Earlier tonight, I was driving home along Harrison Ave around 9pm when I passed a woman with her thumb out. She was very skinny, barefoot, wavering in her walk, and wearing too-large cargo pants tied up with a scarf. I figured she could use some support, and judged it unlikely that she was a threat. So I pulled up and stopped the car.
The Subaru kept beeping as she figured out how to buckle the seatbelt, mumbling thanks. I asked little of her, but just listened to her gentle patter of words—about being desperate to escape downtown, about the violence she was fleeing, about how she’d asked people for the supplies to kill herself, about wanting to get to a hospital, about being more than ready to be fully done with drugs and alcohol.
She’d missed an intake interview for an inpatient treatment bed on Monday, she said, a common situation with those suffering from addiction, who are often dealing with homelessness, mental health struggles, domestic violence, theft of phones, lack of safety to sleep, lack of access to the internet, and predatory and destructive social circles. I’ve seen people in this situation before—five years ago, I almost became one of them. I listened, and then I bought her McDonald’s. First thing, calories.
While she devoured her McFlurry, cheeseburger, and fries (“I haven’t eaten in three days”), I listened some more. She spoke barely above a whisper, and sometimes made no sense, but the general drift of her story was clear. She was 27 years old. She had been addicted for ten years. She’d used again recently, and hated it. She’d suffered violent beatings and sexual assaults on the streets. She was aggressive when she was in desperate pain. She heard voices. She hadn’t had a safe place of her own in “so long, not even a bed to myself, that I can keep someone out of.” She clung to a Bible and said she had felt the presence of Jesus in some of her worst moments. She had a son. She asked if I remembered him.
In between making calm, reassuring responses—usually brief ones—I sent out a few text messages. To my church group—did anyone have a room available to put her up safely for a night? (No response.) To my housemate—I’ll be delayed getting home. (“Ok, good luck!”) To my former coworkers at Behavioral Health Resources—how could I help her get her intake rescheduled? They responded and, as she kept talking, a plan gradually emerged. We’d take her across town to St Pete’s Hospital, where she was born. She thought they’d have access to her medical records, and might be willing to provide her with at least a dose or two of her stay-off-heroin medication. The hospital, we figured, would let her sleep for a night and help her get in touch with BHR to reschedule her intake tomorrow.
I checked several times to be sure this was what she wanted, as we drove back across town, the opposite direction from where she’d been heading. She was weak, physically, and the long walk with no shoes up the hill from downtown must have been difficult. But she confirmed, the hospital was where she wanted to go. I knew the way, and we were at the ER ten minutes later. On foot, that trip would have taken her many hours.
Once, over five years ago, a stranger helped me safely to the hospital when I was a starving, underdressed, strung out young woman asking for help. I told her this, as the clean, strong, educated, housed, helpful woman I now am, and she was shocked. I said “I’m living proof that there’s life on the other side, if you can allow yourself to accept help.” (I left out the second part: “and if there’s help available.” My crisis occurred in Canada.) She listened, brown eyes wide.
We sat in the car in the parking lot at the hospital, and I asked her if she was ready. She said maybe she should come back in the morning. Honestly, I told her we should go in because I needed to use the bathroom. We got the McDonald’s bag packed with her leftover food, some napkins, and $5 from me. I had an extra mask, a good satin one. Since I had two, I let her pick the color she liked. She had an infected cut on her hand, but was afraid of my antibiotic spray. I remember dealing with drug-induced paranoia before, both personally and with another mother I helped in the same situation years ago. Ok. We see this. No big deal. In we go.
The greeter at the hospital checked our temperatures and directed us to check in. She gave her name and birthdate, and I clued in the nurse to what was going on. “She’s used; she’s escaping violence; she needs medication and a safe place; can you help her get her intake rescheduled tomorrow?” The woman behind us, holding pressure on a gash on her finger, locked her eyes on mine every chance she could. My companion was holding up the line.
The nurse’s tone began to change, louder, more stern. “So what is the emergency you wish to be treated for? What is the goal of your visit here tonight?” She responded, “I need medication; I want a referral for treatment.” This wasn’t sufficient. “We’re the emergency department—we treat emergencies.” My companion said ok, that she could maybe come back in the morning, after she got some rest. I met the nurse’s eyes and indicated that I was more than willing to take her somewhere else if that was appropriate. And so, we left.
As we approached the car, and I was mentally evaluating shelter options—the Mission? A cheap hotel? A tent in my backyard? —she thanked me for all I’d done, and veered towards the sidewalk. She knew someone who lived near here, she said. I asked, “Are you sure? Is that person safe?” She assured me that yes, they were. Ok. Dignity is dignity, and respect is respect. I don’t know her life. Her call.
As I drove away, I passed her on the sidewalk. Something was bothering me, so I stopped the car and went over to her. I took off my sandals and put them in front of her. She reluctantly, but gratefully, slipped them on her feet, and said they were comfortable. (I’m glad, they were my best pair.) I asked if I could give her my number. She let me write it on a blank page in the front of her Bible. I told her to call or text anytime, that I’d give her a ride, or help her get what she needed, that I wanted her to be safe. She thanked me. I said “You’re welcome. My pleasure.” She walked away still wearing the mask.
Total bill: one McDonald’s order, one mask, one $5 bill, one pair of sandals, a bit of encouragement, some information, a ride across town, and an hour’s listening.
Take from my story what you will. I don’t know if she’ll go to the hospital tomorrow; if she’ll use or get beaten again tonight; if the hospital will help her; if she’ll walk up the street tomorrow to BHR. And I’ve done this enough to accept that I’ll probably never know, and I don’t have to.
I can look at this experience and bemoan the systemic and social failures that put her on the street. I can feel anger at the lack of beds in treatment centers or the unmet need for safe, supportive, abundantly available shelter. I can grieve for her, and the dozens and hundreds who are like her, here in our city. Those things are real.
However, I choose to be grateful that I encountered her. That she’d been praying, and someone who was willing to help her showed up, with no judgement. That she got just that little bit of bridge support, just enough basic resources and help to get her to her next step. That the steps she chose to take, and the ones I helped her take, were her own.
Because if she’s going to walk out of the hell that is addiction, homelessness, poverty, and violence, she has to take those steps herself.
But we can help.
Melissa Rasmussen is a local writer and Evergreen graduate with a passion for integrated ecological design and affordable housing. She believes that humanity can be a beneficial presence on this planet and that everyone deserves to thrive.
Taking the off-ramps for chronic homelessness
When experiencing chronic homelessness, an individual is likely to have multiple interaction points with a siloed homelessness ecosystem. These interaction points — an ER visit, overdose crisis, mental health event, arrest — represent “off ramp” opportunities to help individuals connect with the services that they need to exit homelessness. Too often these opportunities are missed. This can be because of lack of capacity or absence of any coordinated program. Are there reentry programs linked to ER visits? Sufficient shelter capacity so that when you pick up a hitchhiker who has no place to sleep, there’s a place for her to go, and services available? A recent Seattle study of chronic homelessness points out that “In order to ensure that we are achieving successful offramps and ultimately slowing the growth of our chronically homeless population, we need better coordination between service providers as well as the legal, healthcare and housing systems.”
—from Chronic Homelessness: