by Arupa Freeman, Home Van
Since the nation’s economy went south, the Home Van is serving an increasingly broad demographic of people.
In the early years we were a mission to chronically homeless people. That first winter we were out delivering blankets one night, and one of our friends told us that there was a group of people living in a house in Pistol Alley who had no utilities, no food and no blankets. Pistol Alley runs behind North Main Street Publix, so we headed over there.
The scene we found was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before or since. Some twenty to thirty people were milling around in front of a small house and in the backyard, where someone had built a bonfire. These people were so intoxicated that they were staggering in blind circles, some babbling and some screaming. Their eyes were entirely blank—no one home behind those eyes—their souls in hiding.
It is the first and only time in the course of doing this work that I have felt scared. We did talk to a couple of people who hadn’t quite reached that point, a man named Bill, and Margaret, a woman with two black eyes and a cut on her forehead. We left the food and blankets and took off. I decided that we could help these folks, but we would never go there again except during the morning hours.
One Sunday morning Rod and I went over to check on this group, and Bill came out of the house. He asked us if we would drain some antifreeze from the van and give it to him because he really needed a drink, which of course we did not do. There are people who think alcoholism isn’t really a disease, but some kind of choice or lack of character. They’re wrong.
Over the years since I would see Bill occasionally, usually panhandling in the Publix parking lot. He was a quiet, gentle person, and he had more friends than I knew. The women who tend the north Main Street cat colony counted him as a friend, and it was one of them who let me know that Bill had died.
The next weekend we went down to the small Tent City on the north end of Main Street to have a little service for Bill. I brought some food to give the folks down there in memory of Bill. We were joined by one of his friends, a man who used to work construction until the recession hit.
We shared the good memories we had of Bill, and our gratitude that his troubles were finally over. Then his friend said a prayer of blessing, for Bill, for the homeless people, and for all people. This prayer came from such a deep place within him that I felt the presence of God there in that little gathering to remember Bill.
Margaret we came to know much better, because she moved to South Camp and became partners with our beloved friend Jerry, a Vietnam vet and Native American who was a leader in the homeless community of the time. Jerry loved to cook. He dumpster-dived behind supermarkets, bringing home soup vegetables and frozen meat that was close to the expiration date. He’d make big pots of food and invite everyone to eat.
He also treasured his Native American heritage. He taught other homeless people how to survive in the woods, and when Jerry left this world, several of his friends said they owed their very survival to the help he gave them.
Jerry had severe PTSD, and the drinking problem that often goes with that, but it was not at the level of Pistol Alley. Margaret had moved up in the world, and gotten onto a path that would eventually lead to her deliverance from homelessness. Margaret loved Jerry and when Jerry became terminally ill, she wanted to be his caregiver and to be able to visit him at the hospital, so she struggled heroically to get control of her drinking.
The Christian Bible says, “With love all things are possible, and there is nothing that is not possible.” That verse comes to mind sometimes, because I can think of more than one person whose path out of homelessness opened up because there was another being—a human or an animal—that they truly loved and were determined to care for. Maybe that’s what that verse means, in practice. I would suspect that it is.
Margaret’s struggle had its victories and its failures, but overall she succeeded in doing right by Jerry during his time of leaving this world.
It was of course a very different story after Jerry died. She was in danger of losing the little section 8 apartment that she and Jerry had shared, and drinking didn’t help.
Joe and Liz took on the endless task of keeping Margaret in housing and getting her into new housing after she was evicted from the old housing. Joe, in particular, is a kind of Clarence Darrow of getting difficult people into housing and keeping them there.
One time Margaret was evicted from Bailey Village because she would get drunk and run around the courtyard hugging people. It was always something.
Eventually, though, Margaret stabilized. It is almost impossible for people with severe problems to become stabilized while they are homeless. Having a home very often leads to a good outcome.
Margaret now has a nice little apartment off Tower Road. Before drink took over her life, she had been a fabric artist, and she went back to this pursuit. The walls of her apartment, which she keeps immaculately clean, are covered with tapestries and dream catchers. She has a few cats.
She still experiences bumps in the road, and is high maintenance, but consider the trip she has made—from Pistol Alley to this warm, little home.
Pistol Alley was a scene from Dante’s Inferno. I feel privileged to have seen it and to know these stories of deliverance. At one time, when I was particularly steeped in “literachoor,” I hypothesized to myself that all of life is like a Tarot layout, and all stories go back to Dante and to the Greeks.
I don’t have all that sorted out like I did when I was younger and knew so much more, but I still think there’s some truth to it.
MYLARS, TENTS AND TARPS
Mylars, tents and tarps are the items we need the most. We also need bottled water, Vienna sausages, creamy peanut butter, jelly, candles, white tube socks, batteries and games. Call 352-372-4825 to arrange for drop off
Financial donations to the Home Van should be in the form of checks made out to Citizens for Social Justice, Inc., earmarked for the Home Van, and mailed to 307 SE 6th St., Gainesville, FL 32601 or can be made online at http://homevan. glogspot.com.
This is a winter like no other, because so many people are living outside. May it be the last one.