Bob Sh’mal Ellenberg
725 NE 3rd St.
Gainesville, Fl. 32601
BEING ONE WITH THE OTHER
STORIES OF BEING WITH THE HOMELESS
Harry was on the ground half conscious with about 15 people, mostly men, uncomfortably standing around looking down at him; the Listerine bottle knocked over on the stone table, its distinct odor wafted around the immediate space, while a thin stream of blood seeped from the gash on his head after it bounced off the table as he toppled before his body hit the concrete.
In wavering uncertainty, an alcoholic’s old voice, one of the homeless spoke, “look what happened to Harry. Why’d he drink so much of that stuff? What should we do?”
“Nothing,” was mumbled, “here come the cops.”
A slight tension, curiosity, as heads turned to see the twenty-something cops coming on bicycles. Both wore trimmed mustaches making them look thirty, otherwise, clean-shaven, short hair, guns, mace, cuffs, night sticks on their hips, bulging gym arms, under black summer tee shirts. They leaned their bikes against the black metal railing that went around the three concrete tables and benches in the Downtown Plaza.
The two uniforms stood over Harry for a few seconds, till one knelt, getting as close to his face as he dared, “hey man, can you hear me?” gently shaking the numbed body by the shoulder, then a bit more forcefully when there was no response. When no eye opened or sounds were made, the cop looked over his shoulder, “anyone know his name?”
“Harry,” three voices out of harmony.
“Harry,” still crouched, the cop tried again close to the face, shaking the shoulder. “Hey Harry can you hear me?” Finally, Harry weakly opened his eyes, barely focusing, saw who was asking, mumbled, “oh no,” scrunched his face, closed his eyes going back to a preferred state of consciousness.
“Anybody see what happened,” the standing cop asked the passive faced group of about twenty downtown regulars?
Some one pointed to the Listerine bottle on the table the cops might have seen when they came around. The odor too. What else did anyone know?
“I’ll call the paramedics,” the standing uniform spoke, while the other asked if anyone knew Harry’s last name. No one answered.
“Has this happened before?” His voice sounded sincere, wanting to help.
“Yeah, a few times,” came a voice from the back of the group.
A harsh voice admonished the speaker: “what the hell you tell them that for?”
“Fuck off, what’s the difference? He’s trying to kill himself. I don’t give a shit, but let them know. He needs help.”
“Never tell the police nothin.”
“Fuck off. You tell them nothin; I do what I want.”
“Hey guys, knock it off. The more information we give the paramedics, maybe the more they can do for him. Sounds like he’s a regular Listerine drinker. Not a good way to go.”
Some of the homeless slowly began to walk away going across the Plaza to get some soup and sandwiches from the HomeVan that was making its regular Thursday night feeding. A few others remained, stood nearby, some sat down on the stone benches. It was dusk, cool shadows from the County building across the street were beginning to cover the Plaza. Nothing unusual.
The cops stood near Harry, waiting for the ambulance. “Anybody know if he has family,” one asked no one in particular of the few still sitting on the benches? There was an air of civility or concern the police were trying to give, maybe having been in-serviced by a human relations trainer or the deputy chief, who promised the attorney-advocate for the homeless he’d talk to his patrol people about treating the homeless as humans. It was an innovative idea that apparently hadn’t been one of the prerequisites to get the job. No one answered the family question. There were no prizes for answering.
A few weeks earlier, not far from downtown, near apartments for college students and yuppies, a cop chased a dumpster diver into the woods where homeless people camp, spread out in a number of campsites. It’s known as the Sweetwater Camp being on Sweetwater Branch that winds through the town, picking up garbage, rain run-off and the accompanying toxins off city streets and chemical sprayed lawns. In town, sometimes, small posted signs are near the creek letting any one who can read know the water is poison and not to bath or drink it, but in the camps, no signs, where some use it for bathing and washing clothes, but don’t drink it. Maybe some do - who knows for sure when it’s hot and you’re thirsty?
The cop ran mindless, chasing after the garbage thief into one of the camps. No one was there except Smoothie the camp dog and one man sleeping in a tent. Protecting her turf, Smoothie might have made a move towards the cop; he shot once, wounding her. The guy in the tent came out right away to see the cop looking shocked at what he had done. They fixed eyes for a moment. No on ever knew for sure how it went down since the cop was the only witness to the shooting. He broke his concentration with the tent man, called the deputy chief who came out right away along with a street sergeant.
Maybe it was a good cop, bad cop routine because the street sergeant got his cookies off making a series of derogatory, demeaning, remarks to some of the men from other sites, who came down to see what happened. He emptied his verbal pistol telling them they all had to be out of the camp the next day; empty words coming from an empty man. There was too much of both. The shooter in the meantime stood aside, remained an expression of remorse at what he had done, showing tears and pain for his impulsive act. We could wonder what he was doing chasing a homeless dumpster diver into the woods anyway? Ah, maybe protecting the apartment complex occupants from having their garbage reused, orders from high up the police or city government chain, after complaints that the tenants didn’t want others using their waste. Noble thought. Did the cop think it would win him an accommodation? now instead, a young man, with new pain, after shooting some one’s pet. Odd, how things turn out.
The deputy chief, played good cop, was more conciliatory, telling the campers he would look into the incident and get back to their community. He took Smoothie to the vet school at the university, where she died two days later after some extensive surgery.
When homeless advocates heard about the shooting their reflex was to descend on the police station to protest the shooting of Smoothie who was loved by all. The attorney-advocate for the homeless, an immediate man, talked with the police, arranging a meeting at the Sweetwater Camp, with the homeless. There, the deputy chief made verbal amends acknowledging a mistake, and a deal - the City would pay the fees at the vet school, $350, and give $200 to the owner of the dog. The shooter was there. He continued his apologies, with real tears to Smoothies owners. This was when the deputy chief promised in-service sessions for his men and women about how to work with, approach, talk to, behave, towards the homeless. A simple course in human relations. Maybe it was working, since lately, none of the homeless had complained to the advocates about police harassment, although no one thought anything would change since there were ongoing differences - actually a wide chasm between the downtown business people, city officials and the advocates about what to do with those without regular addresses. Some of the business people were adamant that the homeless had no place in the Downtown Plaza, while one of the City Commissioners said they had no place in society. He probably has no place on the Commission or maybe in the human race.
Everyone knew there was no easy answer. Does everyone need a standard home? Tents might be fine if there was food, showers, places to wash clothes, cold night shelters, no harassment. Society needs to make exceptions for those that don’t fit the Jell-o mold of what is expected as a member of the community.
The first time I went into the woods with the HomeVan it was to the SouthCamp, to pass out sandwiches, fruit, soup, and if needed, clothing, blankets, tents. Some of the campers come off the road, traveling, but most are local people, loosing jobs, disabled, Viet Nam vets, mental illness, the stories have been public for years. That first moment, walking the path in, I thought I was in another world. It was. I could never imagine a few acres of beer cans strewn throughout the woods, like a ground cover. Interspersed were small campsites with tree and shrub privacy between them. There were about twenty or thirty men and women in the various camps, some campfires with grates for cooking. One man was too drunk, could barely stand or carry a conversation, others though, sober, intelligent, employed, friendly, many a beer in hand. Hard times for some, others there by choice - why pay bills and live that standard life when being in the woods might be easier on the spirit?
As I stood talking with the campers, my first day out, looking at the creek passing by the tents, I thought of my own two years living in the woods in Arkansas, six months of it in a tent, the other months in a $24 cabin I built from rough pine bark slabs hauled from the lumber mill, dying trees I used for corner posts and ceiling beams, scraps I gathered from the junk yard. I understood the desire to not be part of the mainstream style of society, to live simply in the woods.
I was humbled, weakened, uncertain of what I was doing with new friends committed to “feed the homeless,” questioning myself how I was going to relate to them, simply relate, to know the men and women I mostly assumed were different then who I was, or how I saw myself, or.... It felt a little weird.
I’ve learned from life that if I take a step in a positive direction, there’s always another one ahead of me. Simple. Having been a community based social worker off and on most of my adult life, I learned something about others and trusting in a Divine presence I have no fear of the unknown. Coming to help the homeless was new to me, although those that don’t fit the mainstream paradigm have been around since for all time. Who takes care of them is the issue many cities are facing, especially as the numbers increase and human services decrease?
I am an older adult, been around a bit, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to do something, maybe anything, to help the other. I remembered in the late 60s, working in downtown Los Angeles, seeing raggedy men in alleys, sitting in Pershin Square Park, walking the streets thinking I was somehow them. Weird for a college graduate. When I was starting college someone asked me what I wanted to be and I responded, “an educated bum.” I can’t say where that came from, but in these new moments in my life, forty- years later, I continued going out on the regular Thursday night run of the HomeVan, first stop to the camps, next to the downtown plaza. Even with their idiosyncrasies drawing them to alcohol, I became familiar with a number of the men, one man, a Viet Nam vet, part Native American, living with a woman who was too overweight, too hurting, too drunk to move from the woods to ask for help, even when she was close to death. When Johnny found out I was a minister, he asked me to marry them on his upcoming birthday, but that never happened because of her condition, or his.
Johnny, couldn’t take it any more seeing her so debilitated, finally called the paramedics who took her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with advanced cirrhosis and a critical spinal problem. A few days prior, anticipating the hospital, some of the HomeVan women initiated a bath for Esther, getting help from women of the camp who hauled pails of water from Sweetwater Branch so at least she was clean, even if the water wasn’t Clear Mountain Springtime in Florida Water. In the hospital she was told, what she knew already, that due to a deteriorating spinal disease she was literally taking her last steps, and if she wanted to live she couldn’t go back to the camp or keep drinking. A doctor friend passed this information to the HomeVaners.
Having a background working in nursing homes and hospitals, I made calls, did some talking, and helped her get into a nursing home that was within walking distance of the SouthCamp. She knew the deal, it was nothing new to her, but whatever impulses moved her, she left one day on a pass when Johnny came to visit going back out to the camp where they got too drunk and she was carried out by her fellow campers, who again called an ambulance. That episode convinced her the nursing home was her new home. She stopped drinking and soon Johnny stopped visiting.
After the incidents with the paramedics coming out, the SouthCampers were prodded by the HomeVan cadre to clean up the camp, which might help keep the police away. With everyone’s help 640 trash bags were filled with beer cans and assorted debris. Someone, even managed to get a city garbage truck to pick up the bags. The HomeVan cadre knew it was only a minor victory, but substantial in the moment. It didn’t last long as beer cans began to appear and accumulate and soon the police were making regular stops at the camp, checking id’s, lying about looking for some one. A couple of weeks passed, then a concerted campaign as wise guy cops started threatening the campers that they had to get out since the place was going to be bulldozed for housing. It was lies - a local merchant had threatened the Home Van, “I’ll have them gone in two months.” Which happened. After a few threats, they made one final call on the camp telling campers that if they weren’t out the following day, they would be arrested – it was trespassing. With no choice they all moved onto other wooded locations, hoping it would be satisfactory to the police.
The main SouthCamp people we were helping told the HomeVan cadre where they were located and we made our drop-off of food and tents at the new site. We all appreciated and complimented the new location, building camaraderie with them, and trying to hold up their spirits. The following week the police came by giving another move out or get arrested message. They moved up stream along the Sweetwater Branch, this time across the creek. When we made our next visit, the campers walked across the creek calf deep in water, to get their food bags. Two weeks later they told us the cops came out telling them they had two days to move someplace else. One of their tents was slashed, attributed to the wise ass redneck cop who was the most verbally abusive. They were told by one cop where they should go, not too far from where they were - out of the City into the County, where the sheriff can take care of the problem.
Johnny stood in the woods crying drunk about the harassment they were getting. “Where are we to go, what should we do? I served my country and want to be left alone. I don’t bother anyone, just want to live in the woods.” Soft gentle voice and spirit, no criminal type, not causing anyone harm, no weapons, no drugs, but too much state sanctioned alcohol. We told them we would do what we could, not having any clue how we could help them. We shook hands, gave friendly hugs, all feeling some kind of newfound friendship.
It wasn’t just their crisis, their lives weren’t only their lives, we knew that, where one body appears to stop, spirit energy keeps spreading, love energy emanates, we helpers become invested with the other, lines disappeared between us and them. We admitted - we took the dilemma home discussing what we could do.
Tom, the ever reliable attorney-advocate, talked to the deputy chief who told him that the campers didn’t have to leave that site right away, but they may have to move on since there were complaints from the student-yuppie complex across the road - same one where they don’t want their garbage reused.
Knowing how important it was, I volunteered to go out to the camp to pass along the message.
It was late morning as I drove out to the camp, remembering my mother telling me as a child to not go near the Hobo camps where I went with friends to pick blackberries. “Look at me now ma from whatever plane you’re on. I promise it’s okay, I’m doing good.” And she, “you’re always trying to help others Robert, take care of yourself, that’s who’s important.” “You never understood mom, I am.”
The winter sun was warm. I talked with myself about what exactly was my place in what I was doing - my simple, ethical dilemma - whether I should cross the creek like they did. I could take off my shoes, socks. They just walked, shoes and socks, pants getting wet. Was I different than they were? They were drunk when they stumbled across the creek, I wasn’t drunk, so I knew, after all, I wasn’t going to walk through the creek. It’s okay Sh’mal, you are you.
Walking through the woods, a narrow path along the creek, coming to the spot where I could see the camp, standing on the creeks edge, surrounded by the forest, in what felt like a surreal episode of life, I yelled for Johnny who I could see asleep across the creek in a lounge chair. I asked myself again, if I didn’t see them, would I cross the creek to their tents. I told my thinking, monkey mind to shut up. Louis was standing near by, “Hey, Louis.” He was the oldest in the camp, in his sixties, another case of alcohol cirrhosis, but still drinking, attended to by his camping brothers and sisters, “wake Johnny up, I have to tell him something.” He looked at me, not hearing clearly, not computing, maybe not believing some one was calling his name in the woods. As he peered in my direction, I took a few steps closer along the bank, called out louder, clearer, getting slight acknowledgment as he shook Johnny till he roused and sat up. I could see Louis point towards me. Slowly getting up from the lounge chair, shaggy beard, dark hair to his shoulders, he staggered along his side of the creek till he was right across from me: “hey Johnny, brother, you don’t have to leave for another week.” He looked at me, trying to clear his eyes and head from being hung over, not quite comprehending my message.
“Johnny, you don’t have to leave. It’s cool, Tom, the attorney, talked with the police, you all can stay here for a couple more weeks.” Getting the message, he smiled, put his hands to his heart, bowed namaste, Buddhist prayer honoring the divine in the other. I did the same to him. “Thank you brother, thank you Sh’mal,” he softly responded across the creek with a caught tear in his voice. For me, maybe for him, a timeless moment between humans brought together by life’s circumstances, choices we make that are made beyond our knowing, beyond self.
Two weeks later Johnny, the unofficial camp captain, moved his small group of friends to the Sweetwater Camp; it was his dog that later was killed. They were some of the first we knew going there, although there were signs that camping had been going on there for many, many years back. It, like SouthCamp, were truly, venerable, homeless archeological sites, with debris scattered, some half buried in the ground. Being along the creek, we can be sure some other time in history, native people inhabited these same spots, sacred pow wows, fishing, hunting, as many arrow heads come into the hands of those living there.
Tonight, in the downtown Plaza, the paramedics showed up after a short while attending to Henry.
Johnny was standing near by, I hadn’t seen him earlier. I walked up to him, “hey Johnny, did you go to the hospital about your ear bleeding?” A week earlier he took tissue out of his ear, showing me the blood.
“Yeah, man,” as always, a soft hurt voice coming to me, “they said I need brain surgery again. I told you, I had it done three years ago and swore I wouldn’t do it again. I don’t know what to do.” With tears he stood there, not drunk this time, just hurting from what life had done to him, what maybe becoming a Viet Nam killer had done to him. He talked about it only once, some time ago, pulling me off to the side so others couldn’t hear, yeah, drunk, tears, hurting, confiding some of the deepest secrets he carried from yet another war gone bad, a story told too many times by too many.
Again I stood, not sure what counsel to give, or if he needed, wanted any, it was his call. “Sorry bro you going through this again. I’ll come visit and be with you. We all will. You know. Let us know when you’re going in. I’ll take you if you want.”
“Come here, Sh’mal,” he said, as he pulled lightly on my sleeve. We walked off a bit from the paramedics as they were lifting Harry on to stretcher to take him away. He was deep into my eyes, maybe deeper. I felt that look when he told me about Nam, deeper in some ways then any eyes I’ve ever looked into. There it was, pain, hurt, confusion, loves lost, some of life. It’s all I can say in words, but something else was there, a timeless look, a look about what life had been to him, with an unknowing about where it was going. “I’m scared, Sh’mal. Real scared. They told me I could die from another surgery. I could die from no surgery. I don’t know what to do. Keep praying for me.”
“You know I will. I don’t know either Johnny. I don’t know and the hang up is no one can tell you. It’s you, maybe you and Barbara.” Barbara his new woman after the other went to the nursing home. As the unofficial leader of the camp an alone woman in the woods or the streets, latch on to him for limited security. Barbara had her face all scraped and bruised recently from “walking into a tree at night.” Since there were no door jams in the woods as excuses for causing facial bruises, trees served well. She had been a nurse not too many years back, way back in place, now she administered to Jerry and he to her, she sometimes getting belligerent and punched by whose ever face she was in. She was reported to be dying from who knew what besides the alcohol, something in life. Not even close to doing good. Smiled to me the other night telling me, “I’m doing as good as I can.”
“Barbara, that’s all any of us can do.” What could I tell her? It felt like maybe soon there could be a double funereal. I didn’t want to project, but that was what I saw in front of me, only what could be. They both seemed beyond saving in this lifetime. Good souls, good hearts, I don’t know, poor timing. It can break some one up thinking about lives gone down a hard bumpy road with no way to smooth it out except with loving concern and whatever else one can give.
I stop by Bob and Arupa’s house across from the community garden, where Bob and I grow most of our vegetables, which we’ve begun to share for the soups Arupa makes for the homeless, or taking greens out to some of the camps. Arupa started all this HomeVan ministry after she got fed up volunteering in the homeless shelter a few blocks from their home. It came as a vision in seeking another way to serve the homeless, driving around to where they are bringing them what they need. And soon, as life will do us, some one donated an old luxury van to her and the oddesey continued, becoming substantial. She reached out to a creative community: attorneys, artists, writers, counselors, teachers, students, an occasional doctor, even, to come join her in a quest to equalize our gifts with others.
The floor of the living room of their old, small, wood frame home, was cluttered with boxes, bags, clothes, food, the porch the same, shelves built recently filled with canned foods, three stacks of white cotton blankets for next winter on the porch dropped off by a faith based group who had more of them donated then they could use, knowing we shared a mission. Bags of dog food for the camp dogs, big bags of the finest bread in town given away from a yuppie bakery way across town, two bags of some of the worst donuts from coffee shops maybe good for one more day before they’d get composted.
“Sh’mal,” Arupa welcomed, “it’s you, good, we’ve been non-stop today with people ringing the doorbell for food. Everyday it blows my mind how many mothers are coming here with kids looking for food. They’ve getting thrown off of food stamps for one reason or another. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“Yeah, we do, bombs not food. It’s so simple: the priorities of government. It’s fucked up, but we keep on doing.”
“Oh, hey, by the way, Bob and I have to stop the clothes in our house. It’s too much. Look,” as she points to what I can see and have thought about wondered how much I would accept in my own apartment. How much would I?
Six months ago, in the middle of the winter, granted, it’s northern Florida winter, we found a 19 year old seven months pregnant girl-woman living in a tent in the woods with a boyfriend. We didn’t think she belonged there, but where did she belong? The next week she was in my spare bedroom. I asked myself, “is this cool, who is she, what do I know?” Others told me the same. I trusted my instincts. They’ve served me well in many situations. HomeVaners were working on getting her birth certificate from Arkansas so she could get into Arbor House, the home for pregnant women without homes, services from the health department, food stamps were soon to appear. I know the system, it could take time, but I’ll be okay. I had no illusions of what to expect from her. A foster kid most of her life, I knew she had seen scores of people like me, I wasn’t going to make big changes in her life - give her a room, the one with the T.V. I seldom watched, “she won’t be here long,” I assured myself.
For three weeks she spent most of the time in the bedroom watching the T.V., eating, sleeping, hanging with her boyfriend. I allowed him two nights when the temperature dropped below freezing. I didn’t particularly like him, another failed, humane attempt, of foster care programs. I know though, it’s starts before the foster program, and society can only do so much after a kid is wrecked, whacked, whittled away to almost not human by parents who were intended to give them the most of love, but instead...... I worked with foster kids for a few years as part of my social worker career and knew their life is not easy, I can give slack, but there are limits.
“Hey, you two, clean up the dishes if you’re going to be staying here. This is my apartment, you are guests.” I finally had to raise my voice after a day of dishes gathering in the sink. She did it. In time, dishes and silverware began to disappear. I assumed out to the woods with boyfriend, I never asked it didn’t matter, I had more. After three weeks, with still no opening at Arbor House, a woman I know offered a home to June. I didn’t mind. Finally Arbor House had room. I assisted getting her in, which she abandoned after two weeks, unable to follow the rules, had her baby in the hospital, which was taken by the state since she had no home, except again, a tent in the woods.
Same question again: how much would I accept in my apartment? Four months after June left, I begin to think of one of the homeless men who is sober, smart, communicative, drawn to help with homeless issues. He was once a pastor and can’t stop helping. I asked myself whether I should offer him my spare bedroom. One of the HomeVan cadre tell me right away, “Sh’mal don’t do that.” “Thanks, I’ll think on it.” The next day, Nelson asks me, “hey Sh’mal would you consider me for a housemate?”
It’s been almost a month, it’s working out. Nelson found all my dishes and silverware in dresser drawers where I never thought to look. Dirty, crusty. June made it easy on herself. Nelson is waiting to find out about a disability hearing he had recently that’ll give him a low monthly income but a large government settlement on checks he should have been getting since he originally applied for the disability three years ago. Unfortunately, or fortunately for him, he is denied disability, and will have to rely on his own inner resources to get his life on track. He has many capabilities beyond the average homeless man and should make his way in the world.
Arupa and Bob have boxes of food, clothes, etc., people coming by daily, and I take a couple of people into my house. Others have also. It’s true, some of us are loosing the boundaries between us and them. It’s okay though. None of us are alone in this world, each a part of the other and this homeless business will be an ongoing dilemma as some look for solutions, others help them where they are without judging, while others continue to debase our world by whatever moves them.
“Everyday,” I tell Arupa and Bob, “I ask myself - how much can you guys deal with? I know about burnout, and thought it was getting to that point. You need your house back, at least some of it.”
“Thanks for thinking of us,” Arupa tells me. “Laura is going to take clothes to her house, in a garage, and bring them out in her truck on Tuesdays when she comes out with the HomeVan.”
Arupa’s become sort of our local Mother Theresa. Naturally she doesn’t think of herself that way, and maybe it’s a stretch from Calcutta to Gainesville, Florida, but something awoke in Arupa to do something new and it’s spreading. Articles by her, about her, my own, by newspaper reporters with pictures, have been appearing for the past six months making the whole community more aware of the HomeVan and the endless homeless problem. She feels she’s oddly gotten back to her long forgotten Catholic roots as many of those on the Home Van are also volunteers with various Catholic charitable organizations. She does her big share while others pick up here and there to make the effort equitable. Arupa and Bob are finally convinced to put a sign on their door, “HomeVan Closed, Come Back Later.” It’s working, no more boxes of clothes taking up sparse living room space, and now, they can sit at home and not have to answer what becomes, at times, an annoying doorbell. Nobody wants that from their own doorbell.
One of the County Commissioners took a ride to Sweetwater with the HomeVan on its regular Thursday night run. A handsome young black man with a care for the community, invited by Tom our attorney. It was a revelatory experience for all of us that day going further into the woods, on old logging trails, into the camps where no one, who doesn’t know what’s going on, even know they exist. They are homeless, by usual community standards, but it is a community of friend’s, strangers, acquaintances, caring something for the other, in the small camp sites off the road a bit, but most not hidden. Two of the men were our tour guides, as we walked, pointing out whose camp was whose, passing others on the path, some joining up with us. One young women, in short shorts, halter, Daisy Mae type, recognized the commissioner from when she worked in town, he knew her by name, said she used to work in a dry cleaner, but wanted the good life so now she has it after the drugs and alcohol wore her out. She began dancing around in front of us, loudly singing, praising Jesus to protect her, from some unknown fear that the commissioner was out looking for her, while he felt bad for her ending up in the woods, obviously needing psychotropic medication, which was also told us by one our guides. He a Viet Nam vet, told me he was on those meds for years, but living in the woods, having a community, as it is, not dealing with the world outside, he’s making it without the medications.
Suddenly I’m not on this path, but on the trails in the woods in Arkansas where I was living on 40 acres surrounded by the national forest, with a community of 20-30 friends, acquaintances, strangers, since we also had no clue sometimes who was coming down that road to live with us. It all felt like a normal way for people to be living. Couldn’t get no judgment from me, although the commissioner at one point, musing and impressed, compassionate with what he sees, asks no in particular, I’m next to him, “what can we do to bring them back into society?” I was surprised at his naiveté, saying back that “some of them can’t and some don’t want that,” which he acknowledged with, “yeah, I guess you’re right.”
There’s a shift again, and I imagine the Native American’s in these woods, I imagine some are still hiding in the brush, behind large 150 year old live oaks watching the new interlopers with their tents and cars coming up the road to be fixed or to drop off one of the new ones living there. I image up what they would be wearing, feathers in the hair, leather loin cloths, sandals, bows and arrows ready to shoot us if they are seen.
I’m back to present hearing how these men and a few women manage the sites if problems come up, running off thieving crack addicts that took too much too often from the camps. We’re told they come sneaking back in though, staying in places out of sight, away from the main road, doing their bad when the time is right. The now four residents walking with us point out who lives where, showing us how one camp is kept neat, while beer cans, cardboard beer carriers, discarded plastic shopping bags, clothes laying around, cigarette and other food wrappers strewn about another. The tell us how they deal with heavy winds, rain storms, the cold winter nights now passed as the spring brings colors, smells, less clothes, easier time for a while. We see large rain tarps secured up in the trees some covering two tents below. The two main interpreters of the camps are proud of what they have here, how order is maintained as best as possible with no formal rules, no hierarchy, except maybe, by longevity of time spent, maybe size, strength of a man, wisdom if another will listen.
As we’re completing the 45 minute circular walk, coming out where the van is parked the commissioner wonders out loud about the others on the commission coming out, but lets that go into the wind, but would like to have a dumpster brought out and set aside for their trash, ideally, a mobile medical unit to make visits, some one suggests a port-a-potty to him. He isn’t sure what can be done to help, but he’ll never forget what he’s seen.
It was about a two hour walk, slow and tedious finding all the camps; a few camps, neither the cops nor Tom and I knew about but we were led to them by others. Some of the campers looked at me with this “what should I do now?” expression, but we had little to suggest, except the place across the street, back on city property, where apparently the owner there had given permission for some one, one person to camp there. No one was sure how he’d feel about 20.
The good cop was considerate when telling the people at each site when they had to leave, but, he included, “if you’re showing signs you’re moving, but don’t have everything gone, I’ll give you another day or so.”
I was surprised, but I guess because they had no options, except jail- all the sites were empty during the next three days. I’m not sure how they did it, carrying all their stuff out, maybe an ally with a truck helped drive it out. Some went across the street, others to places they didn’t want to tell us about fearing with the HomeVan coming in their site would make it more known.
No one told us it was going to happen. The police promised they would let us know, if, more likely, when, they were going to take action about all the people living in Sweetwater Camp. It wasn’t an attack, maybe an assault against the dignity of those there. Police cars along with a helicopter visited the camps one afternoon telling the residents they had to be gone in five days. They made two arrests for outstanding warrants, but didn’t hassle one campers with obvious drug paraphernalia.
Homies heard about it later that day when some of the campers came into town spreading the word about their world changing again. Now it was the Sheriff’s department telling them to leave, this apparently based on a complaint from the owner when he found out about his property was turning into a campground for homeless.
Attorney Tom, made an appeal to the Sheriff’s department for a few more days and surprisingly two weeks was granted. The police wanted to go out sooner to let them know what was the deal. Tom was asked to go and he asked me to go along too. I felt proud being able to help out these guys who don’t have a voice in our society.
When Tom and I arrived at the area we were told by the police who were already waiting for us that the plan had changed. They all had to be out in three days. Tom and I were a bit stunned, personally felt betrayed, but also that we had betrayed the campers who had already received the news that they had two weeks. We sort of weakly bantered back and forth with a good cop bad cop team, but eventually accepted we would accompany them through the woods as they passed the news.
This was another one of those Kafkaesque events in life, unsure of what one was doing walking through the woods with police, going camp to camp telling people you know, who you are trying to help, that they have to change their plans. Hopeless and hapless. It felt like a weird trip, no, it was weirder, deeper then feeling, down to ones essential being, standing there, now with the local television station along putting the camera right in the faces of the soon to be displaced campers. Some were angry, especially those who had been living there for years, hassle free till more kept moving in, and those told by the City Police to move there. After all, if the police drop you off someplace, you figure it’ cool. It was for a while, now their lives have been altered again.
Pete has been living in the woods for ten to 20 years depending on when he tells his story. Not in these woods all the time, but he’s been around for a long time. Just turned 60, another Viet Nam vet, he isn’t well, getting thinner and thinner weekly as we try and bring him nutritional supplement s to drink, but we can’t get them all the time due to expense and shortage of donated money. We can all see he’s fading away. He has his camp site away from the others, closer to the paved road we come in on with the van to bring food and other essentials as well as services. He isn’t interested in living near the others, but won’t chase anyone from his area if they set up camp. One person has been near by for most of the year, a transgender person, but he/she isn’t around a whole lot, and Pete, now is staying mostly alone close to his camp. He’s set up good, right near the creek, satisfied with the tent he sleeps in, small transitory radio with country and western playing when we come out, a TV with a two inch screen he can get local football and weather, Blackie his cat near by, two storage tents, a rifle is always leaning against his sleeping tent. Of all the homeless sites, his is the only one with a displayed weapon, although some carry knives in sheaths on their hips.
We informally discuss his situation as we do about others we’re concerned about wondering if there’s anything more we feel morally drawn to do in order to help without imposing outside values. We all love Pete, so in some ways, he’s a special case.
Pete agrees to see our doctor, who Arupa brings to his campsite. Pete has been getting worse, spitting up blood, having a hard time swallowing; a lump in his throat, voice getting weaker. None good signs. The doctor left a prescription for antibiotics, which I filled, brought out to him, which he took, felt better, still with lump. No one is calling it a tumor although we question cancer. He is still not swallowing easy. He finally agrees, again, at our suggestion, to an appointment at the hospital. I was going to be the escort.
Driving down to get him I see him stopped on a main street leaning on his bike, smoking. I make a ueee, “Pete, what you doing?” I call at him, pulling along side. “You’re supposed to be going to the hospital for the exam. I came to take you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Thanks for coming to get me, I’m feeling much better, can talk now, no blood. Them pills the doc sent out really got rid of the problem.”
I don’t try and persuade only, encourage, but Pete is set in what he wants for himself, been telling us for a while, he would rather die right there in the woods where he’s lived for so long, or, see a horse doctor.
“I was all set to go and then thought about hospitals and changed my mind, as quick as that.” He thanks me a few times for coming to get him, but no thanks when it comes to hospital procedures. “Sorry you had to come looking for me, but I don’t want to swallow that stuff, don’t want them looking in me with nuclear devices, if that’s what they planning on doing.”
“I don’t know what they were going to do, but I’m okay, if you’re okay, Pete, I’ll see you on Thursday,” as I drive off with him weakly smiling and waving.
Pete knows he’s getting weaker and I and others persuade him to apply for an apartment in a low income senior building. He agrees. I have taken Pete on as friend and someone maybe we can help. I get the papers to apply for him to put on a waiting list and have meetings with the management. Rod, one of our Homies , with some connections in the building is also advocating for Pete. When the application is filled out I take him for an appointment with the management and he is shown the apartment. He has constant smile of appreciation on face as he looks around the one room efficiency apartment.
“Pete,” I say to him, “you should have done this years ago.”
“You’re right Sh’mal, I’m getting too old for the woods.”
This is a refrain he’s been chanting lately. Not too old, just too weak, too debilitated.
Pete’s barely coming out of his tent, and when he does he’s literally crawling. We’ve talked with him a number of times about going to the er, but he’s refused. One day he tells us to come get him on Saturday. Arupa and I agree to take him to the hospital on Saturday. Why Saturday we don’t know, but he choose the day.
At the emergency room they have us bypass the waiting room and he is put directly in an examining room. It’s a five hour ordeal, but he hangs in. Arupa and I encourage him to wait and be patient. I bring him coffee, he goes out for a cigarette or two every hour or so. Before we got to the hospital he had us stop at the convenience store to get a carton of cigarettes, limping in himself when he couldn’t think of the brand he wanted. He’s a two to three pack a day smoker, been smoking since he was an adolescent. He also drinks a least two six packs a day. If he gets admitted to the hospital I wonder about delirium tremens for both of his addictions. We’ll see how he manages.
One doctor comes in to see him. Does an exam, feels the tumors on his neck: “Pete you know what they might be,” he asks? Pete doesn’t respond. The doctor questions him twice more, but Pete is acting dumb, or afraid to respond. I talked with him more than once about the possibility of cancer. Either he forget, or doesn’t want to say the word.
The young doctor blurts it out: “It’s probably cancer and it’ll probably kill you.” That’s it, perfect bedside manner to a poor homeless man on medicaid. Would he have been so callous to a paid patient in suit?
At one point I get an Advanced Directive form which is needed so he can tell the hospital what interventions he doesn’t want done. He is very clear that he doesn’t want any invasive treatments, assigning Arupa and me to his health care surrogates, allowing us to make decisions for him, but we also witnessed the form, making the form not legal, so I discard it, figuring once admitted the hospital staff will have him fill one out. Unfortunately this is never done.
When he gets admitted we leave, but I come back in the evening to talk with him, questioning him in front of a nurse about what his wishes are in case he needs invasive treatment. He remains adamant: he wants none of the hospital technology. His nurse promises to put this in his notes so a doctor can sign an order to that effect.
The next morning I get a call from the hospital, that Pete had aspirated, choking on some pureed foods they gave him and he is now on a respirator, a breathing machine. I’m flipped, and quickly get irritated expressing my ire to the nurse, who is only the messenger, and I apologize, telling her I’ll be there shortly.
Before going to see him I stop in the volunteer office at the hospital where I report when I volunteer once month as a hospital chaplain. Constance, the volunteer coordinator, is extremely supportive when I tell her the situation and she calls the patient representative who hears the story and accompanies me to the MICU where Pete is bedded.
When I go into the Medical Intensive Care unit I find Pete with a breathing tube down his throat, a feeding tube down his nose, (a nasal gastric, ng, tube) catheterized, with six bags of fluids going into him. His hands are tied to the bed rails because he was pulling on the tubes. My friend Pete, who didn’t want anything done to him, is getting everything modern medical technology can offer to keep him alive.
I’m irate, telling a doctor, nurses, social worker what the nurse heard the night before. “How come this wasn’t in the chart?” They have no clue, but want to know who the nurse was. I describe him, but they can’t do anything in the moment, but will find out what happened. I rant a bit, “how come no one filled the Advanced Directives for him?” They all know this is standard upon admission, but it wasn’t done. I’m feeling guilty that I didn’t take more time with getting it filled out myself. I contain myself knowing there is absolutely nothing that can be done. I visit with Pete but he’s sedated and asleep. I stand over him, agonizing that here he is, having done to him what he was not wanting. My fault? The hospitals fault? Divine intervention? I am feeling totally shitty.
That night I return and the nurse who heard him state his wishes the night before is on duty. I don’t wait for him to say anything. “What the hell happened? You heard him last night. I’m pissed.”
“I’m pissed too.” He’s pissed? He tells me, “I talked with Pete after you left and he told me the same thing again. I had a tech in with me so we had two witnesses. I paged the doctor a few times for him to come up and sign the order, but he was busy on another emergency and never came up to sign the order. I knew this was going to happen if it didn’t get signed.”
We spend time standing next to Pete, who is still in a drugged state. The nurse is remorseful, but it was beyond him. I spend an hour standing at the foot of Pete’s bed looking at him, sending him loving, energy, unable to rationalize what I didn’t do, what wasn’t done, trying to understand what is going on with Pete. Two days ago, in a tent in the woods, now this. Something out of harmony, but I’m not sure what it is.
The next morning I return and am told that Pete was awake when the doctor was in and when Pete was asked if he wanted to breathing tube removed he said “no.” The nurse told me she asked him a few times. He never changed his mind. It occurred to me that out of context, signing a living will not wanting heroic measures is one thing, but once some one is hooked up and they have to make the decision to end their life it’s another. I can’t stop asking myself about not being more attentive to the Advanced Directives. “What did I do?”
The hospital business for Pete went on for ten days. I had many talks with doctors, nurses, social workers. It was hard for me to deal with some of this, but being a veteran of hospital worker I wove myself through it all being as best an advocate as I could.
Pete came somewhat alert on his second day. I was able to joke with him a bit about his circumstance, “Pete if I showed you a picture of what you would look like today before we left the camp would you have come in? He gave me an expected hard shake of the head no.
For those two days the most I could do was visit with Pete while he slept. I mainly stood at the foot of his bed praying and trying to ease his discomfort. I did a Buddhist meditation, Tonglen, for those who are dying or in distress, taking in all the dark that might be surrounding him, like a cloud of black smoke into my own heart, sending back light for his comfort. This was easy for me since I daily do meditations on taking in light and sending it out to the world, sometimes into distressed places on the planet.
In the discussions I had with the doctors they advised taking out the breathing tube and putting a tracheotomy in his throat. I was able to have this discussion with the doctors while Pete was somewhat alert and explained it all to him, letting him know he would be more comfortable with the tube out of his throat and that the trach surgery was minimal, a small slit in this throat. He agrees. This was done the following day.
One doctor, his attending, the man in charge, gave me good advise, suggesting we do things step by step. The next was taking out the nasal gastric tube and putting in a feeding tube directly into his stomach.
By the fourth day Pete was completely restrained, from first his wrists, to now, arms, legs, shoulders with a posy chest restraint. This was all done because he was constantly pulling the ng tube out of his nose, irritating his throat even worse. No amount of pleading by myself or the nurses were able to stop his annoyance of the ng tube. Even mostly restrained, he managed to wiggle his body into a position to get out the tube, till finally he was totally restrained. My friend who lived in the woods, on his own, no constraints, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes now what do I see, how does he feel? I can only know my part.
I talked with him about the gastric feeding tube, explaining it all to him and he agreed. Since he now wanted to live I told him this would work and he wouldn’t have to remain in the hospital. I told him I could get him into a nursing home where I worked for three years as the Director of Social Services, and he could smoke and maybe even have a beer to two a day. I wasn’t sure, but I knew in the past this was allowed for alcoholics.
After the gastric tube was placed he was in a bit of pain for the next two days, but helped with morphine.
A day or so later, he was discharged from the medical intensive care unit to regular room. He was now feeling much better, more at ease, was able to talk a bit by putting his finger over the hole of the trach. What was annoying was the constant drip of mucous from the hole, slopping down his chest. He was reminded to wipe it, but always wiped his nose, thinking it
was coming out of there, but soon, sort of got the hang of things.
Seeing him stabilized, I began talks with the social worker at the hospital to get him discharged. I had met her previously through her husband who I knew for many years, going way back to when I worked in a mental health center working with his brother who was a favorite client of mine. I told the social worker that I already called hospice and they will take the referral when he is in the nursing home. She said she’d take care of the discharge to the nursing home I suggested.
Because his throat cancer was now the issue to deal with the doctors were suggesting radiation and chemo therapy. I knew this would weaken him more then he needed. One of the nurses even confided it would probably kill him. I thought this myself since he was so thin and debilitated it wouldn’t take much to take him over the line. I discussed it with him and he was adamant about not wanting either treatment, telling me he wasn’t going for it even before I brought it up. Rather then have him transported by ambulance, I drove him to the nursing home. I knew some of the staff which would help with his care and it was the closest to where most of his friends lived, including myself and Arupa, who along with another friend was visiting him in the hospital.
I had been visiting two times a day most of the time he was hospitalized. Odd how all this was playing out. He would have been dead if not for the mistake by hospital staff, and myself. So, again, God, the nature of things, worked out a plan for Pete to have more time on this earth. We’ll have to see.
When he was admitted to the nursing home, I went a bit ballistic in talking with staff that I knew, and others I didn’t, giving them information about his previous life style and the care I thought he needed. I annoyed the doctor while she was busy, trying to make sure she knew his situation. I called her a few times still she told me to stop calling her, but when she finally did see him she wrote orders for morphine as needed, beer if requested.
The next day I brought in a friend, Valarie, who does Rekei healing, which is basically an energy healing similar to laying on of hands, but with special training that teaches the practitioner to direct heavenly energy through her hands to the patient. She also brought in some fresh carrot and beet juice which he drank but it ran out of his trach tube. This red mixture poured down is chest, squirted out of his tube onto the floor. The staff panicked thinking he was bleeding from the throat, but we eased their concern. Valarie worked on his back when he complained of pain. He brushed her away as he threw a pillow on the ground, crawled to the floor as we watched questioning what he was doing. He simply wanted to be prone and more comfortable. Valarie continued to work on him while he rested on the ground.
Pete has stabilized more in the home. He is smoking to his heart’s content. He was getting beer, but with the morphine, he seemed to have lost the taste and wasn’t even smoking so much. The hospice social worker, who I knew for many years, assured me he is doing fine, but that he probably has cancer throughout his body and they will oversee the treatment from the nursing home staff.
Pete’s been in the nursing home for a couple of weeks now and is still smiling, still smoking a bit, but is getting thinner and weaker. His legs and arms look like twigs. I don’t ask if they’re weighing him since it doesn’t matter much. He tells me he’s drinking the Ensure, but I don’t ask since anyone it doesn’t make much difference either. He laughed when I remind him how he tricked us in he woods telling us he was drinking it, but was putting it in his storage tent. We eventually gave out all he saved to others, just as a supplement since most are undernourished, although most look well fed even being without homes.
I’m seeing him every other day, spend about half an hour sitting near his bed, sometimes on it since he doesn’t go outside when I show up. He isn’t going out much, satisfied with the bed, the morphine, which he requested when I was there today. I asked the nurse about it as she was passing out meds and soon, she gave him some drops and a tablespoon in a small paper cup. He’s never been a drug user, but is making the most of the morphine, admitting he doesn’t want the pain. I assure him it’s the right thing, “you had enough pain in this life.” He smiled nodding his head.
His trach tube is constantly dripping mucous that he wipes, coughs up, acts annoyed at it all, shakes his head angrily, acting the same way if his papers and cards won’t go in his wallet easily, or his drawer won’t open, or this or that. He gave me his ATM card two days ago to get money for him and some cigarettes. I bought a carton of the cheapest, leaving him with five packs and taking the others home till he might need them.
I don’t know why, but it’s not hard for me. Maybe only seeing him infrequently for short times isn’t weighing on me as much as when I worked there, helping others through this stage as I did regularly when the call was there to help the dying. Valarie brought her new dog by to see him and he smiled when I asked him about her doing that. Valarie thinks he only has a couple of weeks. Maybe so. Odd, I haven’t given it much thought how long he has, knowing though there isn’t much time left. Maybe I’m used to this, even though it’s sacred, I’m taking death in stride knowing how life is.
I had to ask him the other day what he wanted done when he died, “cremation or burial?”
“Cremation,” he gurgled.
“And your remains, should we spread them around your camp?”
“No! No memories.” He raised his hands in the air, giving the impression he just wanted to go up in smoke and that was fine.
“Should I just leave them with the mortuary?” He shrugged.
When I asked him about his thoughts on what’s next, he shrugged again, “when we go, were just gone.”
Because there are no relatives we can get in touch with, I already tried reaching his two sons, I told him he may have to sign something that cremation is what he wants since we just went through this with another man who died in the woods and County Social Services wouldn’t do a cremation without family consent. That man had a girlfriend who cared for him to the end, but it was a no go, and he was buried against his fervent desire. It was hard for his friend, but she finally accepted what couldn’t be altered. I called the social worker from Hospice who said she’d have a document made up for Pete to sign that’ll have places for witnesses. Hopefully that will satisfy the bureaucracy. It seems like in the past family would show up after the fact creating conflict about where their family member was buried.
The following day I saw Pete twice, once in the morning when I met with Liz, attorney from HomeVan, wife of the other HomeVan Attorney, and another woman who was a notary, to sign the request for cremation and the Durable Power of Attorney making me legally able to access his account. Tomorrow I’ll go to the bank and see what’s up there. In the evening I brought him some cheap wine he requested in the morning, MD 20 20. Mad Dog? I don’t know. He still had a barely sipped beer in his nightstand drawer. I stood praying by his bed this evening, hadn’t done that in a while, since he could be getting close, being down to probably 75 pounds. Amazing, living on life’s energy that is still coming through to him, enough, to keep him going. Maybe appropriately, Arupa has at times jokingly referred to him as a Sadhu, the word for renunicates in India. Who knows who any of us have been, as we work on trying to know who we are in this life? He’s always so appreciative of my stopping by and sitting on his bed, talking, bringing him what he requests, thanking me for coming by to see him. His time is getting closer.
I get a call late two nights later that he fell going to the bathroom. They don’t have to send him out to the hospital since he’s not hurt. They call again early the next morning to tell me he pulled out the trac tube. My friend, a saint of a nurse, tells me I should come in, which I do immediately. I spend the morning with him, watching him twist and turn, maneuvering his body into any position that might get him comfortable, but no position works.
“Pete, it’s getting close. Try and relax, get comfortable. It’s all going to be okay.”
At time he nods, sometimes not. “It’s going to be okay, here, have a sip of beer,” which he takes with a straw.” Barely any, no strength to even sip. We hold the can together, he takes out the straw and tries sipping, as it spills down his chest. I clean it up, as he pushes the beer away into my hands.
I get the nurse and ask here when he gets his morphine, which she brings him a few minutes later. It does little good as he continues looking for a comfortable position. All morning staff that found him a likable resident are coming in and out being with him, talking with me some remembering when I worked there, one resident coming in telling me a story she heard about me. I don’t want to feel flattered, since this is my life work, I have no choice when I’m helping like this.
I look for words that might work, “close your eyes Pete, get ready, when you go, go to the light. It’s all I know Pete, what I heard about the next plane. Go to the light.” He closes his eyes for a few seconds, opens them, it’s agony for him trying to get comfortable. “It’s close Pete.” He waves, like a good-bye. I know in that moment, it’s a wave I’ll never forget. I wonder if he also knows its getting that close. Nurses and aides come in and fix his sheets, adjust the back of the bed so he sitting up. I rearrange a pillow behind his back. Nothing is making much difference. There is no comfort before dying if one hasn’t prepared.
I go home eat, take a nap, read from the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” a section called Tonglen, about taking in the dark uncomfortable feelings of pain and sending him light. There are four stages, I try and go through them all as I visualize Pete, where he is, what he’s going through, what I know, what I don’t know. I’m gone for three hours. When I return, he has passed from here, his body is lying inert. I rub the top of his head as I’ve done with others, trying to help his spirit leave through the crown chakra. I pray for him that he is now comfortable, at peace, that he needn’t return looking for more beer and cigarettes, hopefully having had his fill in this lifetime.
I’m always in wonderment about how when we take on one thing as a good thing to do, we never know where it’s going to bring us, what effect it’s going to have on our life, or the life of another. The interbeingness of the Buddhist philosophy is incorporated into my life because I feel in me what they have to say, as I read what the Sufis have to say, what Judaism, my birth religion has to say about all this trying to make my path somehow in harmony with all paths, especially when a friend is at the end of this path going on to endless distances beyond our knowing.