we swallow One-A-Days in unison, like the feeling you get when you're pushing a car out of a snowbank with someone that you don't even know that well--when you are both working really hard toward something great.

We've found common ground in our lack of motivation, and now, in our mineral-rich bloodstreams.

Sometimes, Jerry stays to talk while we administer our cough drops and suffer through our breath medication, but today, Jerry takes them for the road. He's got business today, but knew he'd be worthless without his vitamins.