Breakfast with the Ladies

 

This morning I attended a community breakfast at the homeless center.  I thought I would tell you about it, as a glimpse-of-another-world exercise. 

 

At the coffee table I met a young woman named Shaniqua.  She greeted me with, “Hello, ma’am.  How are you today?”  I learned later it was the first time she’d ever visited the center.  It was 8 in the morning and she had already acquired a stack of papers directing her to helpful resources (mostly government-administered) for obtaining housing, employment, health care, shelter, and food.  She’d been given a bagful of clothes.  She was eating breakfast.  She’d been welcomed, hugged, and invited to come anytime.  Shaniqua was upbeat and radiated gratitude.  “I had no idea what to do,” she said during the meeting, “but I got everything I need here.”      

 

The women in the room ranged from young to old and from women who seemed to have prospects to women I could only characterize as low-functioning.  Some had obvious physical disabilities.  Some seemed mentally off.  Some could barely keep their eyes open, a condition probably attributable to a bad night in a shelter or on the street.  Some of the women were perfectly lucid, clean, and ordinary looking.  When asked, in the meeting, what they got from the center, one of the ordinary-looking women said, “I get to feel like a regular person, with someplace to be and people to talk to.” 

 

When asked what they needed that the center was not helping with, another ordinary-looking woman said “bus tickets.”  In Seattle, the bus system is free within the downtown area (called the “ride free zone”).  But not everything is downtown.  If you need to get to a medical appointment or a job interview, you need bus fare.  Inability to pay for the bus prevents women from making it to such appointments.  Another woman said, “We need storage.”  Even if you look normal, if you show up for an interview with all of your possessions in tow, you are not getting that job.  Other topics included the current habit employers have of refusing to consider anyone who isn’t currently employed, and the difficulties women who were raised in poverty and poorly educated have in communicating with the larger world. 

 

One comment that struck me was the wish for Starbucks cards.  It’s not just that the women want the overpriced espresso beverages; it’s that the center is closed on weekends.  A woman who can purchase a cup of coffee buys the right to sit in a warm, safe coffee shop for several hours, watching the rain through the window and feeling human.

 

All of the discussion came from the high-functioning, normal-looking women.  The low-functioning women didn’t speak.

 

After the meeting I sat and talked with a woman named Ann.  She was well put together—nicely dressed, made up, hair done.  Actually, she had middle class written all over her.  I didn’t get her whole story, but it included the word “foreclosure.”  She said she’d been staying in various shelters around town and that she was now working nights at the Westin Hotel.  Ann told me she thought there was a huge hole in the social service system.  There’s lots of help, she explained, aimed at women who have been homeless for a long time or who are struggling with drugs.  But there’s little to stop a woman from sliding downward once some disaster sets her on the path to homelessness.  There’s no “yikes, this middle class lady is going to wind up on the street if we don’t help her right now” program.  What form would such aid take?  I don’t know, but it bears consideration.

 

That was my morning.  Take from it what you will.

 

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12 thoughts on “Breakfast with the Ladies

  1. @ordinarybutloud – It would take a substantial increase in funding in run the program over the weekend.  No, there are no overnight accommodations, though the organization has recently arranged with a number of local churches to provide emergency night shelter for women with children.  They tell me a single woman can reliably get a spot in a shelter, but a woman with children may have to wait up to a month to get into one.  

  2. Bus tickets, storage and Starbucks cards all sound like good ideas.  Of course, it would be better if someone had an idea for how to keep the center open on weekends.  But Starbucks will do in a pinch.  In Eugene, the homeless people used the public library.  That didn’t always work so well.  That is, it didn’t always work so well for the non-homeless people who wanted to work at the library, not sleep there.  The homeless people didn’t seem to have trouble with it.  I never asked one, they were always asleep.  Also, I’m shy.

  3. It’s amazing that women who have such big problems can have the clarity to identify small details that would help their situation.  Starbucks cards, bus fare, storage.  Pretty simple stuff that sure seems like it would help a lot.I agree that we need more services for the middle class sliding into poverty situation.  I’m sure you’ll figure it out for us. 😉

  4. I can’t speak for Seattle, but where I live the population of homeless women is nearly invisible.  Homeless men are  a common site, but homeless women seem to be non-existent.  Is it because men are more likely to be “out there” panhandling and women are more likely to be retiring, or is it that homeless women are more vulnerable to abuse and assault and purposefully stay out of sight? Or are they more successful at blending in with the rest of the population?  It’s an issue because homeless women have some needs specific to women and if people identify the homeless population as male, the women are less likely to have their needs met.You’ve written another thought-provoking post.

  5. @Daylily02 – There are more homeless men than women, but I guarantee there are homeless women in your region, too.  Judging by the group I see at the center, some of them blend in with the downtown crowd pretty effectively.  Some of them actually look like men–short hair and layered clothes that hide the body.  That may be deliberate, in some cases.  But yes, they are very vulnerable to abuse of all sorts and are likely to keep their heads down.  

  6. @Daylily02 – Also, interestingly, the tag line of a current fundraising campaign for this center is “We Are Here.”  This has a double meaning–the center is here to serve the women, but also, the women are here.  You may not see or notice them, but they are here.

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