I don’t often get a personal story to reflect the reality of living in America. Everything seems so abstract, as happening out there, but this story sort of erupted into our lives on the second to last day of 2019.
First, some background: for the last 17 years, my wife worked at Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, and I work at the community college, so we are both on the front-lines of what the lack of an adequate social safety net looks like. Most of the time, however, we can leave that behind at the end of the day.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been on holiday and living In the very comfortable confines of my sister’s house in the mountains above Fort Collins. But upon returning to Albuquerque, the problem of homelessness came in to a new stark relief.
Setting the context: Our house is on the corner of a residential street and a busy thoroughfare with the entrance being on the residential street. The first time I noticed Hank he was shuffling north to south then back again on the median of our street as it neared the busy intersection. He was older, about five-eight, had a short ragged mess of gray hair, and a strong gravelly voice.
The next time it was because my dog bounded out of our front door and barked at him at the front gate.
Our stoop is shielded from the street by a juniper bush and a small crop of bamboo. On the stoop, one can stash belongings on the terrace behnd the bamboo and it isn’t visible from the street. Hank had taken to putting a small grocery bag with clothes and couple of books on the terrace and, when he wasn’t shuffling on the median, sat there and read.
With our dog erupting at the gate, he stood up, apologized and started to walk away.
“It’s okay,” I said. “She’s just super territorial. You can stay there if you want.”
For the next week or so, I’d see him every other day, sometimes on the median, sometimes resting on our stoop reading. He’d get up when we left the house or shuffle off as we came home. He never entered the yard, nor talked to us very much.
My wife learned that his name was Hank and after checking in that he was okay asked if he knew about the various services around town.
I don’t exactly remember, but I think at one point my wife offered some gloves or something so, while the dog was erupting in the house, he came into the yard.
The sort of invisible barrier that kept him out of our yard and, mostly, on the periphery of our lives had been broken. But, for the most part, I was wrong.
With winter approaching, we didn’t see him on our stoop much. He wasn’t escaping the heat, and the next time I remember seeing him he was sitting next to the smoke shop behind us on the thoroughfare. He huddled next to the entrance and looked really cold.
We had just gotten off the bus and we’re heading home. Once home, we grabbed an old pair of gloves and a really nice jacket that we’d gotten but was too big for my wife and too small for me. We went back to him and offered him both. He took the gloves but refused the jacket. He said his pea-coat was keeping him warm.
I didn’t notice him being around when we got back from our holiday travels.
We live in a pretty busy neighborhood so it’s not uncommon for our dog to bark at people talking too loud as they walk by or people arguing in the empty parking lot across the thoroughfare. Most of the time, I just come out and see what’s up and she’ll settle down. Sometimes I put on a long video of white noise to hide the background noise and we can sleep through the night.
Last night, however, was neither of those. As I looked out, I noticed Hank was actually banging on our screen door. I opened the door trying to keep the dog away from it but not really understanding what he was saying over the barking. Finally I said, “Hold on.”
In the bedroom I said, “It’s our friend.”
My wife got up and got dressed. I got dressed and we came back out to the living room. She opened the door as I held the dog, which seemed to calm the dog down.
“If I could just sleep on your floor?” He asked.
They talked some more and she explained that even though it was really cold there was no way he could stay here. We both understood that and I, admittedly, was thankful our dog was so inhospitable.
I said, “I know it’s a slippery-slope but we can’t be his go-to guy.”
Finally, she got him to let us take him to the emergency room.
Outside, he mentioned he’d lost his gloves. His hands were wrecked. Torn band-aids, chapped dry skin, and his fingers barely moved. It took both of us to get him to stand up and we shuffled out to the car. He was barely able to stand, let alone walk.
In the car, he complained about making sure the heat was on and where was it blowing from. Once it got going he held his hands in front of the vent. My wife and Hank disembarked at the emergency room entrance and I went around to the parking garage. After parking, I followed the maze of entrances and found the emergency room.
She was no where to be found and after about fifteen minutes she came in and said that she’d started to walk around the building but realized that I’d parked and entered in some other way.
We left Hank under the supervision of the emergency room. They were going to run some tests to make sure he was okay.
In the car ride, she remarked about the directness and lack of urgency that everyone in the hospital seemed to demonstrate. “They just don’t seem to care.”
I said, “I’m sure this happens all the time. I mean where else can people go?”
That’s the question really. There is a shelter in Albuquerque, but you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. And if you miss it, what else is possible. Other locations, like the library, the community college are closed, so I’m sure the emergency rooms just fill up. Hank knew this as well and asked us to take him to UNMH because he’d already been to Presbyterian three times recently and they were pretty fed up with him. Where else can people go that don’t have a home to go to? Hank has almost no belongings and maybe he’d been outside for a too long before he broke down and came banging on our door at 11:30. I don’t think he wanted to lean on us, but I can only imagine that he felt like he really didn’t have a choice. We’d treated him kindly and maybe this time, with the temperatures hovering around twenty degrees we’d take him in.
And we wouldn’t.
December 31, 2019