We’ve been handing out meals to the homeless in Pittsburgh for more than a year now and today was my hardest day yet.
I can’t stop thinking about four women I met today.
Elizabeth was at a busy intersection by the West End Bridge. The folded cardboard sign begging for money couldn’t hide her big pregnant belly. Neither could the green tank top or the unbuttoned, unzipped jeans open to accommodate a growing baby.
How are you? I asked as myself and a group of college kids on a mission trip from Tennessee handed her two bag lunches.
“Not so good,” she replied. “I’m having cramps. I’m due in a week.”
I offered to drive her to a hospital to be checked out. She declined. “I’m not in the mood to have this baby today,” she said.
We talked a little longer. Can I get you clothes? Anything for the baby?
She politely declined.
I offered again to drive her to a hospital, or anywhere. Again she declined. “They won’t take you anyway unless you’re five or six” centimeters, she said.
Can we pray with you? Sure, she said, but can we move further down?
She lead us down the sidewalk one hand planted on the concrete bridge abutment to hold herself up. It was clear Elizabeth was in pain, and it was also clear she was politely trying to get us to leave so she could get back to the business of collecting money from drivers stopped at the light.
We prayed with her and offered, yet again, to take her to the hospital.
She declined again before turning with her sign to face traffic.
Handing out lunches earlier in the morning we ran into Gretta, Helen and Samantha in the little park next to the Mount Washington fire station.
One of the park regulars, a big gray haired man named D, had a mental breakdown scaring Gretta his girlfriend of 20 years, threatening violence and throwing stuff into the street.
Gretta called the authorities. “He’s been 302’d,” she said.
Where is he? I asked.
“He’s in Western Psych!” Gretta shook her head in wonder that I didn’t know what a “302” was.
She called on two women on a nearby bench to confirm D’s crazy behavior.
Helen and Samantha, a mother and her daughter, slept on Gretta’s floor the previous night and witnessed the drama first hand.
They are newly homeless.
Helen’s boyfriend kicked her and Samantha out of his apartment. Everything they had is there. The women look shell shocked. They don’t know where they will sleep tonight, or what to do about it.
Helen has a shiner by her right eye that she’s unsuccessfully trying to hide with make up. Samantha’s front teeth are broken.
As we talk on the park bench, Samantha says she’s an addict. She started with alcohol, then uppers and now she’s smoking cocaine and doing heroin, she said.
Right now, however, she and Helen could use some clothes.
I tell them to meet me at 1:30 p.m. at the Send Relief Center’s clothing closet in the basement of Vintage Church on Bailey Avenue.
They show up on time. The women pick out a coat, shoes, pants and shirts. Samantha goes to the ladies room to put on her new clothes.
Helen’s story spills out in sorrow as we sit on an old church pew waiting for Samantha to dress.
Helen is an alcoholic. She’s been to rehab before, and at one point was successful enough that she had a job and an apartment.
But it didn’t last. Even the smell of hand sanitizer at the hospital where she worked would bring on the alcohol cravings, she said.
She hooked up with the boyfriend who goes to work and comes home to drink beer all night. “Isn’t that alcoholism?” she asks.
Helen said she knows she sabotages herself. The last time she lost sobriety she stopped returning her sponsor’s calls, stopped going to meetings.
She’s ready to return to rehab, she said. And she worries about her daughter who’s into stronger drugs.
Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight? I ask.
No one wants to go back to Gretta’s. So I show Helen how to use the Bigburgh app which shows all the homeless shelters in the city.
Samantha comes out of the bathroom styling black Hollister leggings that still had the tags on them when they were donated, new black Converse and a camouflage sweatshirt. The women gather up their bags of clothes and backpacks filled with food.
What about you? I ask Samantha. You going to rehab?
“I’m not there yet,” she replied.
I escort mother and daughter through the dark church, opening the door to the street.
Even though I’ve shown them how to find housing, I watch them walk away knowing they have nowhere to sleep tonight.
My heart aches for Elizabeth and her baby, for Gretta and Helen and Samantha.