A Bum Like Me

What does she want to see a bum like me for anyway?” he said. “I can’t let her see me like this.”

By this he meant greasy-haired. By this he meant a half-shaven, wearing a stained blue sweatshirt. By this he meant poor. Homeless. I don’t remember his name if I just forgot or if I ever even asked him what it was.

I was still in college, just twenty-one and working the twenty-four-hour shift at Jessie’s House; a Victorian turned into a transitional shelter for homeless families. I’d sit behind a desk in an office that might have been a formal living room. It had a never used fireplace, a commanding but dusty chandelier and a rug covering hardwood floors.

I answered the phone or door and gave out vouchers for $5.00 meals at Friendly’s or a bus ticket to Springfield where there was an emergency overnight shelter. I could never give anyone a place to sleep. In a family shelter where there were no extra rooms for the last-minute homeless, the drunk wanting to stay warm, the person in an unplanned crisis or leaving danger in the heat of a fight. The best I could give was money for maybe a bite, coffee or a bus ride.

So when the buzzer rang, as it did at least once every shift, I headed for the front entrance.

There were two doors kept locked at all times. Staffers were the only ones allowed to touch the doors. Someone might be showing up dangerous, a stalker, an enraged ex, a scary father or partner. That was the safety reason. The other was unspoken. Who knows what a resident might let in?

Between two doors I stood in the foyer. Beside me on the right, beige pants wooly sweaters and a pale blue suit hanging out of a garbage bad. The donation pile next to a stack of blank forms for those who needed proof they made a donation. I detested writing the tax receipts, and maybe even do-gooders like me who thought there was any monetary worth to dirty, ripped or outdated clothes they ought to the door with smiles.

I wanted to tell them about the time I got into trouble t my job letting the residents rummage through the bags to do a donation fashion show. Middle-aged men in ight colored sweaters from a decade or three earlier. Young mothers in suits from the 1950’s with matching hats.

Didn’t people realize that the majority of homeless people work and go to school and can’t wear polyester shirts popular during the disco era anywhere? Maybe some thought of homeless people as birds who use thread or clothes to piece together a nest or outfit. But I saw people leave for school and work and knew these clothes wouldn’t be worn.

“Can I help you?” I asked keeping one foot behind the door so that it couldn’t be flung in by force. Just in case. As he answered, I’d assess (which meant guess) – batterer or non-batterer, before allowing him in the house and the office.

“I need a voucher,” the guy said. A regular.

Relieved, I said,  “Just follow me.”

“You in school?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Where?”

I always hesitated. He a man. Me a woman.  Alone in an office or the world. Why was he asking?

“What do you study?” he asked.

“Sociology,” I said, self-conscious it would sound like people-like-you. I study people like you.

“My daughter studies sociology too,” he said, his face lighting up.

No. No way, I thought even though my father is homeless. Even though I was in college. Still, I was surprised that a scruffy, middle-aged homeless man had a daughter in college – and that he spoke of her.

“Meal or ticket?” I asked.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“What kind of voucher…” I said.

“Meal,” he said.

“It’s for five dollars, o.k.?” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said, as though he had a choice.

“Do you see her,” I asked.

“My daughter? Not for years,” he said.

“Years,” I said, “You haven’t seen her in years?” My disgust slipped out.

“No, not since her mother died. My wife…”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“She died in a car accident,” he said, “My Rosie. I tried to take care of her but what good is a man with a little girl? I was broken, lost. I wasn’t very good at taking care of her anyways, you know?”

I did and felt bad for asking questions, bad that I had no boundaries and no social worker training. He though I was sorry about his wife, and I was, but also sorry he got me, the relief staff who had no idea what to do or say or what the hell I was doing in this job.

When his eyes filled, I wanted to make him soup, to light a fire and let him sit while I wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and said, “There. There.” But this too was bad boundaries and my lack of professional distance. I didn’t know where my feelings were supposed to go?

“So what happened to your daughter,” I asked instead of offering him my kindness.

“They don’t want me to see her.” he said.

“Who are they? You’re her father.” I said.

“I’m a drunk,” he said.

Oh, I see now is what I thought. Was it him driving the car that killed his wife? Did he hurt his daughter? Did he get so drunk he forget his kids, like mine did, and leave us at the bar? Did his daughter crawl under bar stools eating peanuts or sit quiet and afraid in a corner waiting for someone to remember they were responsible for her?

Is this why I can’t let the people I work with get close to my heart?  Is this why I’m supposed to help but not cross some line? How come I don’t know where that line is, exactly? How come I can’t stop thinking of people and their stories?

I thought of her, this student who lost both of her parents and imagine her in blue jeans and plain white Oxford, hair neat and tight in a ponytail. I wonder if her friends know who her father is or isn’t. I wonder if she’s afraid of bumping into him, longs to see him or some mix of both. I wonder if we’ve sat, strangers, on the same bus with a similar story invisible to one another and the world we hid from as though it wasn’t within us.

“So you don’t see her,” I said, cold and flat.

“I send her a card every year on her birthday.”

Well whoop-tee-do and good for you, I wanted to say, thinking that meant no child support. I wondered if the cards got sent or only thought about.

I felt angry, mean and jealous. At least his kid gets a card.

 “Do you call her?” I asked, and it was almost a challenge.

“No.”

“Will you?” I pressed not sure if it was for him, me or his daughter I was asking.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Not now. Maybe later when I get my life together. What does she want to see a bum like me for anyway? What does she want with a bum like me?”

“You’re her father,” I said as though that meant something, as though I believed it meant something.

A young woman knocked on the office door, a resident in her mid-twenties wearing tight jeans and a short-sleeved sweater. Her youngest child was in her arms sucking a bottle while her eldest clung to one knee and stared at the man.

“Can I get into the freezer?” she said.

“Sure, let me get the key,” I said and excused myself from the office for a moment.

“What do you need?”

“Hamburgers.

The waist-high freezer coughed out a white mist as it opened. I counted out four hamburgers and handed them to her. At only twenty-one I held the key to the freezer because I was a staffer, in college, studying sociology. It felt wrong and bad and made me feel ashamed. I wanted to crawl into freezer and say I’m sorry for the way the world works, wanted to confess I’m one of you, more resident than staff, except it wasn’t true. I was getting paid to hand her food.

I was always feeling wrong.

When I interviewed for the job the Director, a thin white woman with long own hair told me part of my job would be to model adult-child interactions for the residents. Appropriately. The residents needed to see what that looked like.

I said, “I don’t have kids,” thinking maybe they thought I did. But that was fine.

Then I realized it was because she presumed I was middle class, in college and apparently that meant I’d be kinder, gentler or more appropriate. I learned right there not to say I had a teen mother or a homeless father and that’s why I had applied for the job. I nodded and smiled and with guilt and nerves, passed for middle class, something I was not from but was becoming.

I didn’t understand what modeling was or how it helped, not in general, or in the shelter. Does anyone feel better seeing a person half her size in an outfit an a runway when that’s not how it looks in the store or at home? It was easy for me to be nice and polite and patient to kids. I was getting paid. I wasn’t in crisis, poor, without a home and living with a bunch of strangers in one room with three kids under five. How could me being cheery to their kids help? It felt punitive and mean and like I was saying, “Do it like this” when I didn’t even have one kid or a shared circumstance.

When I got back to the office at Jessie’s House the guy was gone. I didn’t hear the door close and had never told him about my father or the coincidence of it all.

And then I wondered if he even had a daughter or if I was suckered if he was trying to get more sympathy or a bigger voucher. I put the freezer key back, and I watched it swing from side to side I thought, he probably stole the voucher booklet I thought and panicked realizing I wasn’t supposed to have left him alone in the office. What would I tell the other staffers?

But the booklet was still there, and I saw his voucher too, the one I wrote out for five dollars, left on the desk. I looked out the window hoping to see him, could life the window and paper airplane him the food voucher or holler loudly to reach him or invite him back for a hamburger.

There were four hours left on my shift, and I couldn’t help think of him, his Rosie and her too short life, and their kid. I wonder if his daughter is a shattered girl or a together one or some mix of both like me. I ached the way one ache over people you don’t know well. I empathized with his daughter and wondered if she kept his name, like I kept mine, kept his existence a secret or had found a better way. The one I still hadn’t found.

And him? I see his scruffy-face, his greasy hair and the dark blue sweater with darker stains even now. Homeless, middle-aged, alcoholic and vulnerable. I imagine him seeking refuge at a shelter in Boston. I wonder does someone sit behind a desk and ask about his daughter and if so, does he have any pictures or stories to share? What does he say? Does he pull a picture of my sister or me?

And I wonder too if she is out there, this faceless social worker in the city working a night shift. Does she have a name? Does she know the reason my father left and never returned and if he ever thinks of us? Does she feel bad for him, a veteran of Vietnam left to fend for himself like a stray dog on the street? Does she know more of my story than I do? Is she sitting, right now, listening to his?

Note: In college, I planned to become a social worker and worked at a shelter for homeless families. I was passing for middle-class and “normal” at the time and ended up feeling it was impossible to be me and to do the job the way it needed to be done at the time. It was decades ago before trauma-informed was a phrase and before peer-support or lived experience were considered as valuable as they are today. I was still figuring out how to get comfortable with my own life story and learning from symptoms all about post-traumatic stress.

Anyhow, it is decades later and I am blessed to connect with so many different people once again. I still get nervous when I hear the word modeling though or when programs or policies seem to describe people as though we are fundamentally different somehow, as though there are the helped and the helpers – not just complex people.  

In the Parenting with ACEs group I manage at ACEsConnection, I hope we can come together more and learn with and from one another. For me, ACEs helps me understand and articulate how much it is our circumstances and systems that need addressing, fixing and solving – not  the people in them. 

I’m still not sure how that gets done best but I’m glad there’s room for so many perspectives and that includes YOURS.

I didn’t know how to be a social worker, a paid professional doing work in the world, and a person with PTSD and issues, too when I was in my 20’s. I still don’t always know. I saw my early life as a secret, a deficit and a source of shame. I hope now it’s something I can learn how to utilize without embarrassment in order to encourage others to do the same so we can lead or co-lead initiatives which are informed by trauma survivors and trauma-informed. 

 

 




You Matter Mantras

  • Trauma sucks. You don't.
  • Write to express not to impress.
  • It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
  • Breathing isn't optional.

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