Challenging our assumptions

suzanne aka laurieI’ll call her Laurie — not her real name. She stands on the sidewalk holding a confusing sign asking for help from drivers pulling out of the grocery store parking lot.

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.





About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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8 Responses to Challenging our assumptions

  1. says:

    Thanks for writing this Ann.  I, too, have given money to people, especially women, I see standing on the street, holding up a cardboard sign and asking for some money, anything that can be spared.  I was walking back to my car parked in the lot of a certain Bellevue grocery store and saw a woman asking for something, anything, that she would use to buy food to feed herself and her three kids.  I did an about-face, walked over to her and handed her the $20 I had left in my wallet.  Why do I remember this so clearly?  Because she cried.  I was the only one who had taken the time to give her something and I guess the only one who was not willing to leave, wondering if she really needed the money.  I wasn’t willing to take the chance that she didn’t really need it.  I was glad that I had it to give. Donna T

    • stillalife says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Donna. It’s always hard to know what to do. Most “experts” say not to give handouts, because street people are often affected by drugs and alcohol. They say social service agencies would help if the people just went to them. But I called the city’s human service staff who know about lots of agencies. They helped with a suggestion of another food bank and a weekday dinner program, but no one has a long-term solution. And sometimes you have to go with your own judgment.

  2. travelnwrite says:

    Excellent piece! We had a speaker at a United Way breakfast one year – many years ago – who had been helped by the agency and was then a speaker for them. The woman said the hardest part of standing on the street holding the sign asking for help was the number of people who looked at her or past her as if she didn’t exist.

  3. dkzody says:

    The school in which I taught for all those years had a large population of “homeless” students. No, they weren’t on the street, but they lived in motels or slept on couches of friends or lived in a shelter. Each Christmas season our department adopted a family from the school and bought their Christmas presents (they usually asked for clothing) and enough food for a couple of months. It was the very least we could do.

    Now that I am a school chaplain in an elementary school, I have bought toothbrushes and toothpaste for a class, pants for the clothes closet, and art supplies for kids in the after school program. It’s the very least I can do.

  4. Shirley Shimada says:

    Isn’t there a better way to help the Lauries of our country? Like universal health care and a minimum life income?

  5. Pingback: Getting acquainted with panhandlers | Still Life

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