People who know poverty commonly will assist others in need; people who have never experienced poverty frequently condemn the poor for being poor. This is our American society in our new millennium, and it hasn’t always been this way.
Not everyone passes judgment on the delights of poverty. Not everyone will label offers of help via community funds as some kind of scam initiated by the poor, believe it only encourages “them” to remain poor.
I grew up poor and thankfully, I lived my young life unaware of the “ungenerous factor” often present in today’s idea of charity. I am sad when I hear people with bootstraps (resources) believe others should get resources by pull themselves up by the bootstraps. I never knew what bootstraps were, or where a person could go to get some. But I hear it more and more these days.
I was an Operations Officer for a prominent San Francisco Bank in the winter of 1971. It really was a “dark and stormy night” when I caught the 41 Union bus, rode it home and met Mary. It rolled up and over Russian Hill, crossed Van Ness Avenue and came to my stop. My apartment was four doors up the hill on Union Street.
I waited in turn to exit the bus, butted my umbrella against attacking raindrops, and then raised it a little to see how deep the water was in the gutter, judging if I might need to jump across puddles to prevent damage to my high heel suede platforms.
I was surprised to see all cars had stopped at the intersection, none were moving, including a police unit. There was a small woman, wandering round and round with no coat, no hat, and no umbrella. And nobody made a move to remove her from the intersection, not even the police, whom I thought should at least arrest her.
I rushed across the street to the police car, asking them to please pick her up as she would surely get killed. They said she was not breaking the law. They said they had no right to pick her up.
Shocked and disgusted with “law” I then walked into the intersection, and asked her name, had a conversation with her while everyone waited in their cars.
She said she thought her name was Mary. Not wanting to leave her, I invited her to come home with me, have a bath, a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. Then we could sort things out in the morning.
It was impulsive of me, but my mother brought home strangers occasionally who were caught between a rock and a hard place. All it took was a clean-up, a meal, a good rest and some tips for finding a temporary job and off they went. In retrospect, this was not a great idea for a single mother with two young children. My brother and I were never harmed, at least not harmed by strangers.
When I brought Mary in our apartment my husband surprised me by being absolutely furious. He was uncomfortable and wanted me to turn her out, and I said I could not. But I promised I could find a place for her as soon as possible.
To his credit, Larry put up with me putting up Mary over the next several days while he went to University full time, and I worked full time. Mary surprised us by doing all the house work and preparing meals. She was feeling very sure that Mary was her real name, and she was beginning to think she might be from Arizona, mentioned the names of some people. I wrote them down and I went to the library to get magazines and books with pictures and maps of the Arizona area on my breaks and lunch hours. I also checked San Francisco’s homeless shelters, gave her estimated age and description, the dark cotton pants and white blouse she was wearing when I first saw her. I found Mary had cycled through them all a few times; the most recent was Harbor Lights.
I learned that homeless people in 1971 could only stay at a shelter for 72 hours. Then they had to leave to return 90 days later. With the handful of shelters in 1971 they, like homeless in 2014 spend most of their time in the streets until they could roll through shelters again.
I pled with Harbor Lights to take her back in, perhaps get some psychiatric assistance, find who she was, if she had family. I really hoped to help her home.
They finally agreed. Elated, I took time off work to rush back to the apartment.
I found my husband lying on the sofa in our living room watching cartoons and eating fried bologna sandwiches. He jumped up and explained that his last two classes were cancelled so he came home. Oh, yeah, Mary was not in the apartment when he came home. And it’s just a good thing nothing was missing.
I said I wished that he had found something missing.
He said he thought I was crazy.
I said if she stole, we could report it and finally she’d get into a facility with food, water and medical care: jail.
I went back to work and my department manager called me into his office. He’d discussed Mary with a Senior Vice President. Both men sat on charitable boards, and they both had pulled strings with the shelters for Mary. They even arranged a psychiatric evaluation specifically regarding amnesia. They handed me the information and contacts to get her back in the cycle and treated. Everything was set up. It was hard to tell them it was a few hours too late and Mary had disappeared. For a long time I kept the paper work.
I think about Mary frequently, wondering if she ever made it home, to Arizona. If she is still alive she would be in her eighties now, perhaps nineties. I’m grateful that for a while she experienced shelter, food, clean clothes, a bed, the use of the shower, the use of our TV and Fritz, our rabbit. My hopes for her have always been that she did find her way home; that she lives, or lived, happily.
My hope for our world, in particular this great country of ours, is to become a more generous and kinder nation again.