My hardest day yet

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.

Playing Poverty

Web_Banner_Fountain-skyline-750x400At a church luncheon on Sunday I watched two men pile their plates with chicken, lasagna, sandwiches, salads and then pack more food into to-go containers.

We talked as we ate. Charlie works at a call center earning $15 an hour answering questions about people’s utility bills. Luwayne and I talked about video games.  He appeared to be disabled and I don’t think he works. At least he didn’t mention it.

Two guys needing to-go boxes from the church lunch to make their meals stretch through the week. That’s not someone playing poverty. That’s someone living in poverty.

In my past life as a reporter for The Post-Standard. I wrote a story about some well-meaning Girl Scouts pretending to be homeless for the night in a local hockey rink.  The girls were excited for the sleepover. They were given cardboard boxes, which they decorated with sparkles and signs. I’ve never seen sparkles and drawings on the side of a homeless camp.

I’ve been to Empty Bowl fundraisers, where I bought beautiful bowls crafted by talented Syracuse University ceramic students, and received servings of soup created by local chefs. I’ve never seen a homeless person with a fancy bowl.

This past week I got an email from our old church in Skaneateles, New York, a quaint lakeside town outside of Syracuse. Members were asked if they wanted to take part in a poverty simulation on Saturday with other churches. I’ve never seen anyone living in poverty asked to attend a simulation for what it’s like to live in the middle or upper class.

What an eye opener that would be. Enough food to eat. To-go boxes filled with restaurant leftovers in the fridge. A clean bed. A car. A job to go to. A paycheck. A doctor to visit when sick. A roof over your head.

I’m not dissing any of these admirable programs meant to bring a focus on the needy.  It’s just I don’t believe I’ll better understand what it is to be needy by playing poverty.

Poverty is a tricky thing. There’s no one method to end it. Some people prefer sleeping outdoors on the streets. Strange, but true. Others wandering the streets or squatting in abandoned buildings are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Families are left homeless when someone loses a job or becomes ill. So many people are one paycheck away from having nothing to eat.

While in Pittsburgh for the winter Joe and I have hooked up with The Well, a church planted by the North American Mission Board in the Mount Washington. The neighborhood is a mix of people living in homes with million dollar views overlooking the city and poor folks who live on the streets behind them.

The Well’s stated mission is to love God, love people and do something about it.

It’s a diverse congregation. Black and white. Young and old. People who have money, those struggling to get by, and those living on the streets. People hug you when you enter church. The pastor quietly asks those whom he knows are on the streets if they have a warm place to sleep.

Once a month the church serves a meal to the local community, and once a month the congregation gathers like family for lunch, which is where we met Charlie and Luwayne.

The church has clothes for those who need them. A food pantry. And is the site of a once-a-month food bank distribution.

And while the church can’t permit people to sleep in the building, there are plans this year to renovate the bathrooms installing showers and laundry facilities that will be opened to those who need them.

The members of the Well see poverty, some live it and members are doing something about it.

There’s no need to play poverty here.

 

 

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We’re grounded

20181217_101051That’s right.

Joe and I will be spending our winter in Pittsburgh. Not a bad place to be, but not the sunny Texas gulf shores we had planned on.

Here’s how we got here.

After being on his feet for more than 30 years are as a retail manager and then a teacher, Joe has varicose veins.  This fall they started acting up while we were on the beach in North Carolina. He went to a doc in the box who recommended he visit a vein clinic.

He put it off. We were already scheduled to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh around the holidays where we had doctor appointments scheduled.

The doc at the Pittsburgh vein clinic evaluated Joe’s legs and recommended an out patient procedure. He could do it and Joe would be good to go in a week. But, that old ugly insurance raised its head.

The insurance company wants Joe to wear compression stockings for 12 weeks before it will even consider the surgery.  And the doc said the clotting in Joe’s legs is so severe he doesn’t want him to drive long hours.

That means we’re grounded, in a campground, in Pennsylvania, in the winter.

motorhome

We could skirt the camper with sliver insulating panels and buy lots of propane. I could wrap my self in throws and sit in the dark with the shades pulled to keep warm.

I mean, we could do it. But I wouldn’t be happy.

Joe’s mantra has always been “Happy wife, happy life.”

So we began looking for a short-term rental apartment, an expensive proposition. We found one in the city, near a park and children’s museum. It had a gym and  dog park. It would even take Nikki and Pocket, for a fee.

We put down a deposit and paid an application fee. Then the nice young rental agent wanted a picture of the dog, for the insurance company. The complex restricts dogs. They don’t accept “lock jaw dogs,” like pitbulls.

Nikki is a lab mix rescued from the pound. She has blue eyes, which makes us think she has some husky in her. She’s also 13 years old, sleeps a lot and is such a scaredy cat she runs when you jangle your keys.

nikki

 

The insurance company wanted us to guarantee her breed. There was a lot of faxing and phone calls back and forth with the vet. Bottom line, no one can tell you what the mix is and we’re out of an apartment.

Plan B.

Luckily, my son-in-law is part of a co-working space co-op called Work Hard Pittsburgh, which has an apartment above its space. The tenant is scheduled to move out Jan. 1. The co-op has kindly allowed us to rent the apartment for a short time and they don’t care what kind of dog we have.

work-hard-pittsburgh-logo-500

We’re three minutes away from my daughter, who has gym equipment and a washer- dryer in her house. There’s a park near by. And my cousins have graciously said they will allow us to park the motor home on their horse farm.

So, Jan. 1 we move in above an old hardware store. We’re reliving college. We don’t have a bed, a couch, a table or a lamp. We’re buying a futon and borrowing the rest.

We’ll be warm and close to family. If you have to be grounded, there’s no place I’d rather be than Pittsburgh.

Happy wife, happy life.

 

 

 

I blame George Bush for our motor home

20180127_155455I blame George Bush the second for our motor home.

In 2008, to head off a recession Bush sent out a tax rebate to jump start the economy.

I thought we were going to use the $1,200 to buy a TV or pay off debts. Joe wanted a kayak. I didn’t even know he knew how to kayak.

We bought a tandem kayak.

There’s a lot we don’t know about each other. Like, after 30 years of marriage we both discovered we like slimy bacon. All those years we made crispy bacon because we thought that’s the way the other one like it. Who knew? But I digress.

After the kayak we bought a pop up camper.We’d always tent camped, but were now tired of sleeping on the ground. We bought an Aliner Ranger 12 with a bed that made up into a couch, a dinette that folded into a bed, a sink, stove, air conditioner and heater. We pulled it behind our four cylinder Jeep Compass.

Our first long trip was from our home in Auburn, New York to Yellowstone. That’s when I learned about “full timers.”

We stayed one night in a KOA outside Yellowstone before entering the park.  I met two women in the laundry. They both had just retired and were traveling around the country with their husbands in an RV, full time with no fixed address for a home.

That night I told Joe about my conversation with the women. I thought no more of it.

We never spoke about retirement. I’d never thought that far. When it did cross my mind I saw myself moving back to Pittsburgh, where I was born. I saw a little house in the city and a life full of volunteering, knitting and being closer to family.

Joe saw years of sitting in Pittsburgh with nothing to do.

Joe remembered the conversation about the traveling women. Two years ago he broached the subject of living full time in a motor home. We could travel the country, seeing all the great national parks. Stay for a month at a time in a great place. Live in new cities and experience new things. Volunteer for disaster relief and see our kids and grandkids for weeks at a time, not just on hurried holidays or weekends.

What did I think?

I called my daughters. YOUR father has gone off the deep end. He wants to buy a motor home.

The oldest, who lives outside of Detroit with her husband and two kids, counseled patience. Let him research it. He’ll soon grow tired of it, she advised.

The youngest, who lives with her husband in Pittsburgh, was all for it. Sounds like fun, she enthused.

So I went along with Joe to the RV shows. Researched traveling.

We picked up our 33 foot Jayco Precept in February and in June we’re hitting the road on a long adventure.

But, there’s still a lot of steps between now and June 22.