I never could have imagined how dramatically two lives could change by sitting on a park bench. We had just moved downtown into a high rise condominium when I went for my first walk outside, carrying Carolyn Myss’ book about St. Teresa which I had been studying. I sat by a woman feeding an egret, overlooking Sarasota Bay. Our conversation began with her bird, then meandered through fowl, fish, Sarasota, New England (where her daughter and our son live), then returned to fishing in the Bay. Little by little I discovered that her fishing rod had been stolen from under a nearby bush. She had nowhere safe to leave it. She was homeless. She took showers at the Resurrection House, ate at the Salvation Army, then slept in secret hiding places to avoid being attacked or arrested since sleeping out-of-doors is against the law in Sarasota, even when someone has nowhere else to go.
I couldn’t sleep that night or those that followed, worrying about her safety, so I began making calls to see if something could be done. I couldn’t imagine a 55 year old woman living under such conditions in Sarasota, one of the wealthiest cities in America. I found her a few days later, same bench, same time, and we began a three month marathon winding our way through the labyrinth of social services in search of birth certificate, social security disability requalification, and military discharge papers because she was a veteran of the United States Navy. Many mornings before appointments we began at McDonalds, sharing our life stories over breakfast while trying to determine the next step. She revealed many aspects of her life but wouldn’t talk about her service aboard a U.S. Naval ship where something terrible happened that led to her mental breakdown, loss of her daughter and ensuing homelessness.
We were about to get her wait listed for public housing, which can be a very long wait, indeed, when President Obama’s HUD Voucher Program for Homeless Veterans came through, the very day we arrived at the Veteran’s Clinic for medical and psychological exams. Two months later, she moved into her little “cottage” apartment with a HUD Housing Choice Voucher which provides a rent subsidy, enabling her to afford to rent a small apartment in Sarasota which was previously impossible. My friends answered my e-mail appeals for furniture, clothing and most everything else she needed to set up a cozy home where she remains, safe and secure, eighteen months later.
I can’t say that weaving our way through agencies and services was easy, even with my telephone and car. It was often exasperating and fruitless, leaving us discouraged and exhausted. But thanks to the Program for Homeless Veterans, our efforts ended successfully, and I can truthfully say that helping her proved to be one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences of my life.
A park bench provided the intersection of our two, very different universes so we might learn to know and respect each other, become friends and collaborate to creatively solve a critical problem. She prayed for a miracle in a roof over her head, while I prayed for an opportunity to help. Through the blessing of a park bench, both of our prayers were answered.
(Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer living in Sarasota and Vermont and recently served on the Health and Human Services Committee in the development of the Suncoast Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness Ten Year Plan. This guest column was published by the Herald Tribune, The Brave Discussion, and numerous other web sites and blogposts.)