August 18, 2009

B is for Backpack

On Sunday we took a homeless person to breakfast. You can read about how we met Renee here, although please note that Fresh Start turned out to be uninterested in helping homeless people and she's no longer working there.

Renee is a nice person that bad things have happened to. Although she has been homeless for more than 9 years she's clean and neat and looks like any other resident of Walnut Creek - except for all the bags she has to carry around. An accident leading to nerve damage resulted in her being unable to work regular hours and despite her various volunteer activities and personal initiative nothing has ever resulted into a paid position or any substantial help.

In her own words, because she's not a druggie or illegal immigrant, there's no support system for her. Even her cleanliness is against her - when she goes to the local church for help, where she used to volunteer teaching computer basics until the recent service cuts in public transportation, they tell her they need to save resources for people who need it more.

Her own words have also gotten her into trouble. She has written passionate letters to directors of various charities and groups she has worked with, telling them how they're missing the boat on giving people what they really need. She criticized the local police for harassing her and got fired from her column. She's a vegetarian so soup kitchens don't work for her. Etc., etc., etc.

Still, as she tells her tale of one disappointment after another you find yourself wondering how people can be so unhelpful and uncaring.

At breakfast she nibbled toast and sipped tea, unable to eat more. She shared some details about her past and daily challenges, which were very hard to hear. For example, the social security agency recently declared her dead and has to restart the process on claiming the benefits she's already been fighting 13 years. She has no way of gathering the documentation she needs of employment history, bank accounts, etc., to complete her application. The lawyers she has contacted to help her navigate the process have all said that her case is too complex and refused to help.

You get the idea.

I felt pretty helpless. I mean, it's not like we can set her up in a condo and pay all her expenses or make someone hire her. And we can't give her back her health or change the social security administrative rules.

So we asked her what we could do and she told us that she needs underwear and toiletries as well as a new backpack, because the decrepit old computer bag she's carrying around now is on it's last legs and isn't big enough to hold everything, which means she has to carry several bags in addition to her heavy backpack.

That's why yesterday before work found me at Target carefully selecting light, servicable undergarments and toiletries (yes, people, I finally bought some new underwear, but not for me). And yesterday evening found Ralf and me at Sports Basement being consulted by a wonderful salesperson named Aaron on backpacks.

Aaron also has a homeless friend - I guess that's the new thing in this economy - and spent about an hour helping us find the optimum backpack for durability, lightweight, and compartments. When he found out why we were buying the backpack he also threw in several waterproof bags and gave us 20% off.

The point I'd like to make is that both compassion and lack of caring are contagious. You can't fix everything for everyone but sometimes there's something concrete that you can do to help. And you might find unexpected people pitching in to help you do it.

Thanks, Aaron.


  1. You are doing a great thing, Laura. The system really sucks sometimes.

  2. I love this post. I think so often problems seem so insurmountable that we're paralyzed from doing anything at all. But there are things we can do. Even if it's small. Even small efforts can make a big difference. Thanks for sharing this story.

  3. I'm nominating this for a just post

  4. I love the fact that you and Ralf are really reaching out and doing something compassionate and positive. Kudos to you!

    The underlying system sucks if it won't help someone who wants to retain her dignity in spite of her circumstances.

  5. I loved this post. Telling Renee's story and helping her with small, everyday stuff (that we, luckier people take for granted) must have meant the world to her. Good job! :)

  6. Nice work. Takes special people to listen and do this.

  7. true. It really only takes a minute and few acts of kindness. way to go!

  8. wow, great post! And good on you and Ralf.

    plenty of times your posts have been good reminders to get out there and do the right thing. i like it!

  9. I don't understand why she does not have access to free housing? This is just crazy!! I think your post also illustrates our need for national health care.

    I would write a letter to your mayor/ social services director asking what options are available for this woman. If she is sick, she does not have the energy to really fight for help.

    Very nice for you to try to do what you can for her. I give some of my students money for lunch. They are poor but not poor enough for the free lunch.

  10. Great job. Yes, doing good things is contagious! I love it.

  11. I love this post too. And yes, you do find compassion in many places.

  12. Horrible and wonderful post all at the same time. I am so sad for her, but so thrilled that you took the time to do something nice for her. And how awesome is Aaron, too! It's so great to see people caring for one another. That's just how it should be. Kudos to you!


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