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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Hitting too close to home

Driving to work every day, I inevitably see the man or woman holding a sign on the side of the road. They look you straight in the eye, challenging you to look away.

I often have to fight back the urge to ask - "How did you get here? What happened to land you on a street corner, begging for money?" I've watched enough news reports to be jaded and understand that most of those people reached that point in life because of addictions to drugs and alchohol or have other mental health issues.

Occasionally, something will be different. I saw a young couple one day with signs. The young woman had tears running down her face. The young man, whom she clung to with one hand, had hidden most of his face. They looked ashamed. I gave them money.

Another time I saw a mother with two young children taking refuge from the heat of the day under a downtown bridge. Backpacks and a wagon were nearby, and the mom kept one hand on those while warily watching the "regular" homeless. My heart broke.

Still, homelessness has never really hit home.

Last weekend, my husband and I were enjoying the Grand Prix races and killing time in a local pub until a storm passed. We found a great table on the sidewalk protected from the rain by an awning. I love people watching, so it was an ideal place to sit and watch people walking by.

I noticed a woman, dressed in a flowing flowery dress. Her hair was pulled up and curly trendrils fell to her shoulders. I noticed her because she was so feminine and pretty -- seeming out of place in the uber cool downtown crowd.

Then I realized I knew her. I worked with her at my part-time job with the local MLB team.

I said hello and she quickly grabbed a seat. After introductions, she told us that she had been at a free concert after church and was heading to a museum. During the conversation, it became evident that she knew the downtown area well.

She told us she was homeless. But was thankful that she had recently moved from "tent city" to the Salvation Army shelter. I didn't know what to say. How do you say, I'm sorry you lost your home?

After a divorce, she was laid off from a long-time job. She started a job hunt, like millions of other people and soon found herself drowning in unpaid bills. Eighteen months later, she lost her home. Anything that she hadn't sold, she put into a small storage unit and lived in her car. But a part-time minimum wage job doesn't pay bills. She lost her car, and put her possessions in a cart.

She soon learned that she had to reach out for help available. She got use of a phone number where prospective employers could leave a message. She uses computers at the library to check emails and send out resumes. On weekends, she attends church, visits museums and takes in free events. During the week, she volunteers at a museum and the history center when she's not looking for a job.

"I'm thankful to have a place with a roof at night," she said.

She told us about agreeing to an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. The article was about the working poor. Her supervisors saw the article and told her to quit talking about her personal problems because that was not the image they wanted to project. She didn't think she had a job to go to on opening day.

I love baseball. I love this team, and I still work and cheer for them. But the games have lost their luster.

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