This week I decided to walk to the store. This is what happens when you wear a fitbit exercise tracker and become obsessed about the number of steps you have not yet taken on any given day. A block from the store, I pictured Laurie standing there in the rain and me having to walk past her and feel guilty about her situation compared to that of the shoppers inside, including me.
From my perspective, standing on the sidewalk asking for money has to be one of the worst jobs imaginable. If she’s there, I’ll talk to her, I said to myself. Why? I don’t know. Curiosity maybe. Months ago, I figured she was homeless and a drug addict. How else to understand someone who is that skinny and looks so unhealthy. However, a few days earlier, I saw that she had painted in, “Not a junkie” on her sign. This piqued my interest in hearing her story.
I started with introductions. She seemed fine with that beginning, so I asked about her health.
I have lupus,” she said (“a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs”), “had it since I was twenty-five.”
“And you’re not getting medical care?”
“Yes, I have medical care.”
“How old are you now?”
“Forty-seven. If you first get lupus when you’re young, it’s much harder on your body by the time you reach my age.”
“Are you homeless?”
“No. I have a place to live.”
“So what else do you need that causes you to stand out here in the rain?”
“Food. I used to get food stamps and social security, but the state took away food stamps from those of us getting social security. After I pay my rent I have nothing left for food.”
So much for my assumptions about her appearance and her needs.
“Do you use the food bank?”
“Yes. I go there twice a month, that’s what we’re allowed. And it’s hard to find much to eat. I have diverticulitis, so I don’t take anything with fiber.”
Twice a month? I had no idea that was the limit. And all those cans of beans people donate aren’t helping Laurie.
“Is that why you’re so thin?”
She nodded. “I weigh 68 pounds.” Then she looked down. “I never thought this is how things would turn out.”
Nothing in our conversation suggested that Laurie was feeling sorry for herself. The best word I can come up with to describe her attitude is ‘resignation.’ I gave her money and later investigated some additional options for her, which might keep her from starving that day, but will not provide her with ongoing funds to shop for the food that best meets her needs. She’s been a good teacher, though, helping me see how assumptions like mine don’t help solve any of our more pressing social problems. And her face will appear when I vote, volunteer and donate money.
Early yesterday morning, more than 1100 volunteers in our county went out and counted the number of people who were sleeping outdoors between 2 and 5 a.m. Laurie isn’t homeless. But from her story we see that having a roof overhead isn’t enough.