Saturday, June 10, 2006

Bread & Roses 2004

(Taken from a journal entry in the early spring? of 2004.)

It took me a half-hour to get out of bed this morning. This is a chronic problem – I have always been a grump in the morning – but only recently has it become what seems to me to be an unfair luxury. After sitting up and rubbing my eyes for five minutes, I picked up random articles of clothing from the floor, put them on, and walked downstairs. I peaked around the corner and found that T-- was still asleep on the living room couch.

T-- was recently released from a psychiatric hospital. She had lived with us twice before, leaving once for a stay in jail and a second time into an apartment of her own. T-- is mentally ill, an alcoholic, and suffers from emotional trauma so severe I would not have thought it possible until I met her. T-- is also funny, and a good cook. And when she is sober and trying to socialize, you can acquire a deep sense of both her discomfort and her real need to be accepted. It shows in her shifty feet, hunched shoulders, and the question like tone of her statements. Sometimes she will say something quite serious, quite important, and then laugh a little, sheepishly, as though her thoughts must seem absurd to anyone else.

I heard a hysterical bout of cackling coming from the kitchen, and found R-- dancing around the stove, elbows bent and hands flopping, as he cooed at some ridiculous concoction in a frying pan.

R-- is mentally ill, too. Schizophrenic, in fact, but his posture is totally different from T--’s. R-- is not particularly a drinker, but he has a kind of drunken lurch akin to a blend of “Seinfeld’s” Kramer and Captain Jack Sparrow of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. R-- has an affable, childish nature that endears him to everyone, and he knows it.

Once R-- was sitting on the back porch, smoking cigarettes with Meta (a fellow worker), when he confided in her that he had joined a new political party.

“What party is that?” Meta asked.

“Oh, it’s non-partisan.”

Meta grinned and said, “That sounds like an oxymoron, R--.”

“Don’t give me that college bullshit!” he replied.

A couple months after I joined the Bread & Roses Catholic Worker community, I was asked to build eighteen bunk beds for the men’s shelter. R-- was staying at the shelter at the time, and I invited him to help. I found R-- to be a far better carpenter than I (which isn’t saying much, to be honest). I was particularly impressed, however, with his patience for my fumbling, and his willingness to share his skills with me. R-- was companionable, and liked good music, and we got along well as we worked.

We invited him to live in the Hospitality House a short while later.

As I walked to the fridge, I smiled and said “good morning” to R--, and to E--, a homeless veteran living in the basement.

After digging around the fridge in search of a decent vegetarian breakfast, I gave up, poured myself a cup of coffee, and stepped out to the back porch for a cigarette.

Meta was sitting at the porch table sharing a dirty joke with Sharon.

“Anybody know who the lady is who’s sleeping on the dining room floor?” I asked. Sharon replied that a woman had come in late last night, and that she would be moving into the women’s guesthouse shelter this afternoon.

A--, a kind, simple, rather quiet man, walked by us and into the kitchen, saying “good morning” as he passed. A-- lived with his parents until he was about 45 years old, and became homeless after they died. At first he needed a staff person to help him get from place to place on the buses, and later was aided by others on the streets. He stayed at the men’s shelter for a couple years until we invited him into the House of Hospitality.

Altogether, the Hospitality House has five bedrooms, plus two dorms that we built into the basement, and a large room above the garage. On average, there were eleven people living in the house. We have, at times, had people sleeping on the living room couch, the living room floor, the dining room floor, my bedroom floor (three men, in fact), and Selena’s bedroom floor, all at once. The house has been so thick with people that we practically had to climb over one another just to reach the refrigerator in the morning. In addition to this, there are typically twelve women living in the four bedroom duplex next door that serves as our women’s guesthouse shelter. And forty-four men packed into bunks at the men’s shelter, so tight that a Navy admiral would be impressed.

We had to fight the temptation that came at times to believe that Bread & Roses is responsible for all of the 700 people who are homeless in the Olympia area. I spoke once with Celeste, the coordinator of the women’s guesthouse shelter at the time. She had done a beautiful job of helping the guests to get along better with one another, and was well on her way to creating a powerful, supportive community at the shelter. But she felt tremendous pressure to help each guest to find a permanent home, and to offer shelter to more women who were stuck on the streets. She kept apologizing to me for “failing”. I smiled and suggested that she take on the burden of every homeless person in Thurston County. “Oh, and while you’re at it, there are 17,000 more in Orange County, California, with only 400 shelter beds. In fact, on any given night, there are a million people without homes in America. Why don’t you try and help them all? You can take on India tomorrow.”

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