I recently went to a training for my part-time job. It was based on working with homeless and mentally ill people, both demographics I work with. The day before the training, I wrote a blog about how I write, even though it’s hard to put myself out there, because I want to help that one person.
I expected to get a lot out of the training, but I didn’t expect to get as much out of it as I got. Some of the employees from a public library in a major city nearby were behind it, and they shared about their experiences working with the homeless population that flocks to their library.
At one point, a woman who works in the library system as outreach for the homeless went up in front of all of us library workers–most very proper, analytical people: managers, librarians, deputies. She said she was nervous and that she hadn’t really talked in public like this before.
She shared that she had worked all of her life, but had lost her business in the bad economy of 2008 and had moved to San Francisco in her car, because she knew that it was easier to be homeless there. The car had broken down, and then she had become very sick. She also struggled with substance abuse issues as a child of the ’60s. Eventually, she found help through a homeless peer who directed her to outreach services and detox. Now she works in a public role in the library offering service to those in her old shoes.
Everyone, after she talked, gave her multiple rounds of very loud applause for sharing her story in this setting.
I didn’t think I would have a chance to talk to the woman afterwards. I had stayed to chat with some coworkers after the training was over. When I walked outside of the library the woman was standing outside, alone. There were coworkers I know were there but who I hadn’t even run into after it was over; over one hundred people who had been in that training and were now nowhere to be seen, just her, out on the curb, as if she were waiting for me.
I told her thank you.
While she had shared about some of the issues modern homeless are facing, I had remembered being homeless as a teenager for a number of reasons (not that I didn’t have a physical home and parents who loved me, but my home was an emotional land mine due to a number of things going on at the time), and seeking youth outreach services.
In my early twenties, I struggled with homelessness for almost a year, living off of other people’s kindness, going from couch to couch. A rehab I went to for 60 days ejected me after my time was up, even though I didn’t have a place to live, and I was able to get into a sober living house because a friend from rehab loaned me $800, the amount it cost per month for the room I would share with five other girls.
I remembered being sent to a Tenderloin detox in 2002, after being kicked out of the sober-living home for drinking. I had been living day by day, watching my housemates eat while trying to pretend I wasn’t hungry, so no one would be aware of the fact I didn’t have money for food. One roommate was a postal worker, and let me use her change jar sometimes for coffee and food, thank god. Then I wasn’t even in the sober living house anymore.
I finally got a call-center job (just before I got ejected from the sober living house and had no place to live) through a person I met in a self-help group. I was trying to get my act together. I was 21 years old.
Often, when I wasn’t warm and safe at the job I was very grateful to have, I went to the library in San Francisco to use the internet, waiting until I got my first paycheck (I had to wait a month) so that I could afford to give someone money for a room. The library offered me a safety net, and a place to go. Often, I would sit there and read books, because it was warm and safe.
I also remembered around 2008, when I lost my job in publishing. We were renting an apartment in Berkeley for around $900. The landlady asked us to move out so her daughter could move in, right around that time. We couldn’t afford the normal rents in Berkeley or El Cerrito or Oakland. We were worried about survival, biting our nails. We had a car payment, a motorcycle payment, student loans, and now only one income.
My Uncle approached us and asked if we would like to take care of my grandparent’s house (empty, and it had it’s own issues, like black mold) until we got back on our feet. Without his offer, I don’t know what we would have done. We spent two years in that house, worried we were one paycheck away from being homeless. There were few jobs. I applied for them all. I was on unemployment, which was half of my previous income, and my husband wasn’t getting as much business at work. I was constantly sick from the mold. It was scary.
I think many Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless. I grew up with the same weight over my head–my parents always wondering where the next check would come from. They didn’t own property. I don’t own property. Even people who own property are at risk.
I knew where she was coming from. I’ve been there, too. She spoke to me.
She had said, while she was talking, that most homeless and mentally ill people walk into the library already thinking they’ve done something wrong. They’re already on edge. They feel like they don’t belong. Many times I felt that way, like someone was going to arrest me for being me. Like I didn’t belong.
She told me, “I didn’t even feel like sharing today. I was nervous, I was afraid, I didn’t want to do it. I thought of canceling.” Then she said, “But I thought, if I can just help one person…”
I’m so glad that in spite of her fear she had the courage to share how she turned her weakness into strength and how she has used her experiences and the serendipity of being asked to work in an outreach situation to give back what was given to her.
I told her that I write non-fiction stories and read them in public, and share personal stories on my blog, and I had just written yesterday about not wanting to share sometimes, feeling embarrassed about being open and putting myself out there. Then, my friend had said those exact words, “If I can just help one person,” and I’d used that as the title of my blog post. Usually, I said, I’m the one sharing personal details that are hard to share. “Wow,” I had thought when I heard her speak, “This is what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone stretching themselves and speaking directly from the heart, even though it’s not comfortable or convenient or guaranteed to help a single soul.”
It seems like everyone in that training, most of whom likely had not directly experienced her reality, benefited from her personal experience. And because she’s been there she is at an added advantage of being able to do her job of outreach. It’s the same reason why your addicted niece or spouse or friend won’t listen to you when you try to give them advice if you’re not an addict, but will listen to someone who was an addict and has been through it. People know when we are speaking the truth, and it resonates with them. And mostly, it helps them, too.
Life lessons like this don’t always happen, not with such blatant obviousness, but when they do, it’s a trip.