Shared Luck

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

My path could have crossed B’s path long before they finally converged. Night after night, as the DeSales Free Clinic closed up for the evening, we were unaware that just across the street, B was settling in for a long, cold, nights sleep under an abandoned boxcar, in the parking lot of an abandoned nightclub. It was a harsh, cold winter and B had been ‘here and there’ as he would tell me in an attempt to find shelter. The boxcar, he said, wasn’t so bad. It kept out the elements and the ground under the boxcar was usually dry and not too cold. No one knew he was back there and the element of invisibility can be just as useful as a warm blanket when it comes to survival.

But I knew little of B’s hiding spot or of his story until one night, B awoke from a drunken sleep to discover his feet were tingling and extremely painful.  He was able to walk himself to the closest emergency room and was initially treated for frostbite. As luck would have it, it turned out that B needed much more that just frostbite rewarming. In fact, he needed urgent surgery to restore flow to his leg. The need for surgery wasn’t necessitated by the frostbite. The problems with his circulation were years in the making, but happened to make themselves evident to the hospital team during that stay.

B and I came to know each other as he started a road to physical recovery. He is a thin man who has aged well despite the things he has seen. He openly shared parts of his story over the 7 months that I came to know him. He was from New York City where he got ‘mixed up in lots of things’.  He spent over 10 years sleeping on the streets and surviving however he could. He battled addiction for many of those years and saw few ways out of his situation. His life changed when he met a man from Pennsylvania who ran a rehab and recovery farm in a rural area near the Lehigh Valley. He offered him a chance to start over and B took it. He was able to overcome his addiction and stayed on to work at the farm for many years as a peer mentor and advisor. Eventually, the farm closed and B was able to find employment at a locally owned grocery store. He worked there for nearly 20 years. He never missed a shift and seemingly took a lot of pride in becoming ‘part of the family’. I can see how it happened. B is an unassuming man with a narrow face, a pointy nose and gentle eyes. He is friendly and helpful. I can see how he became part of the fabric of many people’s lives over the years when folks did there weekly shopping, B was always there to bag, carry and check.

About a year ago, the small grocery store was sold to a large corporate chain. In B’s estimation, they one day realized that he was an awfully expensive grocery bagger. The original owners had allowed B to be paid more than your average bagger as a way of appreciating his loyalty and hard, honest work. But a corporate chain seemingly had no need for such expensive help.  He was fired and sent about his way. Over the next few months, he struggled to find more work. With the lack of income, he lost his car and then his house. He floated from couch to couch for as long as he could, but eventually, there were no more couches.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters. It is written from the perspective of a senior demon to his nephew who is new to the art of temptation. It highlights that the Tempter is often waiting until our most vulnerable moment to tempt us with the thing that we are most vulnerable about. It is a slam-dunk nearly every time. Addiction is much like this- often the weakest link in the strongest chain. The temptation of drinking his sorrows, or time, away was too much for B and he fell into an old (more than 20 years of sobriety) but familiar pattern of drinking his income away.

Once sober, B expressed no desire to return to any type of drug or alcohol use. In fact, he spent most of his time reading. I have never, ever, had a patient that read more than B did. He read every book in the entire facility. Nurses and staff were bringing in their favorites for him to devour. B was becoming the same type of staple that he was to his grocery family. Endearing, steady, calm. B was happy to have recovered from his medical issues, but he was now stuck in the facility. His insurance company had issued him a ‘cut letter’. ‘Cut letters’ are sent to the rehab facility when a patient’s insurance deems that the patient no longer meets criteria for rehab. It gives 48 hours notice to the patient and the facility- either discharge the patient or the patient pays out of pocket to stay. The ‘cut letters’ almost always come on a Friday and if you have a family or a home that you can go to, then a weekend discharge is not really a problem. But what if you are homeless?

The facility (as many do) was willing to allow B to stay if he signed over his social security check each month. Remember, he worked for 20 years, paid his taxes, paid into social security. They would give him $45 per month for other expenses. On one hand, it does keep the patient from being discharged to the street or a shelter. On the other hand, it prevents one from saving enough money to put down a security deposit, pay for a taxi to look for an apartment etc. B was grateful to have shelter, but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his days living in a nursing home.

I called a friend who is a housing specialist to assess B for any housing opportunities he might know of. I was thankful that he was able to see him and proudly declared that there just happened to be a single occupancy unit available in a quiet neighborhood that he could afford. I shared in B’s excitement at the good fortune and eagerly anticipated his departure date.

That was 4 months ago.

Getting subsidized housing is not straight forward. And who knew how many moving hoops there were to jump through, mostly feeling that you and the hoop were also on fire. The housing specialist got the ball rolling after the initial visit. But B needed documents- proof of this, proof of that, a copy of this statement etc. B had never had an email account, didn’t know how to do online banking or how to navigate the social security website to print out the precise document at exactly the right time so that it would be current enough but not too current. I, myself, had a difficult time navigating the site because I had no idea what I was even looking for. Once all the paperwork was finally in to the right person and approved, I did a little victory dance. Turns out , it was a very, very, premature victory dance.

The housing unit didn’t pass it’s annual inspection. While waiting for the landlord to make the improvements, the housing specialist quit and moved onto another position. No one exactly replaced him and so I was given the landlords phone number on B’s behalf. 4 phone calls and finally a returned call 3 weeks later. The building now passed inspection and B can move in- if he can physically get to the County Housing Authority in 4 days to sign paperwork. And then, of course, find a way to get to his new home by 2pm on day 5. I tried to find him a bus route but, as luck would have it, the LANTA bus website was down for multiple days. When it was up, I was convinced that my bachelor’s and master’s degrees were completely worthless because I couldn’t figure out how to get from point A to point B without seemingly visiting Toronto by way of Atlanta. Fortunately, a friend and homeless advocate, kindly rescheduled her own doctors appointment to take B to his Housing appointment (and ironically, also to the social security office because that damn paper STILL wasn’t adequate).  The night before he was to move into his new apartment, I was frantically trying to figure out how he was going to get there. He didn’t have enough money for a taxi AND  for the security deposit they wanted when he arrived. I had a free bus pass for him but, alas, the LANTA bus site was down. Again. As I began to blow a gasket on my couch at home, my husband leaned over and said, “Haven’t you learned by now? Some of our patients have the worst luck of anyone around. By helping them, you share their luck too.”

On July 1, I visited B for the last time at the rehab facility. I stopped in on my way to my other job in order to drop off a backpack for his belongings, bus tickets and a collection taken up to get him a cab. Later that afternoon, I learned that his taxi, had been 2 1/2 hours late picking him up though he had called them at 9 in the morning. I had presumed that he had eventually made it since he had not called me nor had anyone else who I had left my name/number with over the months of trying to help him. I had no way to reach him.

Last week, I received a text message from the original housing specialist. He had been out and about running errands and had seen B near the rental unit.  At the grocery store, of course.

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