She sits in front of the Rite Aid at the corner of 8th and Market in Philadelphia. Her skin is tanned from houses pan-handling in the sun. Her hair is light brown, with blonde streaks, as her hair has been sun-bleached for the same reason. She has brown eyes that tell the story of the hardened life, but a spark that won’t go out.
Her name is Mandy.
I pass her – every day – on my walk to and from work. Some days I smile at her, feeling as though my kindness turns to cruelty halfway between my good intentions and her current situation. Other days I ignore her, eyes down, too embarrassed to smile, knowing that it’s the wrong thing to do, wallowing in my own guilt that I can’t help her.
She comes from New Jersey. She worked until this past winter, when she was laid off. She lost everything – her car went first. Then her home. Finally, her pride.
Her family can’t help her. Her parents live in a retirement community in Florida, with stringent rules about how long people under the age of 55 can stay. They kept her through the winter, but she had to find her own way come March. I remember March. It was still frigid.
I bought her water. A coffee. A small dinner.
She’s in her 30s. She’s always made her own way. When she was back on her own, she found her way to moving in with a boyfriend. Who started to abuse her. After he put her in the hospital, she returned only to collect her thing: her ID, birth certificate, SS card. He was in the wind. The apartment cleared out.
She appealed to the state of NJ. But, she had a history – and did drugs in her teenage years. Things like that always have a way of catching up with you, and it did. She couldn’t get welfare, subsidized housing -nothing – because of her past.
She doesn’t want to steal or kill or do drugs. It doesn’t fix anything.
She moved to Philly, trying to get away from all that. She is homeless because she doesn’t have an ID.
She can’t get into most homeless projects (like Project HOME) because she doesn’t “need” help; meaning that she’s not addicted to anything.
I remembered the House of Hugs, which had to close its doors about 7 years ago. The halfway house was for women who were NOT addicted to anything, but needed to get out of abusive or homeless situations.
She wants her ID. An ID. Any ID. But, there is a problem. To get an ID you need to prove your identification and residency.
She doesn’t want to go to a shelter. I don’t blame her. Shelters are scary. There are a lot of sick people (mentally and/or physically) there, who will steal what little you have in your sleep. This includes shoes off your feet, jackets, and any little bits you were able to save for yourself.
She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. She buys her cigarettes by the stick – $0.50 each. She uses what little she makes to eat. I didn’t ask where she sleeps. I don’t want to know, and I’m certain she doesn’t want to tell me.
I told her about the weeks I lived in my car. I told her about the work I’ve done with the homeless. I told her about the project in Seattle that is trying to get the non-homeless to identify with the homeless. We talked about possibly changing her sign so people see that she not a leech – just a woman in an unfortunate situation.
She told me about frenimies she has on the streets. She told me about people who stop by to help her out. She told me that she appreciates people who give food, because she knows she’ll eat. She thanked me for dropping off breakfast the other day.
We shook hands at the end. I told her to be safe tonight. She thanked me for stopping by. It was like saying good-bye to an old friend.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll smile and say, “Good morning, Mandy,” as I walk by.