Meet Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless
I met Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, in March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 lockdown began. My gym was closed, and so I started taking long walks for my physical, mental and emotional health.
I passed Gwen many times when I walked on Central Avenue before we started to have conversations. I posted them on my JDD Specialities Facebook page as part of my #20/20 series.
I’m continuing that conversation in this blog. The posts are in reverse chronological order.
Gwen: “I don’t want to be utterly useless.”
Dec. 28, 2020 — My friendship with Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, is probably the most unexpected thing to happen to me in 2020. And because it’s 2020, the new friendship is bittersweet.
Gwen is a decent person. I believe she has always been a decent person. Most people won’t see that to look at her. Harsh judgments greet people who are unsheltered.
It will take so much more than a roof and walls to improve Gwen’s circumstances. All of the things that she needs are hard to come by in Phoenix. Affordable housing is in short supply here. Permanent supportive housing, what Gwen needs at a minimum, is even rarer.
The Arizona Republic recently reported that more than 500 unsheltered people died on the streets during the first nine months of this year. (Excellent reporting and writing by Jessica Boehm. http://bit.ly/38IgXbw.) Just a handful of those deaths were COVID-19 related. The situation won’t change anytime soon — no political will, no money and way too little empathy.
Gwen has been among the chronically homeless for several years. I don’t know that she has ever been part of the annual point-in-time count of unsheltered people in Maricopa County. I’m just happy she has avoided the medical examiner’s statistics.
In 2020, Gwen established a routine along a central corridor near my neighborhood. She’s a sidewalk fixture most days. This time of the year she sits in sunny spots to keep warm. During a recent encounter with Gwen, hints of her decency flashed in her manners and speech. She was sitting on Central Avenue with her small wagon that has everything she owns in the world. Next to her was a pile of overstuffed bags that wasn’t hers. She was watching them for someone, another person among the walking wounded around the Valley.
Just consider that simple act: Someone trusted Gwen with everything that he had. (That’s such a huge deal in the homeless community.) She agreed to sit with a pile of stuff that could expose her to unwanted attention of those with habits of scrubbing her kind from city sidewalks.
“I don’t want to be utterly useless,” she said of her job for that part of the day. It was a lovely day, sunny and 70. Gwen was settled near an office building with a private park that is a bit of an urban oasis. The sounds behind her reminded her of a waterfall. “It’s tranquil,” she said, leaning back and relaxing her shoulders.
Then Gwen sat up straight and started searching her pants pocket. “Wait, I’ve got something,” she said.
She found her overstuffed card case and pulled out two cards. “You can use these as bookmarks,” she said with a grin. (I am doing just that.) I thanked her before saying goodbye.
“Hang loose,” she said, flashing the hang loose hand sign.
Gwen heeds her own advice.
Gwen: I appreciate that you associate with me.”
Dec. 25, 2020 — Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, was making her way up Central Avenue today when I ran into her. She pushed her wagon to the side and sat on a rail when she saw me coming.
“Merry Christmas,” Gwen said.
I asked her how she was doing. She said she was fine and remarked about all the people feeling charitable today, pointing to her wagon now piled high.
It’s a bunch of stuff you don’t need, right, I asked.
“Now, I didn’t say that,” Gwen said with a smile.
We had been talking for a minute (about her sons, about their father, about the stimulus check she hasn’t received, about the Social Security check she should now be eligible to receive, about the government being in cahoots with Kuwait) when I noticed that she was still out of breath. I asked her about that.
“The wagon is heavy,” she said in a way that suggested she didn’t think I was very bright.
I told her I was worried about her. She said she knew that. “I appreciate your friendship,” Gwen said. “I appreciate that you associate with me.”
I gave her something that is light in her pocket and wished her a Merry Christmas.
Gwen: “A man asked me if I’m homeless, I told him I’m between residences.”
Nov. 28, 2020 — Two days before Thanksgiving, Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, was sitting on Central Avenue, spooning into her mouth some Cheetos crumbled in a Ziploc bag.
“I’m having breakfast. These are my Cheerios,” she said with a chuckle.
Gwen’s smile was bright and she felt like talking – a lot. Especially about the importance of family and community. She was so happy to report that she talked to her sons on the phone the night before. Someone had allowed her to use his cellphone, she said.
I had doubts about her story, but what I thought didn’t really matter. Gwen believed what she said and what she thought she heard her sons say. It made the new day a pretty good one.
Gwen talked more than usual about life on the streets and how she survives it. An eviction was the start of life unsheltered. It’s not the whole story of course. It never is.
“A man asked me if I’m homeless,” Gwen said. “I told him I’m between residences.”
She said she once lived on Highland Avenue in a place where a rent increase to $500 a month was more than she could handle. That was many years ago.
Gwen said you learn how to survive on the streets. By her account, she survives on about $2 a day.
Gwen doesn’t stray far from central Phoenix. People are more tolerant here than other parts of the Valley. She said she spent a Christmas in Scottsdale once, and she couldn’t wait to get back to downtown Phoenix.
Gwen says she tries not to be a bother to people. She says she has learned to read people and their tolerance level for people like her. She knows when to move along.
But sometimes even in tolerant places where she tries to be careful, the police are called on her. She said she spent last Christmas in jail on a trespassing charge. She was arrested one night, she said, after she took shelter from rain in a parking garage.
“The police always say ‘they’ want me to move or leave or ‘they’ don’t want me around,” Gwen said. “Who is ‘they’? I would like to know. ‘They’ don’t talk to me.”
Gwen says she would like a chance to coexist with people before they call the cops on her. She believes in community. Everyone needs help at some point in his or her life. She knows that times are tough today. She says you can’t miss all the signs on people’s faces and the limited resources available for homeless people.
Gwen said a few days ago a man downtown offered her $20. She told him she didn’t need it, but she asked him to extend the offer on help to someone else. She said she urged him to be kind and helpful to others.
On more than one occasion this year, Gwen has introduced me to the regulars who walk Central Avenue, usually with their dogs. She’s good at remembering names. It’s probably a reason she seems to make friends so easily. I’m more likely to remember the dog’s name before I remember the owner’s name.
As she was regaling me with her thoughts and stories the other day, an articulated Valley Metro bus slowed as it approached us. The driver tooted the horn and waved at Gwen as he moved down Central. Gwen threw her arm up, waved and smiled.
Gwen is part of this community.
Gwen: “I’m like the Tin Man.”
Nov. 13, 2020 –– Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, was settled in front of the new office of my financial advisor late this morning. (There’s a dissertation to build upon that sentence. Or a novel.)
She was in good spirits, soaking in the sun that felt good on achy joints. “I’m like the Tin Man,” she said squirting her shoulders with an imaginary oil can to loosen them up.
There is now no room to spare in the heavy-duty collapsible wagon that someone gave her a few weeks ago. People apparently have been kind and well-meaning. On top of her stash was a Hormel party platter of cold cuts and crackers. She asked me if I needed a jacket because she had one to spare.
A young man walked by with a cup of ice water. He insisted that she take it even though she had politely declined.
Sometime after the first of the year my financial advisor will check in to see how I’m doing and to see if I want to make any changes to my financial goals. I’m well and I don’t. Not much on the goals front has changed during the last six years. Not much, God willing, is likely to change during the next six years.
Out on the sidewalk in front of his office, sat a 67-year-old woman who has no long-term plan – about anything. I suspect she never thought too far ahead even when she wasn’t among the growing population of chronically homeless people in Phoenix.
No place is a good place to not have money. Arizona is a particularly tough place to be poor. Hell, it’s becoming difficult for middle-income folks to stay afloat let alone get ahead.
Hopes and dreams don’t cost much, but you need money to plan and to execute that plan. An important part of my long-term plan is being managed in the office where Gwen, who likes to share her dreams, sat outside this morning not planning for much beyond this day.
Gwen: “I’ve got a Denali.”
Oct. 30, 2020 — “I’ve got a Denali,” says Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless.
Someone recently gifted to Gwen a heavy-duty, collapsible wagon. It’s a godsend. Now when she’s asked to move along or when she wants to get out of the way of the dust that the landscaping crews kick up with their leaf blowers, it’s much less of a chore. The wagon also gives her back a break. It’s sore.
When one of her sons comes for her, she says, he’ll load her stuff into his F150. She doesn’t know when that will be. She suspects her boys are busy tending to their father. “That’s why they haven’t come to check on me,” Gwen says.
I put my mask on before I reach Gwen this morning. She reaches into one of her bags and pulls out a clean disposable mask. We both tell each other that we don’t want to cause the other to get sick. “I don’t want to give you the coronavirus,” Gwen says.
Our conversation is so normal it’s insane given where each of us is in life. She asks me how I’m doing, and I tell her the election is on my mind. “Yeah, November third,” Gwen said. I tell her I’m nervous about how things are going to turn out. “Oh, I know,” Gwen says, in a way that made me believe she did know what was at stake. (If she didn’t know exactly, she cared enough to acknowledge my concern.)
I prepare to get back to my walk. “I love you, my friend,” Gwen says. “God bless you.”
This week, the Phoenix City Council approved a huge list of strategies to address the growing homeless crisis. It will be a miracle if anything substantive, innovative and constructive happens to help chronically homeless individuals like Gwen. It takes all of that and more to help people who are unsheltered.
A first step is to see them and recognize their humanity. Gwen is homeless and she has issues, but she is aware of what’s happening around her. She cares about others, enough to wear a mask during a pandemic. That’s something the president has struggled to do. She is kind. Again, something others who think of themselves as better than her have a hard time being.
She will stay homeless as policy makers argue strategies, politicians and business leaders protect turf, and a society that likes to think of itself as advanced looks down on her.
Gwen: “My boys don’t know about me.”
This morning she was walking slowly down the sidewalk with a plastic jug in her hand. I caught up to her when she stopped and bent over near a building. She was looking for water to fill her empty Arizona Tea container.
I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with Gwen and she didn’t mention her two sons. It’s usually about waiting to hear from them.
“My boys don’t know about me,” she said, almost in the same breath that she gave me a morning greeting. “They don’t know I’m an old woman. They still think I’m young,” she said, straightening her back and giving her shoulders a shake.
She smiled. She always smiles. But there is pain. She walks it and she talks it.
Gwen: “I would hug you, but I know I can’t.”
Sept. 23, 2020 — Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, survived another Phoenix summer without shelter. I saw her this morning for the first time since June. “
Ms. Jennifer,” she said, spreading her arms wide. “I would hug you, but I know I can’t. How are you?”
Gwen has been homeless for many years. Her survival skills are off the charts. Good genes, I guess. I had thought of Gwen often during one of the hottest summers on record. I hadn’t seen her, most likely because it’s been too hot to walk on a stretch of Central Avenue where shade is scarce.
I asked her where she had been. “Just around,” she said, pointing south toward downtown and north toward uptown. “I just kept rolling.”
That’s the thing to do when you’re homeless: you keep moving.
Today is off to a good start for Gwen. “I’ve got some money,” she said. “Somebody gave me a fistful of dollars, and so I decided to buy me some breakfast.”
IHOP benefitted from the generosity of others. I left her to finish her breakfast. My soul was nourished.
Gwen: “I know about duress.”
July 3, 2020 — I had a disjointed conversation about “duress and “forgiveness” yesterday morning with my neighbor Gwen, who is homeless.
Usually my most memorable encounters with Gwen are about what’s not said. This one stood out for word choices that revealed glimpses of her state of mind. It wasn’t clear.
The rhythm of my life took me away from walks on Central Avenue. It had been a couple of weeks since I saw Gwen. The rhythm of Gwen’s life was essentially unchanged.
Gwen was at her usual spot, sorting through some things that she hadn’t yet packed in a handcart that replaced the one that had a broken wheel the last time. The replacement handcart was half full of neatly folded, thin blankets. Her bedding, I assume.
“Ms. Jennifer, I’m so happy to see you,” Gwen said. “You’ve been on my heart. I hadn’t seen you like I’ve seen some of your other constituents around here. I thought you had suffered some kind of duress. … I know about duress.”
“Constituents,” what an interesting choice of words, as was “duress.” She’s a homeless, older, black woman. Duress is her constant companion.
The particular duress on her mind yesterday involved her ex-husband and what she believes was unequal distribution of assets when the marriage ended. That was a factor, she said, in her current station in life. She was shuffling through some papers as she talked quickly and somewhat incoherently about wanting to talk to her ex and about not wanting to be a burden to anyone.
She picked up one of two Bibles that were at her feet, an act that seemed to slow her thoughts and bring calm. “You know the Scriptures talk about forgiveness,” she said, flipping the pages from front to back with her thumb. “I’m trying to forgive.”
“Forgiveness,” another interesting word choice.
I have no doubt that a divorce caused her financial hardship. It does for a lot of women. An eviction in 2006 put her on the streets where I believe she has mostly lived since then. Family estrangement likely factors into why her homelessness is chronic.
But there’s also so much more. There has to be.
In early 2019, I interviewed several people, age 60+, who were homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless. Money was the issue, of course, but so was physical, mental and emotional health.
“If there’s nothing wrong and you’re a normal person, get out there and get a job,” one chronically homeless gentleman named Patrick told me. “I’ve been out here for six years. There’s something wrong with me.”
Patrick refused at that time to get an SMI evaluation needed to qualify for housing. Phoenix, like so many other cities, doesn’t have enough of the support that Patrick, Gwen and others need to live permanently under a roof. These neighbors are all under duress.
Gwen obviously had been spending some time thinking about where she’s at and how she got there. What a heavy lift such reflection must be. The anger and bitterness and profound sadness she must feel. She needs so much help to deal with it all, and that help is not readily available.
We all have seen how some people who are homeless act out their feelings. Gwen picks up her Bible and seeks the strength to forgive — her loved ones, society and maybe herself.
Gwen: “It’s hard to stay positive in a constant state of deficiency.”
June 10, 2020 — I saw Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, this morning for the first time in a few weeks. Here’s what went down in a 20-second encounter:
She was organizing her small pile of things when I approached her from behind. My “Hi, there” startled her. She’s not normally jumpy. I wondered what had been going on.
“Good morning, Jennifer. My it’s so good to see you.”
Her arms opened a bit in a motion that, if memory serves, is the typical first step of giving a hug. If that was her intention, she quickly thought better of it. I held myself in check, too.
“Look at you,” Gwen said. “You look great.”
Thank you, I said. How are things going?
“Oh, they’re going,” Gwen said. “It’s hard to stay positive in a constant state of deficiency.”
That comment reminded me of what I’ve been thinking since Gwen and I started talking a few months ago. She should be at the table of regional discussions on homelessness. She should be talking to leaders of nonprofits to help inform their efforts to help the most vulnerable among us.
“Look at my cart,” Gwen said, as if highlighting the state of her existence. One of the two wheels of her handcart was missing. “We’ve been banged up a bit.”
“Banged up a bit.” What did that mean? And could I stomach the answer?
Gwen: “You’ve got worry wrinkles this morning. Why is that?”
May 14, 2020 — I wear my thoughts on my face. Gwen, my neighbor who is homeless, reminded me of that the other day.
It’s Gwen’s habit in the morning to sit on the sidewalk facing east. She likes to watch the sun rise. “You’ve got worry wrinkles this morning,” Gwen said. “Why is that?”
I’m just deep in thought, I said.
How are you this morning? “I’m just enjoying the sun. You know how I do. … Whew. It’s not even nine o’clock and it’s already hot,” she said, looking at her watch. (It was 6:30.) “I won’t be here much longer.”
Well, I hope you have a good day. Try to stay cool, I said and immediately wondered how dumb and insensitive it was to say something like that to a homeless person.
“OK, you, too,” Gwen said. “And try not to have those worry wrinkles. They’ll give you a headache.”
I didn’t tell her that seeing her gave me another reason to worry.
Gwen: “Good morning. You have a blessed day!”
April, 24, 2020 — Gwen is my new neighbor. She’s homeless.
I met her about six weeks ago after my gym closed, and I started taking extra-long walks through and around my neighborhood for exercise. After several conversations a week, for durations often less than 30 seconds and rarely more than a minute, I know more about Gwen than I know about the neighbor who has lived on my block for more than 10 years. I forget his name.
Gwen made a terrific first impression. That’s difficult to do when you’re hard-core homeless. She’s polite and cordial, even though she’s dirty and sometimes smells. She’s neat and tidy, even though the bags with all her possessions are tattered and worn. She always leaves her spot as clean as she finds it.
There are signs that Gwen once lived a better life. When she flashes her megawatt smile, there’s proof of dental work. Her eyes are clear. She can carry on a conversation, which I suspect is one of her best survival skills.
She survives. That’s all.
The first time I passed her on Central Avenue and said, “Good morning,” her face lit up. “Good morning,” she said, as I kept walking. “You have a blessed day!” That’s how it went for a few days.
The second week, if she saw me coming, she’d smile and say, “There she is!” “
Good morning,” I said.“How are you?”
“I can’t complain,” she said. “God is good.”
One morning after a rainy night, I asked her how she was doing.
“I’m OK,” she said. “Just trying to dry out a little.”
I asked her if she had her coffee yet. She said no; she had given a couple of dollars to seniors who were homeless. “They don’t have nobody out here. I try to help out,” she said.
I believed her. I gave her $2. She expressed deep gratitude. I believed her again.
Gwen has never asked me for money. She is the polar opposite of the panhandler a half-mile north at a busy intersection who I heard the other morning yelling his pitch at commuters: “Do you have some change to help a veteran get a cheeseburger? No? Well, enjoy your freedom. Veterans DIED for your freedom!”
He had the distinctive voice of a mean drunk. I will never give him money.
By the third week, I found myself feeling a little anxious if a few days went by and I didn’t see Gwen at her usual spot under the palo brea tree. By then, the pandemic picture was coming into focus. I wondered how folks like her would fare. When I did see Gwen again, she was all smiles, as usual.
“Have you had coffee?” she asked. “I can buy you coffee today. I still have the $2 you gave me,” she said pulling the folded bills out of her wallet. “You have to make money stretch.”
On another day, she had a cup of coffee in hand. “Look, I got my coffee,” she said, holding it up like it was the Lombardi Trophy. “Another lady who walks by here like you do, she brought me coffee. Oh, it’s going to be a blessed day! You have a blessed day. What’s your name?”
When I told her, she said, “Oh, that’s the name of my son’s first love. Have a blessed day, Jennifer!”
That was the first mention of family, which queued up a bunch of other questions. Where is her family? Do relatives know how she lives? Could they make a difference? Does she want a different life? But the only question from me that day was, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Gwen,” she said so softly. It was almost like she was embarrassed to say it. A few days later, I was greeted with “There she is! Good morning, Jennifer.” “
Good morning. How are you today, Gwen?”
“Well, you know, some days are better than others.”
I honestly just don’t want to think about her bad days. But over the last few weeks, I’ve picked up some clues.
All this time, I’ve never seen her walk. Once I saw her sitting with her shoes off. Clean white socks, a stark contrast from the rest of her attire, covered feet that looked like small balloons.
I’ve only seen her once without her knit cap on. She has a short afro and several large bald spots. Alopecia, perhaps, or stress or a fungus.
During the last two weeks, here’s what Gwen has told me:
She has two sons who live back east near their father. (She said she and her husband are separated.) Her mother and a sister are in California. I’m not clear on how she landed in Arizona, but she says, “I got here and I just got stuck.”
She likes this part of town. She doesn’t like how she’s treated in the gentrified downtown or uptown where rich people live. She hints at unkindness. “I stay away from money,” she said with a laugh. (Another conversation revealed an arrest for trespassing.)
Gwen said she will hang out at her spot until the “aristocrats” force her to move along. I believe were it not for COVID-19 that has made traffic light on Central Avenue, kept office workers at home, and closed restaurants to dine-in service, she would have been asked to move a long time ago.
During our short conversations last week, I learned that her Social Security check is delivered to the box she rents at the downtown Post Office. She doesn’t like CASS or the tent city that’s growing up around it. She once had a cart for all of her stuff. It really isn’t much, but the bags she said are heavy and her shoulder and back hurt when she carries them.
This week, she told me: She is 66. Her sons are 40 and 45. Their names are Charles and Jason. She’s from Cleveland. She once worked in food service. All long-term homeless people have major issues that keep them on the streets. Some are obvious. Gwen’s are hard to spot.
Occasionally, before she sees me coming, I see her quietly talking to herself. On Monday when I saw Gwen, she was shuffling through some papers in a worn canvas tote. She called it a purse and said that it belonged to her grandmother. That seemed highly unlikely. It was the first time I largely doubted something that she said.
Some of the papers that she was looking through were take-out menus of restaurants. Gwen said she was thinking of applying for jobs at IHOP or Zoe’s Kitchen. I think only she can imagine that.
On Tuesday, I took my walk in the evening instead of the morning. I saw a different Gwen. She said she had been there all day. Clearly, it was not one of her better days. She was tired; her eyes were less bright. She made a weak effort at shooing all the flies attracted to her head and face.
Have you eaten today? I asked. “I have some charitable givings,” she said, touching a plastic bag beside her. “Poor people eat what poor people can eat. … I’ve been poor for some time.” She wasn’t complaining. Just stating some facts.
The first 100-degree temperatures of the year are in the forecast. I’m fairly certain that if I see Gwen at her Central Avenue spot this summer, she’ll be wearing the same winter attire that she has worn for the last six weeks.
I’ll worry about my neighbor if I see her out in the heat. I’ll worry if I don’t.