By Stephanie Kirtland
We were told not to come to our place of worship on the weekend of April 11-12. So we didn't. Instead, many of us almost 4,000, I'm told showed up at the more than 55 "Compassion Weekend" projects set up around the Bay Area (from San Francisco to San Jose) to serve the nonprofits that are in the trenches every day dealing with the challenging issues of our society: homelessness, addiction, under-funded schools, lack of housing, vulnerable seniors.
You couldn't miss Tanya at the shelter: she was the one with the toy-like dog glued to her Bolognese mix perhaps?
It was "a gift," Tanya told me, her hands constantly petting the petite pup. "But I think something's wrong."
"What do you mean," I asked. "What do you think is wrong?"
"No boundaries," she said. "I have no boundaries with her she's glued to me, won't let me go and I won't let go of her either. She's constantly hanging onto me; and I can't get enough of her."
I smiled. "Oh I think that's just fine," I assured her. "She's a good friend for you."
I didn't learn much about Tanya that day: I was only there for a few hours, as part of the weekend's refurbishing project: painting, cleaning, assembling furniture and just being with the residents of the 75-bed shelter. She sat near me as I did manicures: smoothing jagged nails, cutting back cuticles, letting them soak their hands in a cardboard bowl filled with soapy water.
"Palmolive?" asked one man, showing his age. "Yes, and I'm Madge," I laughed, showing mine.
I talked with a few residents that day, hearing their stories, encouraging their hopes: for sobriety, renewal, redemption. My heart ached with a joyous pain by the end of the day: Joy in connecting, if but for a short while, with men and women who have hit bottom and yet have found a place to catch their breath, find community, gain support, touch hope.
Bart spent years in the Jungle in San Jose, thought to have been the largest homeless encampment in the nation. When he first arrived there, he told me, he met a resident who taught him the ropes: where to find food and "stay fed." Between the two of them they gathered enough food to erect a food tent and distribute left-overs to others who weren't as savvy. He landed at this shelter sometime after the Jungle was dismantled in December.
There was also joy in hearing one man say he would seek help for his addiction recovery at Cityteam's recovery program when he transferred to San Jose after his Santa Clara County housing voucher comes through in two weeks. "And I always keep my word," he told me. "It's a done deal."
But there was pain in hearing of the searing heartache these men and women have endured. I mainly heard of alcoholism and drug abuse but also mental illness, anger issues, and ravaged lives. This was a "dry" shelter so no active addict was allowed, though most were still in early recovery stages. Other shelters are "wet" to provide safety for those still in the midst of addiction.
Bart lost contact with his four children after he descended into alcoholism when his wife left him 11 years ago. "But I'll get them back," he asserted, again touching hope.
But it was Tanya's tough vulnerability that shook me. She was down to a size 0 and hated it couldn't find clothes that would not practically fall off her, she said. She used to weigh 115 pounds; was even up to 120 "with love handles," she shared with a smile. "I loved those!" Now she weighed 102. "But it's getting better now that I have a place to stay. With the anxiety and stress of living on the streets I couldn't keep any weight on."
I longed to hear her story, offer hope but didn't want to press: "no boundaries" needed safe distance, a gentle touch, time to build a fragile trust. I offered her a bottle of clear polish: "If you'd like it," I said.
"Really?" she said, as she quickly took the offered gift. "Thanks!"
Her smile was quick brilliant, almost. Shocking in the hardscrabble surroundings.
And then it was gone.
I carried it with me as I turned to go.
Stephanie Kirtland is a Menlo Park writer, editor and public relations consultant. She is a member of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.