Day after day she sat on the sidewalk just south of my office, her belongings in a shopping cart beside her, her back resting against the chain link fence of the property next door. She had a cushion beneath her which at night became her pillow. I wondered how she ended up there what events had led to her not only being without a place to live but that had caused her to choose that small section of sidewalk to be her residence.
After a few weeks of wondering I decided to cast aside assumptions and aspersions and ask her. Returning to my office from lunch, I walked her way instead of into the office after exiting my car. I approached slowly, trying to appear non-threatening.
When I came up to her I noticed that she had a paper bag in front of her, nearly full with small bits of folded up paper, less than a centimeter square. She was busily tearing up larger pieces of paper, folding them over and over and placing them in her bag. From the amount in the bag I could tell she had passed many hours in this fashion.
She was slightly disheveled, but did not carry the odor that is often associated with those who live on the street. She was not filthy, and her hair was not oily or stringy. It seemed that there was someplace she went, at least occasionally, to clean herself up. I bent down next to her and said, as kindly as I could, “Hi, I am the doctor in the office right here. Can I ask you how you ended up here?”
Without making eye contact she said, “I’m sorry, I’ll leave.”
“I am not asking you leave,” I replied, “I am just asking how you ended up here.”
“I don’t know. I’ll leave,” her words were quiet and almost tremulous. She seemed to speed up her paper folding, obviously nervous.
“I am not asking you to leave,” I repeated, “Is there any place for you to go, anyone who can help you?”
“I don’t know,” her discomfort so strong it seemed a plea to leave her alone.
I paused for a moment, wondering what it was I could say to break through to her, before standing up and quietly walking away.
The next morning she was gone.
She was different from other homeless people I have encountered. There was a type of humility in her. She did not seem to feel entitled to help, or even to her piece of the sidewalk. She seemed overwhelmed by human interaction, unable to relate or converse. I wondered if she battled mental illness, or some other condition that had led her to the streets. The one thing of which I was certain was that she seemed to need help, and that society had not yet figured out a way to help her.