This week I came face-to-face with homelessness. Prior to this, my concerns for the poor were global, nonspecific, faceless. I gave money to the Hamakua Youth Foundation, donations to the Salvation Army, food to the local food pantry, and said prayers, all in exchange for the relief that comes from doing my duty. I’ve become more personal with my giving in the last year by volunteering weekly at the St. James Thrift Shop, another contribution to the welfare of my brothers and sisters in need. But today the homeless have a name. She is Ellen.
She came into the thrift shop with a note from the lady at the food pantry next door, where Ellen had received several cans of food. The gal’s note requested that we find a can opener for her. “Do you need a manual or electric?” I asked efficiently.
She looked confused. “I don’t have a place to stay, so manual. I need to open these cans of food…Might I also have a blanket?”
Her simple statements surprised me, as I hadn’t realized she was homeless. Now it was my turn to be confused. “I’ll look. What size?”
“Something small. I don’t have a bed.” While she rummaged for a can opener in our kitchen area, I hurried to the linens section to find a blanket. But the shelves were bare except for sheets and some fancy pillows. We’ve had some cold nights and people snapped up our quilts, leaving us waiting for the next batch of donations.
While she looked disappointed with my report of no blanket, she said nothing. I looked at her closely. She was about my age, or at least looked it based on the hard life she led. Yet a crooked smile came readily to her lips. Her clothes were clean and her hair tidy. She wore a short-sleeved tunic, pants, sandals and thin socks wet from rain. I mentally put myself in her place – wasn’t she cold wearing only that? “Would you like a pair of shoes?”
“Oh, yes please. That would be lovely.” I directed her to the shoe section, filled mostly with high heels and sandals.
“What size do you wear?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.” She spent a few minutes looking and then tried on a pair of deck shoes. “These are nice but too wide.” I suggested she pull the ties tighter. “Oh yes, I forgot about that. It’s been so long since I had shoes.” Every statement stunned me into imagining the life she leads. I knew she wasn’t playing me. She was too sweet, too simple.
I looked at her threadbare socks and brought her a bin full of them. She picked out only one pair so I gave her another. “Thank you! Now I can wash a pair out while I wear the others…Do you know where I can find a place to stay?” I had no idea, so I called over Father David who happened to be walking through the shop.
I left them to talk and searched through our sweaters and jackets for her. I located something to keep the rain off, a stylish nylon jogging suit and then a fleece sweatsuit. By the time Father David returned her to me, I also found a selection of pants for her to try on. Ellen seemed delighted by everything I offered. As she went into the dressing room she exclaimed, “These will keep me so warm!” The happier she became at these simple gestures and things, the more troubled I felt.
Father David pulled me aside and told me there was no shelter here, only in Hilo. I felt desperate to help her somehow, so I looked again for a blanket, this time in the back sorting room. The shelving for quilts and linens was bare. Then I spied it – a sleeping bag on the top shelf. When Ellen emerged from the dressing room with the things that fit, I brought her out to the back porch to look at it. Her eyes sparkled with delight, or maybe tears. “Oh, thank you so much. Feel how thick it is! It’s ever so much better than a blanket. This will keep me warm underneath and on top.”
Just then, someone dropped off a small suitcase with wheels. “Would you like this to carry your sleeping bag and clothes?”
“Yes, please!” She carefully placed her new things into the case. After retrieving her small bag of canned foods from the front counter, I walked her past the line of customers at the cash register and out the door. She smiled. “It’s okay that we didn’t find a can opener. I’ll start with the cans that have pop tops. That’s such a wonderful idea…I’m Ellen, what’s your name?”
“Oh, that was my sister’s name. She was always good to me too. Well, bye!”
She turned away to leave, but I impulsively reached for her and hugged her tight. “Be safe. Aloha, Ellen.”
About an hour later I broke down crying, hiding in the sorting room. I was chastising myself because I could have given her some money to buy a can opener, or more food, or bus fare. But I didn’t think of it at the time, and now she was gone. But also not gone: homeless has a name. Her name is Ellen. She is my sister in need.
Postscript: I found out later that Father David had given Ellen bus money and directions to the shelter in Hilo. Good luck my sister, and prayers for your safety.
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