Monday was a rare day off when all four of us were off at the same time. Kids didn’t have school, it was H’s regular day off, and I had a holiday. We decided to try and cram a bunch of stuff into the day, cleaning, errands, etc… We managed a good cleaning of the playroom and the kids’ (disgusting) bathroom. Got everyone dressed and took off for an hour at one of our favorite downtown parks. Promised the kids frozen yogurt after, but on the way H wanted to swing by her favorite bakery.
The bakery is in the heart of “midtown,” surrounded by relatively new loft condos, live-work buildings, and lots of dining and walkable shopping. But it’s still part of downtown, which means there’s a significant homeless population. It’s commonplace to be approached by someone asking for money or to see someone pushing a cart down the street. While our area doesn’t have the homeless population that, say, LA or New York might have, we aren’t Orange County (CA) either. Generally I don’t carry cash, and that’s usually my answer when I get approached. I was approached by a man once when I was picking up a pizza and I offered him some of my pizza, but he refused.
As I was exiting the bakery, a girl asked me if I had any money. H was circling the block since parking was non-existent and she hadn’t made her way back yet. I told her I didn’t have any cash – which I didn’t. But something struck me. I didn’t notice it when she first asked me for money, but after I said I didn’t have any she told me she was hoping to come up with enough money for a room and a bath tonight and that she had worked for a realtor holding a sign and made $12.90. Suddenly I was frozen. There was something in her voice that I recognized. Something in her mannerisms and in her face. Slight enough not to be 100% sure that she had Down Syndrome, but my gut told me I was right. And if not DS, some other developmental disability that presents very similarly.
I cry even now writing this. Who had neglected this sweet girl? Who had deemed her existence so worthless that she now roamed the streets looking for enough money to bathe? I stood waiting for H to come around the corner and wished the girl good luck, to which she pointed to the sky and pronounced, “I have God, He’s my lucky charm.” She stopped about 50 yards from me, surveying the street and maybe deciding what her next move was.
I looked back at her, my eyes welling up with tears, frantically wishing H would round the corner before the girl disappeared. She pulled up after what seemed like much longer than it probably was, and I leaned in the car and asked if she had any cash. She asked why. I said, “Just do you have any????” She reached into her wallet and found two dollar bills and I closed the door and ran up the sidewalk to where she was standing. I pushed them into her hand. “Here, sweetie, it’s all I have. Take care of yourself, ok?”
“Thank you! Thank you!” she said. “Now I only need $10 more. Thank you. God bless you.”
I turned and ran back to the car. Tears streaming down my face. H was so confused. I was bawling, the kids were wondering what was wrong, and it was all I could do to sob out the whole story.
We made it to the frozen yogurt shop. In one corner stood a mom with three teenaged girls. The smallest of the three was unmistakable. Laughing and smiling and enjoying herself. The clear, typical features of Down Syndrome. I was struck by the dichotomy of the experiences separated literally by less than half an hour’s time. A young girl, presumably with her mother and sisters, laughing and eating ice cream, experiencing life as it should be experienced. Another, walking the streets, praying for enough kind strangers to be able to afford a warm bed and a chance to take a shower. Why? How?
I’m seriously at a loss right now, and I have been since yesterday. The experience has so profoundly affected me and yet left me paralyzed as to what to do. I’m going to write the Dean of our church, because he has been involved quite a bit with the plight of the homeless population in our community and it’s possible he or someone he knows may know this girl. Beyond that, and short of sitting at the bakery hoping she’ll come back or canvassing the streets looking for her, I don’t know what else to do. But I can’t not do anything. I can’t.