There she sits. All tipped back in my recliner with her eyes closed, fingers in her ears when the kids argue and fuss or the dog barks. She doesn’t know she’s the 99%. She barely knows what day it is.
Jane is a chronically homeless, mentally ill, 68 year old woman. She’s been sleeping in my recliner the past two weeks because I cannot help her in any other way besides offering her food and shelter. Her needs go much deeper than this. She’s a systemic issue that walks and mutters constantly under her breath.
How did a small, rural community in Wisconsin such as ours wind up with Jane on our streets? That’s a good question. We have no services for her to take advantage of, no means by which to assist her.
Jane is originally from around here. She still has a sister and local family in the area, with whom she is not on good terms. Years of trying to help have taken a toll on their relationship, and their attempts to involuntarily commit her years ago broke the tie that binds. Jane received 72 hours of observation, and then a bus ticket for the Twin Cities-the all popular “Greyhound Treatment Plan.” Send the problem somewhere else. Her family are the demons that haunt Jane day and night now, trying to capture her and kill her.
But Jane’s mother is still alive, living in our local nursing home. And for the last four years I’ve been a pastor in this town, Jane shows up every few months or so for a visit. She buys a bus ticket and stays in a hotel with her food money, then runs out of cash and visits us to get a ride to the nearest town with a bus stop. We usually buy her a bus ticket too, if she’s broke. She never made any further demands on this community. She’d sleep in the laundrymat, which the owners actually appreciated because her presence kept the vandalism down. Or she’d sleep outside on a bench, until the local police would tell her to move. Basically, she didn’t sleep much at all.
But her visits would get longer, and her reluctance to return to the Twin Cities became obvious. Nevertheless, she had no choice. Her services were managed over there and, since she had been determined incompetent to handle her own finances, she has a payee over there that refuses to mail her checks to her. She must pick them up in person. They are determined to get her into some sort of permanent housing. She is equally determined to never sign a lease or be prevented from leaving when the voices tell her to.
So, the struggle continued. Jane remained noncompliant and her payee continued to withhold her food money as a means to motivate her to do as they wanted. I suspected that, eventually, Jane would agree to stay somewhere.
I was wrong. Jane appeared on my porch two weeks ago. I wasn’t surprised to see her, but I was surprised at how terrible she looked. She is using a walker and claims that someone pushed her through a revolving door, messing up her leg. She is clearly injured and was on the verge of collapse after taking a bus over here and hitching a ride up to our town. I invited her in. She accepted the invitation. For the first time ever.
She is terrified to return to the Cities, convinced that there is a group of people determined to kill her. Even if I were to try to convince her otherwise (the rule of thumb is do not argue with a delusional person about their delusions-don’t affirm the delusions or address them at all ), there might be a distinct lack of authenticity in my voice. I figure people have been trying to kill her for years-not the way she thinks they are, but through neglect, frustration, and bureaucracy. Killing her slowly, but she will die nevertheless.
Jane is unable to plan any further out than about 24 hours. She is inconstant, never makes up her mind and cannot initiate any of the proceedings necessary to transfer her services and care over to Wisconsin. From my many conversations with her payee, they’d be delighted to get rid of her. And the local HHS is reluctant to get involved in any way. If she’s receiving services in Minnesota, whether she is actually there to use them or not, she may not receive services in Wisconsin. Double dipping is frowned upon.
I get that. I really do. Jane is extremely difficult to work with. She is unpredictable, can be very rude and nasty to people, won’t even engage much in conversation. She can also be polite, articulate on her good days, and always keeps herself very clean and as healthy as she can, considering her life on the streets. She is not demanding, but is very passive aggressive.
And she is not happy in my house. I have three kids, a grandchild, two cats a dog and a husband living there with me. We have folks coming and going most of the day. It’s a freaking CIRCUS around here. The stimulation makes her miserable.
She has no money. We offer to share with her everything we eat, and she usually accepts, but she has her own method of nutrition that she feels is the only really SAFE way to eat-so that others cannot hurt her. So she asks if we will drive her to the Twin Cities so that she can pick up her food check, and then drive her back to our town.
And my answer has to be, “No.” I cannot do that. And if I do, or find someone else to do it for her, it will have to be done every single week. She is welcome to stay with us, eat with us, wash her clothes, be our guest. But my role as her advocate needs to be well defined-boundaries have to be clear, And driving over weekly to the Cities cannot be a part of my role.
Unfortunately, I am not exactly doing a great job in any other advocacy role. Jane has been going back and forth for a long time, and has a history with all the social services in the area. The individuals would sincerely like to help her, but regulations tie their hands to a great extent, and it is certain that Jane will be no more compliant with them than she is with her current crop of social workers.
Rock and a hard place. Here we are. Jane is not an easy guest, but I never expected her to be. She scares my kids a little, but they know she won’t harm them. We never leave her alone in the house or alone with the kids, but my husband is currently out of work due to an injury, and has really taken to his role as a host. Can we go on like this all winter?
It snowed up here last night-just a little, but its there. Jane will probably leave soon, of her own accord. I don’t know where she’ll go or what she’ll do. Neither does she. But the voices she converses with everyday will tell her to leave eventually. And she’ll probably do it by breaking our boundaries, swearing at our kids, or tearing something up. That’s her pattern. She’ll leave, complaining that we never wanted her there and we’re probably trying to kill her.
We love her. We’ll welcome her back when she forgets all this happened and shows up on our porch again. I do not have it in me to tell a sick, hurt, elderly woman that she has to sleep on the streets. I cannot do that. I’m a sucker, ripe for exploitation, but I cannot do it. I can set boundaries for my family’s health and well being, but I cannot raise walls between us and a world of Janes.
Jane most certainly has emphysema/COPD. She likely has lung cancer as well. And there is a large, hard bulge in her belly that makes me wonder as well. She may wind up coming to us to die. So be it. She will die warm. We will see to it that she is offered medical care. We will do what we can.
What we can do isn’t enough. Not for Jane, not for the hundreds of thousands like her.
OWS has given me a great deal of hope that our national conversation is going to change. In this, they have already been successful, and I am so very grateful for that. But by the time the conversation reaches the Janes, it will be too late for her. It will be too late for too many.
How can I express this? It’s not an issue of employment or wealth distribution for them. It’s an inability to truly care for themselves, an issue of day to day survival, effective care, and freedom from judgment. There is a certain subset of the 99% who aren’t going to be helped by a redistribution of resources, unless there is a common will to see that they are, an intentional mindset that refuses to allow anyone to fall through the cracks, once we have the resources available to catch them. And I’m not convinced that is going to happen. I’m just not. They may be the 99% too, but they’ll still remain a problem to be passed around from one set of services to another.
But they aren’t numbers or percentages, anymore than any of the 99%. They are people, children of God, elderly and young, veterans and victims, with dignity and purpose for their existence. They are Jane. And it’s easier to pity them and wish you could help in the aggregate than to shelter and love an individual who will express no gratitude and will probably piss you off.
Damn it all, my living room probably isn’t big enough. My heart isn’t even big enough.
The aggregate is what moves politics. But individuals are where it all begins. As much as I can see the need for focusing on the aggregate, I find myself often leaving that sort of activism to others, being grateful for them, but too wrapped up in the individuals that come into my life to engage in these strategies for change with them. I go to protests and I go to encampments, and I vote and I hold lots of one on one talks with people about why I vote the way that do. But I’m going to make some soup for my family today, and put extra beef in it for Jane, because she needs building up. And I’m going to again, gently, broach the idea of her riding the bus back to the Twin Cities or going with me to the county courthouse to see what can be done. And that will likely be the extent of my activism today.
Maybe it won’t change a world, but it might touch a life. Some days, that’s all I can do. Be blessed in all that you do.