As I was walking through Westboro on Sunday, someone stopped me and said “Can you help me out? It’s awful being homeless.”
It was a woman with a cart, holding out a box lined with a clean paper towel. As I reached into my pocket for some change, she said “Even $20 would help, I’m trying to get enough for a motel room but they’re $90 a night.”
I thought that was kind of nervy, asking for $20. I put $2 in her box. She didn’t say thank you.
On my way back home I saw her again, but now she was sitting on a bench, writing in a notebook. I walked past her, then stopped, turned around and looked at her again.
She was dressed in rags, but she was clean and well groomed.
I looked at her cart – everything was neatly wrapped in plastic, and there was a fly swatter, a pair of clean garden gloves, and a can of Lysol sitting on top.
“I just want to read your sign,” I said, gesturing at the plastic-wrapped cardboard sign attached to her cart. It said something about transmitters and perverts.
“Sure,” she said, “But there’s a big unexploded bomb that could go off at any time.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Inside me,” she said, “They put it in during minor surgery; my ex paid them to do it. It’s not easy living with it, knowing it could go off at any time.”
Her fingernails were clean and painted mauve.
“Transmitters too,” she said, “They put transmitters in. They can see through my eyes, and hear through my ears. They intercept my thoughts.”
“How long have you been living with these things inside you?” I asked.
“At least ten years,” she said.
“It must be hard.”
“It’s not easy being homeless,” she said, “especially for a woman. It’s not bad for men, they own the world. They can go to the bathroom anywhere they want.”
“Where do you sleep?” I asked.
“When I can, I sleep in a motel, but that’s not very often. It’s nice just to have a place to get organized and do my laundry and read the newspaper and have a little break for a night. But that’s just once in awhile. The rest of the time, I stay outdoors. I don’t really sleep. I have a chair, I just sit in there at night.”
Her chair is folded neatly in the cart, next to the laundry detergent, both neatly wrapped in plastic.
“Maybe you could stay in a shelter,” I suggested.
“No, it’s not safe,” she said, “They have cameras in all the bathrooms. I always turn the lights off when I go into a bathroom. I have to wash under my clothes. They’re all disgusting perverts in there.”
“What about a women-only shelter?”
“Lots of women are perverts too,” she said.
Her brown hair is clean and combed and lightly streaked with grey.
“If you could get a place, would it be here in Westboro?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m almost always here. I had a room once, in a lady’s house. I paid her money for it, but she’d go into my room and steal things.”
“Could you get another room?” I asked.
“No, they all steal things,” she said, “They all have cameras. It’s not safe.”
“What did you do before all this happened?” I asked.
“I worked. I had lots of different jobs. I wasn’t lazy either, I worked hard, because I never wanted to be homeless. I was afraid I’d end up homeless. And look what happened. I ended up homeless anyway.”
“How long have you been homeless?” I asked.
“What about in the winter?”
“Same thing. I just wear lots of layers.”
Her legs are bare and she is wrapped in layers of rags.
“What’s the Lysol for?” I asked.
“I have a lot of allergies,” she said, “and there are a lot of germs out here. I go through about a bottle of Lysol every day.”
“That’s a lot of Lysol,” I said.
It must be awfully hard keeping herself and her possessions so clean and tidy without a home or a bathroom.
“The politicians, they’re no help, all they care about is the immigrants and trying to teach them to be human. Niggers aren’t people, you know, they’re minotaurs. Jesus Christ Almighty told me so himself.”
“What are minotaurs?”
“Half human, half goat, I think,” she said, “They’re the worst.”
A couple passes with a baby in a stroller.
“They put the transmitters in babies too,” she said, “And parents aren’t always what they appear. Lots of them are cannibals.”
There’s a flash of anger, then a sigh of resignation and a long pause.
“Do you think you can help me?” she asks sadly.
“What kind of help do you think you need?”
“Financial. And I need a person of science. To remove the things inside me, or at least deactivate them.”
“Maybe a doctor could help you,” I suggested.
“Most of them are in on it,” she said, “Sometimes they put me in the hospital. I entertain the doctors for a little while, then they let me go. They’re all in on it, they make a fortune exploiting me. I know all about their pharmaceutical pedagogy. The doctor said he wanted to help me, but he was really a vampire. Jesus Christ Almighty told me so Himself.”
“How do you know who to trust?”
“I can’t trust anybody. How could I?”
“Yes, I trust God. But I don’t always trust my own interpretation of Him. I worked hard to have a good relationship with God, but they interfere with our intimacy. They intercept our communications and try to twist them. So sometimes God has to speak in ways I have to figure out, so they won’t know what He’s saying to me.”
“It sounds complicated,” I said, “but at least you’ve got God on your side.”
“Yes,” she sighed. It was a troubled sigh.
“What would you do if you were me?” she asked.
I pondered this question for quite awhile, and then answered “I don’t know.”
I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were her. When you see everything through a lens of paranoia, you can’t trust anybody enough to let them help you. I’ve had bad dreams in which I couldn’t trust anybody. It wasn’t fun. At least I got to wake up; I think she’s locked into this nightmare all the time.
I wanted to take a picture of her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even ask her her name, for fear of frightening her. And I wanted to help her, but how do you help someone like that? How can anyone help her? I suspect her life would be difficult no matter what her circumstances, but I can’t imagine a more challenging set of circumstances than being both paranoid AND homeless.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s just not right that a woman this vulnerable is living on the streets of our city.
UPDATE: AUGUST 30, 2007: In a strange twist of coincidence, I got an email today announcing the release of a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. The report is called Improving the Health of Canadians: Mental Health and Homelessness. I’ve only had a chance to scan it so far, but I’ll read it this weekend and post the highlights.