Thursday, August 10, 2006

So what would Jesus do?

Eva Piccozzi’s story about homelessness in Riverhead (on page 1 of the 8/10 edition of The News-Review) brought back memories of my own brush with homelessness.

A few years ago, there was an old Polish woman living on the streets in Riverhead. People took notice of her. She didn’t look like a “typical” homeless person, I suppose. And for one reason or another, people kept calling me to tell me about her. Even the pastor of First Congregational Church, which opens its doors for a daily soup kitchen to feed the hungry, called me to ask what “we” could do about this woman. We? I thought. You’re the pastor. I’m just a newspaper editor. Of course I didn’t say that to Pastor Wally. But I was confounded. What’s this got to do with me?

Nothing. And that’s exactly what I did.

Then one cold December day, a call came in from a guy who told our receptionist he had “a huge news story.” I got on the line.

“There’s an old Polish lady living on the streets downtown,” he said excitedly.

Huge news, I groaned to myself. Here we go again. But there was more.

Figuring someone at the Polish Catholic church in Riverhead could help, at least by communicating with the woman in her native tongue, this fellow (whom I later came to know as Stevie) had knocked on the rectory door that afternoon. His “huge news” was what had transpired as he stood on the rectory steps.

It was unusually cold for December, and the forecast called for temperatures below zero that night — and for the next several nights. Stevie was frantic that the old Polish woman would freeze to death in the alley of the Suffolk Theatre, where she spent a lot of her time huddled in the stairwell.

Stevie called to tell me that the pastor of the church had refused to help, and refused in a rather remarkable manner. Stevie said he begged the pastor for help — food, shelter, just for the night. No. He asked the pastor if someone who spoke Polish could speak with this woman, to talk to her about the coming deep freeze, convince her to go to an emergency shelter. No. But Stevie was persistent. Finally, he reported, the exasperated pastor said to him, “Look, what do you want me to do?”
“Well, what would Jesus do?” Stevie said he asked the pastor. The response was the “huge news” that prompted his call to me.
“Don’t give me any of that Jesus stuff,” the pastor replied, and slammed the door in his face. (I later called the pastor to ask about this interchange, but he didn’t take my call or call me back.)

Stevie was aghast. But more than anything, he was desperate to help this woman. “Can you do something?” he implored. She was at EastEnders Coffee House right now, he told me, having a cup of hot coffee.

I agreed to go meet her, though I wasn’t sure why. I speak no Polish. I had no contacts at any social services agency. What could I do? But Stevie’s passion, the desperation in his voice, the story he told me — what would Jesus do? I wasn’t comfortable pondering that question either. I knew I wouldn’t like the answer.

Outside the coffee shop, I ran into a young woman who used to help at the soup kitchen, where I also volunteered for a while. I told her I was there to meet a homeless Polish woman.

“That’s my mother,” was her unexpected reply.

I was stunned. I’d known this young woman came from some sort of troubled home. She’d been a daily visitor at the soup kitchen, there for a hot meal — but she always helped serve and clean up. And she always brought a plate of food home for her “sick mother,” who never showed up herself.

I stood in the cold air of Flower Alley, looked up at the steel gray sky and said aloud, “All right, I get it. I get it!”

And that’s how it came to pass that we had a homeless woman living with us for the winter of 2002.

It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Jenny wasn’t actually “old.” She just looked that way. Living on the street can do that to you. I drove her around to collect some of her belongings. She had some things stashed in an abandoned car on property just south of the river — she slept in the car on really cold nights. It was the warmest place she could find, in spite of its broken windows. She had a few plastic garbage bags of clothes. I convinced her to leave the tattered blankets behind. I was afraid of fleas and lice and God-knows-what coming into my house.

Over the course of the next few months, we learned a lot about Jenny and some lessons about homelessness. Like many of the homeless, Jenny was suffering from mental illness. It’s hard to tell which came first, the mental illness or the homelessness. In some ways, she was very bright, shrewd even. She wanted to work, but couldn’t find a job without a permanent address. She’d worked as a chambermaid at a local motel, and also at a couple of local nurseries. She wanted to clean our house in exchange for room and board. She did, with mixed results.

She spoke a unique mixture of English and Polish; some words she made up, I think. We learned her language enough to communicate and cohabitate. We also learned a lot about Jenny from her daughter, who was living in Patchogue at a group home for the developmentally disabled. She faithfully took the bus to Riverhead every day to visit her mother, and often spent the weekends at our house, too.

They’d lived in an apartment in a house downtown. The daughter attended Riverhead public schools, but dropped out of high school at 16 because other kids made fun of her. After Jenny lost her job at the hotel, and couldn’t find or keep another job, they were eventually evicted from the apartment. The daughter, a U.S. citizen by birth, got placed at a shelter, then at a group home. Jenny, a Polish immigrant whose visa had expired long ago (and whose Polish passport and birth certificate were long lost) had no options besides the street. She lived in Grangebel Park, in the abandoned car near McDonald’s, in the alley next to the theater. She ate at noon every weekday at the church soup kitchen. And enjoyed supper there three nights a week, as well. Weekends, she was on her own. She panhandled to get money to buy cigarettes. She attended AA meetings so she could get a cup of coffee and cookies. The people at the coffee shop gave her coffee and food sometimes. She sat at a table in the back, next to the bathroom, which she was grateful to use. Her presence there became a nuisance, though. Among other things, she smelled bad.

It wasn’t easy to convince Jenny to shower on a regular basis. “Me no smell,” she insisted. She sprayed herself with room deodorizer.

She was suffering with a bad toothache that winter. She was missing a number of teeth. She’d pulled them out herself, she said.

She liked to sit on the arm of our sofa near the woodstove and watch the fire. She talked about Poland, her mother, and the two children she said she left behind there a quarter-century ago. She claimed to come from a well-to-do family and said she wanted to return to Poland, with her American daughter — who wanted no part of it. She loved Tchaikovsky and would play my CDs at maximum volume, filling the house with music, as she stood, mesmerized, directly in front of the stereo. One day I came home and found her like that, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was unable or unwilling to tell me what she was thinking about.

She distrusted and disliked the other homeless people. Most of them were drug addicts and alcoholics, she said, and she had nothing but disdain for them. She saw herself as a victim of circumstance but saw them as a victim of their own stupid behavior. She hated living on “the schtreet-a.”

She was an interesting house guest. But she also drove us crazy. There was the showering thing. And the smoking. She would sneak cigarettes in the basement room where she slept, then adamantly deny it — though the smell was unmistakable. “Me no schmo-kee,” she’d say over and over again.

I suppose any house guest drives you crazy after a couple of months, much less one used to living in a busted-up car on the Peconic River. All in all, she wasn’t too bad to have around, though to this day, my kids still roll their eyes and shake their heads at the mention of her name.

We turned her out on the first day of spring, after a futile effort, aided by Sr. Margaret Smyth, to obtain a copy of her birth certificate through the Polish embassy. Sr. Margaret paid for a room for Jenny at a motel on West Main Street — a dark, tiny cell of a room. I drove her there, with her plastic bags, along with some basics like a frying pan, coffeepot, dishes, etc. Jenny was to find a job and pay her own way after a couple of weeks. She stood in the doorway of the room and smiled and waved goodbye. For reasons I didn’t quite understand, I found myself crying as I drove away.

Jenny never found work, Sr. Margaret eventually stopped paying the weekly rent, and Jenny was back on the street.

We might have saved her from freezing to death that winter but there were more winters ahead. What would happen to her? We didn’t really make a lasting difference in her life. The cycle continued. We see her around from time to time, on the “schtreet-a.”

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, other than for every homeless person on the street there is a story. I can’t say I learned all of Jenny’s story. Much remains a mystery. But by getting to know her that way, I’ll never view homelessness or homeless people the same way again.