I met Paula while coming back home last Saturday night.
She was sitting in the floor, protected behind some wood panels that the restaurant in that corner uses to create a private space when they open in the mornings. I didn’t see her at first, I was slowly walking and thinking of my things and only her soft voice made me realize I wasn’t alone. Do you have five dollars to spare, she asked.
I looked at her and I saw an old asian woman camping there with all she had, which was really nothing but a backpack and a snow hat. Her face was full of wrinkles and dirt, but I could clearly see her tiny eyes reflecting the dim lights around us. And despite her appearance, I for some reason felt I could hug that woman. Some people have that effect on me, I cannot explain it. In anyway, perhaps because of that I approached her and looked in my wallet for five dollars, which I didn’t find. I decided to give her twenty instead. I can tell she clearly didn’t expect it because she kept thanking me repeatedly, until I interrupted her and asked how are you doing?. There was some silence. It’s cold. And in that moment I felt I needed to know more. I wasn’t sure about what exactly, but I wanted to know more. Why are you staying out here rather than in the shelter. She stayed in silence for a bit, and then started talking. And we both talked in fact for a long, long, long while.
Paula had been working with databases in the past. She had been very fluent with computers apparently. When she asked what I did for a living and I told her cartoons, and maths, and computers, and stuff, she asked me what programming language I used. I also got to know that once she went in trip or something and got hit by two men (his boyfriend included I believe), leaving her injuries in her head. She had been a very clever woman once, but everything is slow in my head now…, she explained. Everything she said about not fitting in the shelter or anywhere for the matter sounded like a denial of her current condition, of which she was conscious and ashamed. Maybe because of that she said I want to create my own company, I can do it.
When asked about her family, Paula cried for a bit. It took her some moments, which I waited in silence, before she explained me his friend brother passed away some years ago, and that his other brother though she was a burden to the family. Dad would send her money, but not anymore because she had used it in the past to buy drugs. She regretted that so much.
We started talking about me and my images and programming languages (as requested by her) and also about life in general. She gradually got happier, and when she’s forgot her pain for a bit and I felt she was most focused, I asked her about why not going to the shelter instead of staying out there in the cold. She concurred that she would wake up less tired and more focused after a warm night indeed. And no matter what the people treated her like in the shelter, the only way to build her own company would be to stay focused anyway. She agreed to that as well.
I felt bad because I didn’t know how to help her really. What do I know about living in the street, the policies at a shelter, legal issues, shame, medication or being trapped in a world you feel you don’t belong in? Nothing. So I couldn’t understand really the scope of her misery, and hence, I didn’t know how to help.
Do you need anything, was all I could think of asking next. She nodded, and explained what she would find handy in such nights. I went home and came back as soon as I could bringing a scarf, a blanket and a bottle of water with me. Thankfully she was still there when I arrived. She was also happy to see me again. You are back! I handed the items to her, and she put the scar and drunk some water. We exchanged phone numbers, and decided it was time to walk away, me to my apartment and her to a friend’s place where she would take her medication… At that moment I didn’t fear she would simply sleep in the next corner around the block instead of getting to her friends place. According to the texting the following morning and days after, it seems she made it to her friends and slept safe and warm indeed, at least that one night.
Of course, the story of Paula they way she told it to me is probably biased and incomplete, but it is the at the very least the story of a person in hell. And it doesn’t take but the emotional intelligence of a mosquito to realize that nobody wants or decides to be homeless.
So when I hear voices asserting homelessness is the consequence of laziness, or that it is something deserved by those who don’t want to work, I think we are being way too simplistic and prefer to take the easy exit on a morally painful topic. Maybe, conservatives are not assholes, but simply practical people. Because, to be honest, once we admit homelessness is not something deserved, then the feeling of being failing our basic obligations of pity, mercy and help towards those who suffer around us does indeed not feel good. And surely I don’t know the solution. And simply feeling pity doesn’t helps either in any way. But at least have for sure that if instead of being ashamed with me about this you really insist in professing that homeless people decided or deserved or earned homelessness, well, I simply won’t talk to you again.