“You’ll want this,” Elvin said as he pulled a pack of gum from his pocket and handed me a piece. I took it from him, unwrapped it and popped it into my mouth. A familiar sickly sweet minty taste flooded my senses.
“The smell can be overwhelming,” Elvin explained. “Mint gum helps block it a little bit, but you’re going to want to breath through your mouth and stand downwind as much as possible.”
It was my first day at a new job. I was a therapist on a homeless street outreach team. Our task was to find and connect with severely mentally people who lived on the streets. The team leader wanted to test my mettle, so he told the nurse Elvin to bringing me to meet Rose.
Elvin took one last drink from his water bottle, then opened his car door to step out. He waited for me to follow. It was hot on the street that day, somewhere near 95 degrees. My back began to sweat immediately as I walked with Elvin toward the street corner where an enclosed bus stop stood.
The odor hit me like a brick from fifty yards away. It was like nothing I’d ever smelled before, old sewage mixed with rot. Instinctively I sucked air through my mouth and covered my nose with my shirt. As we got closer, I could see piles of trash that looked as if they had been meticulously organized. There were mostly candy and chip wrappers, as well as bags of fast food and half empty soda bottles.
“Wait here,” Elvin stopped me about ten yards away. I was expecting this. The team leader told me that Rose was very suspicious, especially around men. Too many strangers made her nervous. Elvin was one of the people with whom she seemed to be developing trust. The plan was that he would introduce me to her, if she was willing.
The minutes passed slowly as I became conscious of breathing in and out of my mouth. Just one slip, and the pungent aroma would momentarily overcame everything to the point of nausea and confusion.
Eventually Elvin stuck his head out of the partition and waved me over with a grin. One thing about Elvin, he was very enthusiastic about his work. As I walked toward them, I saw through the tinted glass the silhouette of a large woman slumped over, half laying on the ground.
How to describe Rose in most respectful way possible? Maybe it would be best to start with her personality. She was very sweet and soft spoken. If you were willing to take the time to sit down and talk to her, she would regale you with amazing stories about the comings and goings of West Hollywood the place she had chosen as her home. She could be feisty, and wasn’t afraid to tell you when she felt like you were out of line. She called herself a street person and balked at the word “homeless”. In her mind, she was making a choice to live on the streets. She had lived on or near this corner for nearly thirty years and had no intention of leaving. But she was also extremely ill.
According to the team doctor, Rose was suffering from chronic and acute diabetes. She was grossly overweight with extreme high blood pressure, adding to the stress on her body. Her legs were swollen red with gaping sores weeping with infection. The fact that she spent days, weeks, even months at a time laying on hard concrete without moving literally sitting in her own filth exacerbated her condition. She was crawling with maggots, gnats, lice, and scabies. Undoubtedly she suffered from anemia and any number of other ailments associated with poor nutrition. Her life on the streets would surely be a death sentence.
When I finally met her, I was taken aback. The skin on her face and arms was a grey muddy brown presumably from many years of not washing. Her upper body was covered with similarly colored tattered and torn layers of old clothing. Her lower body was wrapped only in a blanket allowing her festering wounds to be exposed. Most remarkable of all was the long tangled braid of hair that trailed behind her, a four foot dreadlock as big around as my arm and hard like a board. She reached a hand toward me in greeting, to which Elvin responded by blocking the way trying to protect me from possible illness.
“It’s okay,” I said, and took her hand and held it for a few long moments. Her nails were long and gnarled, blackened by dirt. There were gold rings on every hand, more than one on some, and she had several large gold bracelets on her wrist. The story was that she had a large trust fund, but for whatever reason she had decided to live on the streets.
“You think you know me,” she said to me in a serious tone as she withdrew her hand. “But you don’t really know me.”
“No I don’t,” I agreed. “But I’d like to get to know you.”
“Why?” It was a good question. Why did I want to help her?
It was the first question the team leader asked at my interview: “Why do you want to work with the homeless?”
I told her the truth: “I have been marginalized in a thousand ways for being different because of crossed eye. And it’s given me a deep understanding of what it was to be judged by your appearance. The worse possible thing you could be in our society is homeless. No one is looked down upon more than the homeless, and that is why I would like to do whatever I can to help them.”
“Because you seem lonely,” I answered Rose’s question.
She invited me sit down with her, and we had a long talk about nothing in particular. By the end, she was smiling and laughing. She was disappointed when Elvin said it was time to go. And she asked me when I was coming back.