I should tell you now, most of the stories I will have to tell of clients at Sister Jose’s will not be easy to write or read. Many may be triggering. But they deserve to be heard because it is rare that someone sees these women, let alone listens.
People experiencing homelessness are often highly visible and yet unseen. Think about it, especially if you live in a city. How often do you see someone with a sign and keep your eyes facing front and keep driving. If they approach you, do you give a grimacing smile and keep walking, if any acknowledgement at all, possibly thinking silent judgments in your head? If you, like me, spend most of your time on a bike, or on foot, or public transport you come more and more in contact, do you skirt around, switching sides of the street going out of your way to avoid? Do you know which parks to avoid in town? Really think. Do you see the homeless? Do you actually actively look and see them or do you just look and try to avoid thinking about the reality that you have no idea what brought them to that point.
I do the data at Sister Jose Women’s Center, and I will slowly bring more numbers, but the reality is this. We are the only center for unaccompanied women, both cis and trans, experiencing homelessness in Tucson. There are no children and no men. As in I’m not going to debate with you about your thoughts on trans rights because transwomen are women. Period. The rate of PTSD and mental illness among the population we work with is particularly high because of the rate of domestic and sexual violence both prior to homelessness, leading to homelessness and during homelessness. The lack of services available without men present is staggering. Many women won’t seek help because of this, because the mere presence of men can be triggering to them. We don’t allow them inside the gate unless they’re dropping off donations/deliveries/contractors. You can call it sexist, we’re more concerned for the safety of our guests.
I’m not blogging to talk about that though, after figuring out what was best for safety and power dynamics in story telling, I wanted to talk about some of what I have experienced at the center. Some of these stories will be from our night program, some from day guests. I’ll tell more about day to day operations as I go along. Names and identifying details will always be changed to keep the lovely and wonderful ladies safe.
First, I would like to start with Eugenia. She is in her late sixties, I would guess, which is not uncommon for our population. Our average age is late 40s to 60s mostly, which surprises most. She’s a petite lady with fiery hair, which I’m not sure is dyed or real, you never know! One of the things I absolutely adore about her is her fashion sense. I hope that I am half as cool as her when I grow up. She puts together the coolest things. Sparkly, colorful, pattern. She wears funky shoes she gets from our “shop” (we get donations and ladies may pick things for free). She often feels sick, but boy, she is a spitfire no less. She really made me want to write more about stories, because the other night during dinner when I overnighted, she looked at me and said “Rachel, I just appreciate that you listen and really make me feel human again.” It kind of shocked me. I don’t know that I’ve every thought about it? Sometimes I feel like I’m too rushed and short with some of the ladies, just like I know I could get with my students, but something about Eugenia pulls at my heartstrings. She doesn’t always eat much, she doesn’t feel up to it, which reminds me of my own Nanny Lovins, but she proudly tells me when she does, and I tell her I’m proud, and ask her what was in the lunches from Caridad that she liked best. Or if she liked dinner the night before and I wasn’t there I ask. It’s little things. My wish for her is that she continues to eat and we get her strong and healthy to find her housing!
The other story from this week is from the day program and does come with a strong trigger warning. I was actually getting to leave from my overnight that same night, making sure the desk was clear, when a woman, clearly in pain, came in. We don’t open until 9am, but before I could say anything, she asked to use the restroom. They had just started to be cleaned, floors were wet. I let her know that they were being cleaned and asked if she wanted to wait. She let me know she had just started bleeding, that she was in her first trimester and was miscarrying. This is I think one of those moments where there is no preparation for what to do. I asked if she needed me to call the hospital and she said no. I knew that if I called, as much as I wanted to, they would say that she was an adult and if she refused treatment they’d leave. She went back outside. When I came back for my later shift, she was still there and in pain. I don’t think anything has ever been in my head so much as that. The matter-of-fact way with which she stated it, that it had happened before, that there was nothing the doctors could do. I was distraught. Angry for her because she had no where to go. Angry at the system because the reality is there are people who would blame her for that without knowing the whole story. I never even learned her name. I still don’t think I will ever forget her face.
So, what can you do? First, pray for me, for the women at the center, and for those on the street who have no where to turn. Push for better places for them and better laws to help those experiencing homelessness. Donate to centers for homelessness instead of thrift stores. They need it. Donate to my year. And don’t look through those you see on the street. Look at them. See them. Find a place to do the work. Volunteer. It won’t be easy, I guarantee, but someone has to help. Maybe it should be you.