The door for social services normally gets locked around three, and we in our exhaustion of having seen so many that day forgot to lock it. We were doing a debrief and sitting for the first time when Chelsea walked in.
She was an enigma to me from the start. She looked put together, nice outfit, hair done up in an old school chignon, but that all stopped when you got to her eyes. She was exhausted.
“I just got out of jail” she explained, “made some dumb decisions about drugs again.
Now I have no place to go. No one trusts me. My grandma had to bail me out of jail,” she exclaimed. Self-reproach loud in her tone. “My grandma! Can you believe that?
I don’t know where I am going to go.” Grandma is not an option for obvious reasons.
I explained to her that all the motels we had vouchers for were full for that night. We had a particularly busy day with people needing a safe, dry place to sleep. There are only two shelters in our city, and one is men’s only. The other is for families, single women, and children, and so the waiting list is long.
Having delivered the news of no shelter for that night, she sighed and then her story came, as they always do. She was in a methadone program and decided to use once more. She was “released” from the methadone program and in her anger, she decided to use even more. Which meant stealing from her boyfriend in order to get a fix.
I asked her how long she has been clean. Two weeks was the answer.
“Detoxing”? I asked.
“Just the runs”. she replies.
She assures me she is on the other side of the worst, and I trust her, she is the expert.
“The thing is”, she tells me, “I hate drugs, but I want to use. I want to use right now. And you know why? I don’t want to feel! I feel everything way too much. I keep using because I am too sensitive. I get hurt too easily. I feel everything and I want to just stop feeling.” I told her I get it, and I do.
I ask her about mental illness. “Bi-polar,” she tells me, “and off my meds for a long time. I hate those things,” she spits out after a long pause.
“Who brought you here”? I ask her. “My boyfriend. He still cares, he still wants me safe. He loves me, but I can’t stay with him. Because of me stealing from him, he could not pay his rent and was evicted. He is crashing on a friend’s floor. Jesus”, she says, shaking her head. She puts her head down. “Sleeping on a floor, a grown man, because of me. And he still loves me. Doesn’t trust me though. Why should he?”
I ask her about family she could stay with. “My sister is in NA, she is recovering from meth. Even got her teeth back. That shit is working for her. But she can’t have me there, I am not a sure bet yet, you know?”
She starts looking through our rack of free bread. “Can I really take anything?” She asks. “Sure can,” I say, “take as much as you want.”
“This is expensive shit! I love raisin bread. I am taking two if you don’t care.” I assure her we don’t.
Quietly, I hear her whisper, “I just want my mom.”
My heart is pierced through. Having lost my mom two years ago, I feel the weight of the longing in her words. “Sometimes,” I tell her, “we need them more than anything else.”
She looks at me with the harried look of a survivor, “ya well, mine is killing herself in California with meth. She’s been doing that her whole life. What I want does not exist.”
With those words, I feel for a moment, the futility of the help I can offer her. For a moment I feel the full weight of the outlook of her life. I can’t stay there, it is literally my job to assure her that there is hope, and that is my job even when I can’t quite see it yet.
As she fills up her bag with bread, I ask her if she will come back the next day to see me. I promise her that I will get her the places and times of NA meetings and that we can work on getting her into the shelter. I ask her to not use that night and she promises me she won’t. “I am done with that shit!” she spits out. And oh, how much I want to believe that is true.
She is with me on the drive home, as surely as if she was sitting there. She is with me as I try to sleep.
The resources are so few. Every day we see so many people like her, and it is literally like throwing bread to the seagulls on the beach. You throw out your crumbs and they swarm and then fly off, and there is nothing left for the ones that arrived a second too late. Chelsea was just so fragile, and I knew that she got put together to come in and see me, she did her hair and somehow got herself together and that act was her one courageous act of hope, and I sent her off with a bag of bread.
I think as long as I am here, I will pray she shows up again. I will pray she does not become another grim statistic. I have resources put together for her. I will be there with my crumbs of hope if she can make it back through my doors.
Karen Cassidy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.