Thanksgiving Day (for me) tends to be unconventional. While my loved ones gather together for a day of turkey, football games, and movies, I - as many of you know by now - hit the streets with bags full of toiletries, socks, fresh fruit, protein snacks and piping hot home made food to share.
After all of my preparations had been completed (cooking, assembling individual goodie bags, packing up socks and toiletries), I threw on a light jacket and headed to my starting point: Jackson & Dearborn. I was startled by how many homeless people I saw this year. In the past, holidays tended to be a bit on the quiet side but this time, everywhere I turned, I saw people hunkering down in corners, leaning up against walls, trying to catch a little sleep before they'd be told to move along.
As I first begin walking, I'm a little nervous. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I worry that the people I approach will think I'm being condescending. Or that they'll be offended that I assume they're homeless (even if they are exactly that). But somewhere between my first and fiftieth step off the bus, I suck it up and start approaching people. My introductory speech is always the same: "Hi there. I won't give you money but I have some other things you might be able to use. Are you hungry? I've got food. Are you okay for socks? I've got a few pair if you need 'em. My name's Kelley. What's yours?" And then we talk.
Today, I met Dorcey, who just got out of the military. His family has moved and he doesn't know where they are. He's buddied up with James. They sleep in the park and take turns keeping watch for each other so that no one will mug them or steal their few belongings before they wake up. Dorcey's practically a kid - he was pretty quiet until I served him some casserole and got him talking. James, the older of the two, was a bit more guarded, constantly scanning the streets as I chatted, but he did gratefully accept one of my care packages and he was especially excited to see a razor and shaving cream in the bag. After I explained a little about Neighboring The Neighborless, they agreed to let me take their picture. We chatted a bit more and then I moved on.
Walking, walking, walking. The streets are filled with families chattering happily, college kids dodging into Old Navy to see the pre-Black Friday deals... a festive feeling is clearly in the air.
And then, as I round a corner, I run into Carlene and her daughter, three year old, Renesha. I first met Carlene a year ago. She had just lost her home and she was in tears. She hadn't eaten in days. A year later and not a lot has changed. There's a homeless shelter she and Renesha go to whenever they can. They do find food. But that's about the extent of it. This year, Carlene seems tougher and yet, beneath that exterior, I still see the warmth in her smile. I offer her food, which she politely declines, but she says yes, Renesha may have a little bag of chocolate covered pretzels. When I ask her if there's anything I can bring her the next time I'm out, the request is simple: underwear. "That's it? That's all you want?" She tells me I have no idea what a blessing clean underwear would be to her. I make a note and walk on.
A couple of blocks farther and I see one of my old favorites, Carmen. I first introduced you all to Carmen when I wrote about her in March 2011. She's had a rough life. You wouldn't think she's even approachable. But I know better and I haven't seen her in a year so I run up and give her a hug. She gives me an update on her progress: she's graduated from the methadone program and she's completely clean (this is very big news and I'm thrilled). She's had some medical problems, though. Ulcers. And she's a little worried. Thankfully, the food I brought is fairly easy on the tummy and she gratefully accepts a plate. We chat while she eats. Between bites she exclaims, "Kelley! This is GOOD! Girl, when I get an apartment, you have got to give me this recipe!" As I gladly give her a second helping, a young, well dressed black man sneers as he walks by. "You're not homeless." My jaw drops and Carmen calmly responds in a soft voice, "Yeah, you're right. I'm just out here putting on this act for fun." Before we part ways, I ask Carmen what I can bring the next time I see her. Underwear. Please, please, please, clean underwear.
And so my afternoon went. I walked around the loop doling out food, socks and toiletries. I met Maurice who's trying desperately to find work but has a criminal record. I met James who didn't want to talk but smiled widely as he accepted clean socks and a warm plate of casserole. Janet is new to the streets and in shock. She didn't want to talk and she didn't want anyone knowing she was doing anything more than just hanging out like everyone else celebrating the holiday. When I asked her if I could bring her anything, she shook her head quickly and whispered, "thanks, though," before looking away. I didn't see one of my favorite, long-time regulars, Ken. He's elderly and in poor health. I can't help worrying and hoping that nothing bad has happened. He's on my radar for the next time I go out.
Before I headed for home, I found an elderly man named Robert shaking his cup, begging for money. I walked up and introduced myself. "Hey, how you doing? My name's Kelley and I won't give you money but I've made some casserole. It's hot and it's fresh. Would you like some?" He said, "I need $2.00 for a cup of coffee." My response: "Nope, I won't give you cash. I've got some really good food, home made by me though, if you want it." He accepted and, as I piled food onto his plate, he bellowed, "ooooooh-WEE! Girl, is you from the south? Cause this here looks like proper suthu'n food if you ask me!" Laughing, I told him to dig in and enjoy and he did exactly that. Very enthusiastically. Robert declared loudly to anyone who would listen, "This! Here! Is pah-ropper suthu'n food, people! Pah-ROPPER!" After he ate, he shook my hand and demanded to know why I'm not married. Ai ai ai. I just laughed and told him to have a wonderful evening. As I ran to catch my bus, he shouted, "I already did! I met you! Thank yoooouuuu, Pink Bag Lady! Happy Thanksgiving to you, Miss!"
You know, there's a saying. "You've never really lived until you've done something for someone who can never repay you."
Indeed. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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