I would see her walking down the street, using a red wheelchair as a walker . . . a pushcart filled with everything she owned. I would learn her name was Janice, and she’d been on the streets for a while. She was an elderly African American woman, who was full of herself. One day as I was trying to leave for a meeting, she stopped me and told me story after story about life on streets. I tried to tell her about resources to move her off the streets and she was supposed to come by to talk about how we could connect her with a homeless outreach worker, but of course, she never made it.
I saw her again tonight as a frozen corpse under the stairs of the Baptist church next to the church I serve. Yellow tape surrounded the area, with the crime scene investigators taking pictures and the police milling around waiting for the coroner to arrive.
I stepped out of my car and into the parking lot. The detective came up as asked if I knew her. “Not well,” I said, “but I had seen her around the streets.”
“Can you help me out?” he asked. He proceeded to tell me that he needed a place to store her wheelchair and belongings in case they were able to find next of kin and the family would like the belongings. “Do you have a place you can store them,” he asked. And I assured him I did.
So I waited in the cold, talking with my buddy Jim, watching the coroner do her examination, wrapping Janice in a body bag, and placing her in the van to go to the morgue. I was reminded of the other times when I’ve waited outside in the glare of the blue lights as a friend who once was alive was hauled out in a white bag and placed in the back of a van. The reasons were varied — a heart attack or an overdose — but the ending was the same . . . a group of strangers gathered speaking in hushed tones as they tried to discern what had happened.
Of course, we don’t really know what happened. She could have had a heart attack. Certainly, she was medically frail, with a leg in an air cast and a heart monitor sensor still attached to her skin. It’s possible hypothermia set in as she was wrapped under her blanket on a cold concrete slab under the stairs of the church. At this point no one really knows — and honestly, it doesn’t really matter for it’s the ultimate result of what happens when one of God’s children has no place to lay her head and lives on the streets for too long.
Could we have kept her from dying? I’d like to think so, but the issues of sustaining and caring for a person with multiple and complicated needs is difficult. At a basic level, she simply needed an affordable and accessible place to live, something that is in short supply in this supposed “It City.” But of course, it’s more complicated than that. People like Janice . . . or my friend Willie . . . or my buddy Wayne who stroked out this past year . . . have all sorts of issues — addiction, mental illness, self-sabotage — and the list goes on and on. What I have learned is that these friends need ongoing support and case management — services that involve dedicated people, which our city doesn’t want to pay for. Directing money into an affordable housing fund for new construction is important — but it’s not enough. We fail Janice and Willie and Wayne every day in our inability to provide the services they need to survive.
The police tape came down, and the detective called me over.
“Here are her things,” he said. And I got behind the wheelchair and started rolling up the street to our building.
As I walked, I thought about the number of miles that Janice had pushed that cart through the streets of Madison. I had told my friend Jim earlier that I’d probably last about 20 minutes living on the streets — and in pushing her chair up the hill I realized that my statement was probably truer than I’d like to admit.
As I continued walking my thoughts turned to a different place. I recently bought a new house, the house I’m sitting in as I write this, and it took a large moving van and two burly men to move my stuff from one place to another. I looked down and realized that I was moving Janice’s things — all of her earthly possessions when she died — in a wheelchair. And my heart broke just a little bit more.
As a person of faith, I believe that Janice is in a better place, filled with light and warmth and love. I don’t know her faith perspective, but I believe in a God that holds a special place in God’s heart for those whose (as Howard Thurman said) “backs are up against the wall.” I trust in a God that holds Janice in his/her arms.
I only wish that in her last days and hours she could have been held by a community that loved and cared for her as she journeyed to the land of milk and honey.
The wheelchair is put away, in storage, hoping that there is someone, somewhere, that loved Janice enough to claim their legacy.