Matted beard. I mean matted. He chews tobacco, and it drips into his beard and there it stays. He has not showered in weeks. He has not had water at his house for almost a full month. He is hard of hearing, so every conversation involves shouting. He has a mental illness, he is often nervous and is sure that the city government is in collusion with the water company.
The first time I met him I was running up and down the stairs to the food pantry, and when I came back into my office where he sat at my desk.
He is determined to get his water turned back on. He did not want to leave my desk chair because he was confused and scared.
Our volunteer was is an elderly woman and she was equally as nervous as him when she has to be around him. She was standing over him trying to get him out from behind my desk.
I tried to assure them both. It was equally frustrating and futile with both of them. Neither was being convinced to calm down. I knew quickly that the way the volunteer was standing over him was a bad idea. My fear was quickly confirmed as he let loose a stream of nervous urine in my chair.
This upset the volunteer so fully she threw up her hands and stormed out.
He looked at me with wide eyes, not acknowledging in any way what happened. But there it was in his eyes, he was waiting for me to respond.
I took a deep breath, fighting my own disgust. “Sir, I love that you are so comfortable in my office. And since you have planted yourself here, can I at least get your full name?”
“John” he responded.
“Well John, I have quite a line of people waiting to see me, how about a cup of coffee in our lunchroom?” I coaxed
“That would be perfect,” He agreed
I got him to sit in the lunchroom.
I got my chair cleaned.
I had to leave him to fill up food boxes for clients.
I watched as my supervisor sat and talked to him with so much patience and love.
He just wants his water on.
He just wants to be heard.
He has a story.
He was not always the unwashed, unkempt, hard of hearing man we see now. He used to be someone’s child, full of hope and promise and dreams. This is not, I am certain, where he saw himself.
I sat later and thought about my volunteer’s panic with him, how upset she was. I know it was a combination of his appearance and his smell. She was so intimidated by this man he has become. I understand. It is a challenge to me to find a way to always connect. But when I looked in his eyes that day I saw a fragility in his sky blue eyes. I saw a yearning to be heard. I saw his desperation, and I understood that. He just wants to be able to care for himself, and he has lost, for whatever reason, his ability to do that for himself.
I think when other people are confronted by his desperation it is scary for them. It reminds them that life is not always comfortable, pretty, or clean.
But he carries himself still with a nobility that goes beyond his circumstances.
He never takes more from us then what he needs. We offer him food from our pantry, free bread, and a meal. He takes exactly what he needs and nothing extra.
My supervisor and I have talked about how to get him help, how to help him get cleaned up, how to love him where he is.
There are no easy answers. But what I know is that we can give him dignity. The dignity that surpasses all his exterior appearances. Sometimes it does not feel like enough, and other times, especially with John, it feels like everything.