I found Lisa wrapped in a sleeping bag nestled in an alcove in front of a Chinatown building near the intersection of 9th and E Streets. I walked about 20 feet past her and decided to go back and give her my $10.
It was about 10:00pm and sun drenched streets had long been replaced by the black and blue shadows. At first I wasn’t sure if she was a man or a woman, but as I got closer and my eyes adjusted I could see clearly that she was a woman. The 50-year-old’s dirty blond hair was mostly covered by a wool hat. Her eyes were like perfectly cut Brazilian aquamarines. They were so stunning that it was hard to look elsewhere.
She said that she has been homeless for 10 years. I handed her my card. She studied it for a while – rocking it back and forth between her uncovered fingers to catch the dim light that cast over her from the empty street. She took the $10 and told me that she would get some breakfast in the morning. “Maybe get me some pancakes,” she said still suspicious of the altruistic gift.
I tried to make small talk and ask her about her experience on the streets. “The toughest part is finding enough water,” she said as I pushed my hands deep into my pockets to keep them warm. It was chilly, maybe 40 degrees yet she cited drinking water as the biggest challenge.
Things got very awkward when I asked if I could take a photograph of her. She got noticeably upset, “No. I don’t want my picture taken.” She extended her hand toward me offering the folded up ten dollar bill. “You can have your money back. I don’t want it.” I explained that if she wasn’t comfortable being photographed that that was fine and the money was hers to keep. We were both silent for a moment. I looked away from her and saw a Styrofoam food container – the kind you get from a Chinese take-out restaurant – and a half full bottle of water. Her hand and the ten dollars disappeared again under the many layers garments.
“Well, thanks for speaking with me,” I told her as I picked up my trusty backpack – I’ve been carrying that bag around for 342 days now! “Good luck and stay safe…and warm!” I added as I went on my way.
Every time I leave a homeless person I have more questions than answers. It always weighs heavy on my mind for the rest of the day. As I pull the covers up over me at night and close my eyes I wonder if Lisa is withstanding the cold. I wonder when the last time she slept in a bedroom with lots of pillows and a thick warm comforter. I wonder what she dreams about?