When I first saw Sheila, she was standing on a street corner holding up a sign to cars that were stopped for the light. It was at the intersection of Azalea and Brook Avenues in Henrico County, Virginia, a place that proudly declares itself the oldest county in the United States of America—but it could have been anywhere.
She looked to be a rather small, middle-aged women with mousey brown hair pulled back from her face in a rubber-band. The sign she was holding was a piece of white poster board, the kind students use for school projects. She was using it to beg for money. I couldn’t read all of the words she had scrawled there but what I read kicked me in the gut: “I lost my job. I never thought this could happen to me.” Who does? Who dreams of standing all day on a dirty, dusty street corner waiting for someone to take pity on them?
Sheila was one of marginalized people who occupy the corners of this country, left out of society, and in the cases of people like Sheila, thrust into a downward spiral that is ripping a hole in this country’s deteriorating safety net, a safety net very few of our politicians are working actively to repair.
As I sat in the comfort of my brand new 2012 Subaru Forester and ate my lunch, I studied her standing there. I tried to imagine her life and what it feels like to be so desperate as to beg for money on a street corner. My imagination failed me. While I watched, no one stopped and handed her money, or food, or anything. Most didn’t even slow down to read her sign. She was indistinguishable from the telephone pole and street sign she stood in front of.
I could see the pain coursing through her body as she took one hand off the flimsy sign, covered her eyes, and pressed it to her forehead, like she was trying to keep her head from exploding. I could almost see the tears she was fighting back.
She didn’t win the fight. She left the corner, sat down on the curb in the parking lot and starting sobbing.
I left my car and went over to her. “Hi, my name is Annette. I wonder if you feel like talking. I’d be glad to buy you some lunch.”
She looked up at me and through her tears said, “I just got kicked out of my house. I lost my job a little while ago.” She put her head back her hands. “I think it’s my teeth,” she mumbled through her hands. “I’m so ugly, no one wants to hire me.”
Although I couldn’t see for certain, it looked as if she had only one tooth on the top of her mouth and it protruded from her gum at an angle that made it appear as if it would fall out at any moment.
“I can’t afford to get my teeth fixed,” she said. “and now I’ve been thrown out of my apartment by the girlfriend of a guy I invited to stay there. He gets disability so the guy who owns the house now is letting him stay there and I’ve got to come up with $500 if I want to stay. And it’s my apartment and my stuff,” the anger in her voice intensified with each word. She looked up at me again. “But I guess it’s not mine anymore.” Her anger turned to defeat.
I reiterated my offer of lunch. She didn’t respond. I dug into my wallet and pulled out a $20 and handed it to her. She took it and thanked me.
“What’s your name, again?” she asked with enough composure I could imagine her welcoming customers to Hardy’s, where she said she used to work.
“Annette. What’s yours?”
“Sheila,” she said. Then she shook her head and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I asked her about life on the street corner. “Do many people stop to help?”
She told me how black women were the ones who helped her the most. “They seem happiest,” she said. White women her age helped the least. She figured they identified with her too much. She told me about the men who offered to pay her for prostitution. “I won’t do that. I’ve got enough problems,” she said. She smiled a little and added, “Some guy me gave me a double cheeseburger today. He gave one to me and one to his dog.” With that, she laughed a little, a laugh that only served to accentuate the poor condition of her mouth.
Dental care is one of the most obvious class dividers in our society. I’ve always been self-conscious of my teeth they are a little crooked but at least I have all of them. My mom took me to an orthodontist when I was a teenager and when she learned how much it would cost to fit me with braces, she swallowed hard and said we couldn’t afford it—and we were probably closer to middle class. No one living below the poverty level in this country can afford even the most basic dental care.
Sheila told me about her nineteen-year old son who is a student at the University of Richmond. “I can’t ask him for help,” she said. “My sister told him a bunch of lies about me. It’s all messed up.” She paused and looked down at the cracked cement in the parking lot. “That really hurts,” she said. I wonder what lies she told him. Sheila didn’t appear to be a substance abuser. She said she didn’t give in to prostitution. But whatever it was, it kept them apart. I wonder if he knows she is standing on a street corner begging for money.
She showed me how the heel of her black athletic shoe was falling off. “People gave me all my clothes,” she told me. “I just wish I wasn’t so ugly,” she said again.
“I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car you are welcome to take a look at,” I said.
She gave me wistful look. “I’d like some new clothes but I don’t have any way to carry them. All I have is that bike over there.” She pointed to a rusty, old, single speed women’s bike chained up to the light post across the street.
I asked her if she knew about the services that were available in town to help her. “I’ve used CARITAS,” she said. “They’ve helped me.”
CARITAS is an emergency homeless shelter and support service run in partnership with churches all over the city. I figured I could at least connect her to them but she already knew how to reach them.
I told her I hoped she found some help. “If I see you again I’ll stop and say hi,” I said.
She stuck her hand out and we shook, like we had just concluded a business deal.
“Thanks for talking,” I said and walked back to my car. It’s hard to help people, I thought. Maybe the money will help a little. Maybe the conversation helped her to know someone cares. But I suspect she’ll be back on some corner tomorrow. “There is no way for me to get out of this,” she told me. I hope she is wrong.
Maybe the politicians will suddenly find a heart. Maybe people will finally figure out that government austerity measures that continually cut holes in the safety net are not a pathway to recovery. But I think the reality is that people like Sheila will have to depend on the kindness of strangers on some street corner for a long time to come.
What would you have done to help Sheila? Is homelessness and poverty inevitable or do you think there are solutions that can make a real difference?