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.