My Turn: Addressing homelessness one to one

Earlier this month in my neighborhood, I noticed a child’s stroller laden with tarps and bulging plastic bags. A middle-aged woman sat in a low beach chair surrounded by the belongings of one who, by choice or necessity, lived the life of a scavenger. We all see such sights in Kona. I usually direct my thoughts elsewhere. This time, I could not.

I grabbed a bottle of water from my fridge and walked to where the woman camped. Seeing me approach, she stepped forward smiling and thrust a small box toward me.

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“Here,” she said, “take a chocolate!”

There appeared to be three pieces remaining in the box. Her extended hand, once naturally white, was now almost the color of the candy. The oozing sweetness packed into her mouth was giving her obvious joy.

I carefully declined the chocolate and offered her the water. She took it and exclaimed, “It’s COLD!” Obviously cold was a rare treat. She unscrewed the cap and held out the bottle.

“Here,” she insisted, “you take the first drink.”

I was stunned. I was the one trying to be kind in an embarrassingly small way, and she was outdoing me in generosity.

We talked together. We shared stories. We laughed. She quickly became a real person with a name (I’ll call her Doris). I began to visit Doris every day, brought her chicken soup, bread and peanut butter, a length of elastic so she could repair her pants, a pair of reading glasses so she could thread the needle to repair the pants.

Doris told me she came to Hawaii from California, “a long time ago, maybe 20 years. Maybe 12, I lost count.”

She said she was an artist. In the past, she made her way by selling her art on the streets of Maui. She spoke enthusiastically of her deceased mother who also was an artist and who taught her to sew her own clothes.

When I asked, Doris said that things went bad for her when she lost her ID. She had tried to get another, “but the system dropped me,” she said. For the first time, I saw her pain. I had hit a nerve. When I asked if I could help her try again, she shut down.

The next day, when I thought we had gained back rapport, I asked, “How is this working out for you, living on the streets and in the bushes?”

“Well, it’s fine,” she said. “The Lord looks after me. He keeps me safe.” In acknowledgement, smiling, she stretched her arms to the sky. She noticed some leaves above that reflected red from a traffic light. She exclaimed how beautiful they were. She told me that she can find beauty in everything.

I was amazed at her acceptance of her life. “What is your greatest need?” I asked. She turned quiet and wistful. “A home,” she said. “Just a little place. Something with a roof. I got so wet last night in the rain.” It wasn’t a complaint, just fact. In her animated fashion, she showed me two bed sheets she bought with money someone gave her. She planned to find a place in some trees where she could put them up to be “walls” and fasten a tarp above.

Doris quickly had became someone I couldn’t ignore. Rather, someone to actually enjoy and care about. I am wondering how I can get her cleaned up. (She says she stopped using shampoo years ago and doesn’t want any, thanks anyway.) She scratches her head and arms almost constantly.

Her attitude of gratitude has been noticed by others. She seems well-supplied with food. And stuff. She seems more appreciative of the attention I show her than the “stuff” I give. “Thank you for being nice to me,” she says repeatedly, jumping up and down like a small child at Christmas. “Thank you for caring. Thank you for not being afraid of me.”

Doris needs a new stroller. The tires of her current one burst. She’s tied them to the wheels with string. Years ago she walked from Kona to Captain Cook to buy it. “I can’t walk that far again,” she said. “My feet can’t take it no more. And anyway, I’ve been too busy.” She means it. I see that street survival is a full-time job.

Every day there is wide-spread hand-wringing among the comfortable as we helplessly deplore the huge challenges of homelessness. It seems that politically driven tactics and more regulations often exacerbate the problem. Since every homeless individual has a unique story about where something went wrong — a childhood of neglect, a lost job, an illness, an addiction — perhaps at least part of the answer is closer to home: reaching needs one to one. Those of us with a heart to help are also unique — with various skills, contacts, and resources.

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Of course, not all street people are likely to be as receptive as Doris. And at this point, I have little clue as to how much I can wisely help her. But if many, many of us who care start slowly, perhaps with a bottle of water and willingness to do what it takes to meet one person’s needs, we could make a difference. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. In other words, life presents vast opportunities to give, serve, shelter, and love.

Suzanne Field is a resident of Kailua-Kona.