Love is spoken here
Updated: Feb 15
I went to dinner recently and I had to walk two blocks to get to the restaurant. It was really cold and pouring down rain and I forgot to bring a jacket so I was feeling pretty miserable. As I ducked under an awning for a quick reprieve, I saw a pile of cardboard in the corner and a leg sticking out from under it, with a shoe, but no sock. I noticed a few pieces of extra cardboard nearby, so I moved them over his foot to add a little more warmth, knowing it would not be enough, but hoping it would help. I heard a mumbled “thank you” and I headed back out into the rain.
The cardboard was his blanket AND his home and this disturbed me on a level that had far surpassed him just being homeless. All I could think about was what if he was sick, or worse, dying and no one would know. When most people see someone lying under a pile of cardboard they usually look the other way. Because he responded to my extra cardboard, I knew that he was alive, but at no time did I ask him if he was okay or if he needed anything else.
This reminded me of a time when I was in my early 20’s, we had a homeless man in town that everyone knew. He lived under the bridge, he never changed his clothes and his shoes were held together with duct tape. One year I collected donations from my friends and bought him some new shoes. When I brought them to him he was offended, insulted and angry. I didn’t understand his reaction. I broke into tears immediately and started to walk away. He stopped me and proceeded to tell me that he has some money, enough to buy shoes if needed, and that while he appreciated my kindness, he said he was homeless by choice and he lived with very little, by choice. He reminded me that we don’t know what someone else might be going through, we don’t know why they live the way they do and that in the future, if I wanted to do something kind for someone, to ask them first. He told me that the truth was, he would have rather been asked to have a cup of coffee. So I took him to coffee that day and I had the most wonderful conversation with him. We didn’t become best friends but when we saw each other we always said hello. I have never forgotten the lessons he taught me.
The people I sit at the bedside with are in their homes, or a facility, with a warm bed, good food and a team of people that work together to ensure a death that is without struggle or distress; but people who are on the street, whether by choice or not, do not have the luxury of a death like that. Dying is hard enough, but dying from being in the freezing cold, or starving, or suffering from an illness or severe pain you don’t have medications for, seems inhumane to me.
I have these conversations all the time with my friend Lorna, also a hospice nurse. We have heard that a local hospital has a program where nurses provide care on the street, some on foot, some on a bike and in some cities there is a medical van. We want a medical van, we want to be bike nurses… most of all though, we want to find a way to bring comfort and care to all who are dying, not just the ones who can afford it. I can guarantee you that Lorna and I would both volunteer if someone out there can help get this started.
I realize I can’t solve all the world's problems, but I can do something in my own city, close to home. So I went to a few thrift stores and a Goodwill and I bought one hundred dollars worth of blankets, comforters and socks. I drove around my city and I stopped twenty-three times. I offered a blanket or socks and all were taken. Twenty-three people are a little warmer today, and twenty-three people feel a little less alone. I didn't assume anything, I didn't hand over items assuming they needed them. I asked if they would like a blanket or a pair of socks. Thankfully no one was terribly ill, and I know this because I asked that as well. One person was sick; he had a cold. I had a thermos of hot tea in my car and I offered it to him. I sat on the curb with him while he drank his tea and I asked him what he would do if he got sicker, if his cold turned into pneumonia or worse. He said, “I guess I will die here on the curb”. This broke my heart, not so much because it was a sad thing for him to have to say, but because we both knew it was true.
I had a conversation with two others, asking the question; "what would you do if you were really sick, where would you go"? Both said they would go to the emergency room, not for the medical care, but for a warm bed for the night; knowing the next day they would be back on the street. Their concern wasn’t dying from an illness; it was of dying from the cold. One of them told me that usually, when someone on the street is really sick, they try to help keep them warm and bring them food if they can, but by that point they are too sick to even be able to get to a hospital. Not always, but sometimes, they form their own community and they do provide support to one another and they do make friends, so they are not always “alone”. I asked them what they would do if a medical van approached them, would they accept the help, they both said, “yes”. I asked them if they have ever seen someone die while living on the streets, they both told me there were too many to count.
I want to find a way to bring medical care to our homeless, whether it is by van or bike or even on foot. There has to be a way that in each city, we create a program that allows nurses and doctors to bring medical care to the sick in a way that can actually work. I obviously do not know the logistics of how this could be done, and it may never come to fruition, but I do know that no one should die alone, in the cold, without an option for medical care and/or medications that might be able to relieve them of their pain or suffering.
Medical care in general, is a struggle for many of us. I have insurance and I am so thankful for that, but some days even paying for the co-pay breaks my bank. But at least I have an option.
I ask you to please gather up some blankets and socks and maybe even a few thermos’s of hot tea and deliver them personally to someone you might see lying on the ground, covered by cardboard and freezing cold. I am not asking you to bring them home with you… I am asking you to bring a few comforts of home to them.
The sign in this picture was hung above a sidewalk where a few people were finding shelter from the cold and rain; under a tarp, wooden pallets and cardboard. Love is spoken here.