The Phone Call

Posted: 24 September 2012 in Faith and Life

I staff a transitional housing shelter overnight every Saturday night. In the winter I do another night at a cold weather shelter. For the most part I am there to assure compliance with a fairly limited set of rules and policies. In the cold weather shelter we see people whose lives and stories represent a level of brokenness that is breathtaking. We are there to make sure they can stay dry and get something to eat.

The transitional housing shelter is more “hopeful” in that the folks who stay there (some for a year or more) are working on moving beyond lives that are often very, shall we say, constrained to begin with but made much worse by a chain of questionable decisions and choices. Some who stay at the shelter actually put the past in its place and move on to jobs, houses and friendships (of a healthy variety).  These folks are the ones who faithfully attend their meetings, look for jobs, follow the counsel of their caseworker, do their chores faithfully and work hard to get along with everyone else.

Others who come seem to be on a good path but for reasons that are rarely clear, suddenly disappear never to return.  We hear from some of them—most have gone “back home” and are working to heal things as best they can.

Still others crash out in astonishing ways and head down the backward path that all too often in recent years has led to a lonely death out along the rail line or in a dusty draw on the edge of town.

Like every other shelter out there ours has its bed limits and since men make up the overwhelming majority of the unhoused, there always seems to be a shortage of beds for… women.  This may be because we are in a kind of transition in which the “overwhelming majority” is no longer so.  I am not sure.  All I know is that we seem to have to say “sorry” to more women than men (all other things being equal—like we just are not set up to handle the severely mentally ill male or female; few places are).

So when I got the phone call the other night I knew right away that I was going to disappoint the person on the other line. I did not know how much I was going to disappoint myself.

We have four women’s beds and they were full.  The call came in from the only hospital in town—I assume from the ER.  At first the question was only: “Do you have a bed for a woman?”  When I said that we were full, the person’s frustration, which had clearly been building throughout the evening, came pouring forth across the wire.

She asked if I had any suggestions about where she could send a woman who needed emergency housing.  I dutifully pulled out my list of local and regional “providers” and started going through it.  She cut me short.  She had been down that list already. No go. She asked me if there was not some other option.  Was it possible that the others had missed something?  I was embarrassed to learn that one place I suggested was “no longer open.”  Embarrassed because this is “my” business and she was clueing me in to the fact that I did not know what I was talking about (disappointment number one of several).

Soon the full story was on the table: a woman, pregnant, battered by her partner, no place to go.  What was she going to do? “She” meaning the hospital staff person.  “She” meaning the woman.

Now, and I hate to admit this (disappointment number two), but I was having some issues with one of our residents that evening and I was anxious to deal with it.  Hers was a problem that I had no answer for (hell, I did not even know that one of my recommendations was bogus).  There are things I can do something about. There is problem solving in which I can engage.  But this one… This was not my problem. Right?

I said “good luck” as I dispensed with this alien problem so I could get back to my own.  But I did not sleep well.

Was that it?

No solution so…

“So long and you take good care?”

“Sorry to hear about, you know, this woman?”

“All the best?”

“Have a nice evening?”

I talked to a person involved in veterinary medicine the next day.  I do not know her well but when she asked how things were going I found myself dumping the events of the previous night all over her.  Quite sincerely and innocently she shook her head and said “Yeah, I get that way with my patients.  I just want to get the ones that need placed taken care of.  Thankfully I can always find a place for a needy dog or cat or horse.”

Always?  Apparently.

I am glad she can.  In fact I have some good friends here in town who rescue and take in abandoned or otherwise needy animals and I think they are doing a very good thing.  They give these (often adorable) pets a safe, loving place with clear boundaries and the animals often go on to adoption thanks to their ministrations. That is good. But still…

You know where I am going with this so I will not go on.  But I have to say that this whole juxtaposition raises lots of questions.

So here is just one for now (and this is only one way to think about this issue, I realize): We have about 25 different religious congregations in this town.  These people are, apparently, motivated by some belief in a loving God or principle of “right living”.  Most of them (by a long shot) espouse some form of “love of neighbor” doctrine. Many go further and say they stand for justice.  A tall order in our day.

Question: Are you telling me that among these 25 and their perhaps 5,000 members we cannot find, say, 10 families who will put those doctrines and beliefs into practice by opening their homes for people like the battered pregnant woman stranded in the hospital?  Sure they would need training and they would need to be prepared but…

That phone call was a plea for a rescue that I was simply unprepared to participate in.  Fact is, despite what I have seen at the shelters, I just don’t want there to be pregnant women knocked about by their male companions out there. I just don’t want to believe that we need to do more to deal with a problem that I don’t really want to acknowledge happens in my community.  Do you know what I mean? Or am I the only one who wants to be blissfully unaware?

And the saddest thing (so far—things could get sadder) is the question that kept wandering through my mind that night and into the next day: “Why did she have to call me?”

Suffice to say that I now know the face of narcissism. He lives pretty close by and something tells me that now that I have identified him I am going to be a lot more aware of him from now on.

  1. deborah says:

    I admire your self-examination and brutal honesty with yourself, not to mention your activism and involvement in the community – walking your talk.

    Maybe the reason there isn’t an overabundance of people willing to take in a battered woman is the same reason you didn’t offer your house for her, whatever that reason or reasons might be. I know from experience, and it’s obvious that once you open that door, you open it to so much more than “just” a battered pregnant woman sharing your home – millions of other things come into play emotionally and factually. It can be overwhelming and sticky and extremely distressing, especially if you cannot provide a solution – and you seem to be someone who wants to provide solutions and set action in motion. I took in my abused nephew when he was 14, and he’s in prison for 40 years now. Watching that trajectory and not being able to change the course of it, despite my love and best efforts, has been heartbreaking.

    Knowing that there are millions of people like the battered pregnant woman and like my nephew in the world, not to mention all the other sadnesses and horrors (Alzheimer’s for both of my parents, breast cancer, George Bush & Co., etc.), is why I have basically shut down and become like Candide – It’s why I gravitate to the farm, where I can feel useful and alive, but also I’m able for a few hours a day not to think about sadnesses in the world. After having had breast cancer, I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to be able to work at the farm, be outdoors, lift, bend, walk, participate, feel healthy. I do think about all the people in jails or hospitals or assisted-living centers or (fill in the blank) who can’t get outside. But what’s important for a few hours is getting those collards next to the irrigation strip; harvesting those melons; watering those birds. It’s why I love weeding so much – instant (selfish) gratification of feeling useful, preventing destruction to the fruit or vegetable, ripping encroachment out by the roots! And then seeing the beautiful weed-free long rows. If only we could rip out all the parts of our humanity that cause abuse and neglect, etc., etc., etc.

    So I admire you. You’re actually doing so much in the community to help with the overarching problems. I’m just weeding at the farm and am tired and too sad to even get involved anymore, really burnt out.

    • robbdavis says:

      I come to the farm for the same reasons you do. It is a way to help me deal with the “overwhelming.” (I also come because I believe in Robert’s vision and want to contribute if I can.) I also agree that when you take a person into your home you also welcome all the baggage that comes along. That is why I think that it needs to be done intentionally, with lots of community support, and with a clear commitment to boundaries. While these situations are challenging, they are certainly not beyond the ability of the Davis community to deal with. There is a time to deal with an immediate crisis and there is a time to deal with the systemic forces (locally at least) that lead to them. Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate the critical reflection and personal sharing. There is a time for everything…

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