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All The Needs

My living room and ungrateful cat. The amazon boxes are Maxi-pads. 

 

I’m supposed to be taking the day off, because it’s Saturday, and I haven’t had a day off in 2 full weeks. So far I’ve managed to thwart 3 attempts for me to do center work on my day off, 2 of which would have involved more donations in my living room (my living room is full of donations that are carted to the center daily in the back of my tiny car). The third would have involved me driving to pick up food in Rolesville. All of these things would have required time, gas, energy, and me gulping down yet another on the fly nutrition bar and running out the door instead of having brunch with my husband, like I promised him.

I haven’t eaten a meal with my husband in over a week. I haven’t cooked a meal in my home in longer than that. My job is an endless, 24-7 thing that, without extremely defined boundaries, I could literally do nothing but it, constantly. I could even do it in place of sleep and there would still be plenty to do. By 2 pm, Friday, I was an exhausted lump in my office, talking to the pastor. He was advising me to take very defined time to myself because, “there aren’t many jobs where people expect you to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then shame you if you don’t, but this is one of them. People will do that to you, if you let them in this business.” He’s not wrong. I already feel this way.

When I walked outside and realized that I was going to have to take one of our folks to the ER, I could have dropped to my knees and sobbed. You don’t simply drop someone off at the ER, especially not one of our very emotionally damaged people (and this one is), you have to make sure that you stay with them, at least a bit, and then I also realized that they are going to see this person and literally make them leave afterwards. He was going to be leaving in crutches and had been sleeping in the woods. He had: crutches, two heavy bags, 1 broken pair of glasses and couldn’t see. The hospital was going to discharge this person, who had no money and no home, out into the world, injured, with no way to get anywhere with their primary mobility (walking) gone.

Again, I could have fallen to my knees and sobbed. I knew I was in for what could quite possibly be an all-nighter for me that could end up with me dropping a hobbling man off at some woods somewhere while he cried in my car, and talked about how no one cares for him. This moment is one of the reasons that I would be very hesitant to hire someone to work for us who was in their early twenties, because if I was younger, I would have had a hobbling, homeless man sleeping on my couch to care for all weekend. While there are some of you out there who would say “OF COURSE YOU SHOULD DO THAT”!!! Let me tell you why, very explicitly, as a social-worker, you don’t do that:

1.) Now that person knows where you live and what everything in your house looks like.
2.) That person has friends who they will bring to your house. You WILL, not maybe, but WILL end up with people, probably a group, knocking on your door at 3 am and asking to sleep on your floor.
3.) Now you have a regular group of people who sleep on your floor and bring other friends over. One of the friends isn’t a “real friend”, two days later, your house gets robbed while you’re at work.
4.) If you have a husband, extended family, children, etc., now they are familiar with the ever growing group of people coming to sleep on your floor and use your shower. People regularly ask you for money and rides. People are waiting outside your house as soon as you leave to go to work and want a ride to the center. People are waiting at your house after you get off of work, wondering if you’re making dinner. Your dog no longer barks and random people on your property. You get robbed again, this time while walking your dog. Someone you told “no” to at work is angry at you, so they peed in your closet and broke all of your dishes.

See how quickly that spun out of control? Can you imagine how overwhelmed with pure need you would be every day? Can you imagine never, ever getting a rest from constantly hearing the absolutely most heart-breaking stories 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no safe haven? How do you think that would work on say, your marriage? How about your friendships? How about your sanity?

That’s why I could have fallen to my knees and cried- I was exhausted, on a Friday, with no end of my day in sight. No dinner with my husband. No hanging out with friends. No shower. Just unbridled, desperate need. I was able to find a place that would take our friend last night, but he’ll have to tell them that he has a drug or alcohol problem, even if he doesn’t, in order to stay longer. I got lucky. How many more times am I going to have to make an impossible decision?

If you ever hang out in our office, at some point in time, one of us or our volunteers will rush in, shut the door, and sigh the biggest, deepest, saddest sounding thing that you’ve ever heard. It happens several times a day. We usually just respond with “All the needs?” Yep, “all the needs”.

Someone is walking down the hall repeating “Hold on, hold on just one sec”, hands loaded with stuff, with another person trailing them, talking a mile a minute. We look at each other. “All the needs today?”

There are often moments, where I have no less than 5 people making immediate demands of me all at the same time. “Hold on guys, let’s do this one at a time.” I start pointing at the person to the right and go down. The guy at the end gets mad and says “Fuck that, you’re racist.” I stop. “Do you want to tell me how I’m racist again for asking 5 people in order what they need and then getting it for them FOR FREE?” Sometimes I get an apology later. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ll be on the way to get the last person’s thing, and another person will ask me for something and the phone will ring. Five minutes later I’m standing there, finished phone call, some needed thing in hand. A person taps me on the shoulder. With the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen, in the saddest voice you’ve ever heard, they say “You forgot about me. You forgot about me, again.”

This is my day, on a repeated loop. I walk into the office. I sigh. Blu pops around the corner, “All the needs?” Yup. All the needs.

To read Blu’s latest blog about Community, click here.  If you’d like to donate to help with the needs, click here.  

Broth

 

Sunday, Hugh did his “Hughscast”, which is a Facebook Live stream that he does on Sunday nights, while I’m at work at Flex Nightclub, so I never get to see it until the next day. I go straight home from work, get all 4 hours of sleep that I can, go back to work at Love Wins, work with him all day, and I’ve not seen what he talked about on the “Hughscast” the night before.

He started this past Sunday’s with something I said when he told me that there was some restaurant in New York that serves nothing but broth. I think I said something like “Great, we missed our calling, making free food out of shit you’d put in the trash”, and it’s true, I save ziplock bags of bones, vegetable ends and herb stems in my freezer. I own a freezer full of trash that I later make into food. I consider owning broth, or at least it’s components, a sort of rite of passage into self-sufficient adulthood.

Sometimes, out of a terrible experience, comes something beautiful. It feels rare and it’s only seen in retrospect. I moved across the country for a boyfriend that didn’t work out. At the time, I thought I had ruined my life. I no longer had my job in television, and couldn’t get it back. I was stuck working places that my heart just wasn’t in. I had a boyfriend who was the most difficult person I’d ever dated. I cried in my car. I dreaded him coming home from work because I never knew what I was going to get; was he going to flip out? Was he going to be depressed? Was he angry? It was stressful.

In retrospect, though, my life improved and became amazing. Had I not moved back to North Carolina, it would have been a different path. I would have never met all of the amazing people I know, I’d have never met my husband, worked with CMF, bought my house or found my calling at Love Wins. I’m sure it would have been a good life of some kind, but it wouldn’t be this life.

When I came to the center in April, the big debacle had just happened. The old staff had quit, a bunch of our donors were skeptical of what was going on, it looked like the end of the world. The center had been closed for a week, and the situation was just garbage. The taxes got paid and the 501(c)3 was attained. We were broke, and things were scary, but our staff is the most devoted crew that anyone could imagine. We, together, did things that I would ask of no one. Working ceaselessly for no pay, because there was none to be had. Relying on prayers and social media to solve problems. We were developing the broth.

When your choices for employees are the 150 resumes you got off of your posted craigslist ad, chances are they aren’t always that devoted; they might be good people, but they aren’t “true believers” in the sense that our staff is. Looking back, it seemed like maybe there were too many degrees in that office. Too many non-profit folks who were probably looking for something “better”. Love Wins isn’t a non-profit that “helps the homeless” in a traditional sense. We don’t sit behind desks and hand out identical toiletries. We don’t have an extensive file on everyone who walks through the door. We don’t ask people lots of personal questions and invade their privacy. We’re just different. We’re a spicy broth.

Looking back, we now realize that what the old staff did might have actually been the best thing for Love Wins- it gave our organization the chance to change and grow in a totally different way. Our staff are, what we call, “the people who showed up”. We showed up with no expectation of a paycheck, no preconceived notions, nothing motivating us except the desire to help others, and the determination to see Love Wins remain and succeed. I know that we’ll have to continue to manage the damage that the previous staff caused to both our bank account as well as our reputation, but we’re all new people. We’re an entirely different group, running this organization the best way we know how with complete transparency. We made a spicy broth, we made soup, and then we shared it with everyone. We made it all with things that other people threw away.

What Could You Say?

Two days ago we all got some wonderful news, one of our community members, who I consider a friend, had finally had her baby. It was a beautiful baby boy named Colt Gauge, born of a good weight (over 7 lbs.), with a perfect little nose, beautiful lips, and adorable, chubby little baby legs. We were happy for her and her husband. She had been an “at risk” pregnancy, and had been taking medication (in the form of painful shots), to keep her from dilating early. Her delivery was an emergency c-section, but all seemed well and she was resting and able to post pictures for us to see.

Yesterday, we got some terrible news. As quickly as he came into this world, Colt passed away, almost exactly 24 hours after he was born. Why? We don’t know yet, and I’ve texted her, but I haven’t called her yet, because honestly, aside from “I’m so sorry”, followed by sobbing, I don’t know what else I can say to her. I’m speechless. I’ve got nothing. She moved out of state to live with family, so I can’t even give her a hug.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to grow a being inside of you for 9 months, give birth, and then only have that tiny life for 1 day. It overwhelms me with grief. I think of every moment of her pregnancy, her at every stage. Us holding baby things for her in the office. How excited she was when someone donated a pack n’ play for Colt. How she loaded up everything into their car so that she could be closer to UNC, just in case there were any complications. I remember that tearful, 8 am phone call when she and her husband were on the way to Florida to stay with family, so that they would have a home to bring the baby to.

I had easily imagined holding him when they came back to visit. Playing Auntie. Carrying him around the center in one of those slings while everyone got to visit with each other. Seeing his picture, which looked exactly like his little ultrasound photo, only gave more reality to what I had imagined. I had imagined her getting that job that was waiting for her after she got healed up, and them making a permanent home.

Life isn’t fair. It just isn’t. It isn’t fair to experience loss after loss like this. It isn’t fair that she has lost so much, struggled so hard, and only lost more. It isn’t fair that a person can have a full-term pregnancy, while being homeless, only to have the baby die AFTER it’s born, in the hospital at that. She said that “He went to be with Jesus”, and that tears me up, because I don’t know if that’s even a thing I would say to comfort her. I can’t say “He’s in a better place”, he hadn’t even lived yet. It feels empty and condescending. All I can say is “I love you, and I’m so, so sorry. Colt was loved, and he won’t be forgotten”.

Choices and Second Chances

“I met a man today who had never met his father because he had been in prison his whole life, he died there. His mother also died in prison of breast cancer while he, himself was serving time in prison. He was born into a gang. He’s known no other life. He was tatted head to foot in gang tattoos. He’d been out of prison for 5 days. He’s never used a cellphone or the internet. He’s never seen facebook.

I sat with this man while he told me about the challenges of having not seen the outside world- not knowing how to act. Having no ID, people already offering him drugs, knowing that if he’s in hiding, his gang can find and kill him. Feeling the emotions of having been someone respected in prison, to coming out into a world where he was a “nobody”. Wondering if he can navigate this world, or if he’ll end up back in prison, and if that might not be better.

Prison: a place that people emerge from, unprepared for the modern world.”

I wrote this on my facebook page on Tuesday. The memory of my interaction with this man haunted me all night, to a point that I was having difficulty holding a conversation with my husband. One doesn’t end up serving 26 years in federal prison without a reason; I mean, there are probably some that do, but this guy wasn’t one of them. He freely admitted what he did and owned the time he served for it. For some reason, even though his story is anonymous, I don’t feel at liberty to share it; some things are better left unsaid.

Although I knew exactly who he was, as he was telling it to me, I was unafraid. Fear isn’t really something we can afford in this business, and there was something in him that shone; I could tell that he was at a crossroad. In these short days, his life could go either way. I sat with him and we talked for over an hour. He was trying to get to Wilmington because the only person he knew in the world was there, and he would have a place to stay. If he remained on the streets in Raleigh, given these circumstances, he would certainly go to jail, or worse, prison again. Any way I looked at it, it was nearly unavoidable.

He had no ID, more than one felony, and people are ineligible for any type of aid when they first come out of prison (I know this because I’ve dealt with that before). His choices would be, at this point, panhandling, which he had too much respect for himself to do, and selling drugs or worse. I decided that getting him a ticket to a place where he at least has some chance of being successful was the best course of action. He was gracious. He never asks people for help. He doesn’t really know how. I wish him well, and I hope with all of my heart, that he lays low, finds something to truly care about, and finds happiness. He’s done his time, he deserves a chance.

Giving Away Privilege

I grappled, standing in the morning sun on the day I was to get my tattoo, with the last shreds of fear- I was purposefully giving away a piece of my camouflage.  This camouflage had allowed me to navigate charity Galas, high-end department stores, IEP meetings for my niece and speaking engagements.  It cloaked me in middle-class invisibility when breezing through the racks of Brooks Brother’s in Austin, TX, unfettered and virtually unnoticed; not a second glance given to me as I took a handful of dresses straight into the dressing room sans attendant.

I realized that in a few short hours, long gone would be the days that I could simply walk into a jewelry store and try on anything I wanted without so much as a glance.  I’d no longer be able to talk to elementary school students without first explaining “What is that on your hands”, and I knew for certain that there would come some point in time where someone was going to treat me poorly, maybe even publicly, for the societal stain that I was going to purposefully wear for the rest of my life.

Then again, that was the point.

“You’re old enough to get a job-killer”, my friend, Sandra reassured me over a cocktail in our favorite watering hole.  That’s what these types of tattoos are called; job-killers.  Job-killers refer to a specific subset of tattoos; ones that not only can’t be hidden, but are so highly visible that most employers won’t even take a resume or application from someone owning a job-killer.  Hands, neck and face tattoos all qualify in the “job-killer” category.  These are the tattoos that your artist will have a special talk with you about before you get them, if they’re an ethical artist.

I’m 39 years old this year, and throughout my adult life, I’ve realized that I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve always had amazing jobs.  The best jobs I’ve ever had have all been in places where I could have had a spider tatted on my nose and it wouldn’t have made a difference (except that I would have had a pretty interesting nickname, I’m sure), but I’ve been lucky.  I was born cognitively intact, white, attractive enough for all normal purposes, average height and weight; I started my life camouflaged in “normalcy”, where my differences were considered to be “artistic” or “quirky”.  I was allowed the privilege of being seen as “interesting”, which is an asset to finding amazing jobs.

In the community of people experiencing homelessness, several observations can be noticed.  There are typically more people of color than white people.  There is an abundance of “job-killing” tattoos.  In addition to tats being visibly placed, many express pain.  R.I.P (Rest in Peace) tattoos with people’s names are often found as neck tattoos.  Four-lettered words fit nicely on fingers.  Expressions of hatred of the police (“Fuck 12” or “Fuck the Police”), gang symbols, face teardrops and marijuana leaves are often displayed openly, making interaction with police officers even more difficult than they have to be.

Tattoos are expressions of periods of time.  People who experience extreme difficulties (prison, abuse, frustration with society) often express themselves through body artwork- these days we all do.  Great lengths are taken by friends of mine to create the most perfect tattoo for themselves; thought, artist research (both in the drawing of the design and in the skill of the tattoo artist), placement and of course, if the design is compatible with their careers.  In a society where spending time in prison is rewarded with a lifetime of homelessness and an inability to be hired anywhere, career tattoo placement isn’t really a consideration, survival is.

In a few short hours, I would have something worthy of being stared at in the grocery line.  A commitment that would make little old ladies shake their heads and roll their eyes.  A brand that would reward me with the ability to be followed closely through that high-end department store, eyes focused on everything I touched.  I’ll have something that no amount of middle-class mediocracy can cover up.

I can choose to dress it up, though.  I can choose to talk about it, to present it with careful words.  I can begin a conversation with it.  Our community members can’t change being black, having been born with mental illness, having served time, past associations or many of their circumstances.  I’d still have plenty of privilege, even if I gave some of it away.  I’ve decided to give it to them.