Heart on a String

August 16, 2016

Heart on a String

This is the conclusion of the story of Hannah and her son Joseph that began in my first post. We left off with Hospitality House staff, in partnership with other county agencies, learning that Hannah, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, did indeed once have a baby named Joseph. hand on glassBut now he was grown up, a young man in his early thirties living in Nevada County. Mental health staff working for the county arranged a meeting between him and his mother.

A Hollywood ending to this story might have Joseph taking his mother in his arms and dispelling her delusion of the past many years. But as it was, after they were introduced to each other there was little to say. He was polite; she was confused. Hannah could in no way understand that the grown man standing before her had once been the infant she’d been seeking. Joseph had been warned and wasn’t surprised. The meeting was short; they never met again.

Hannah was fragile and gentle and lovely in so many ways, but at the center of her delusion was an unimaginable longing that even Joseph himself couldn’t fulfill. We at Hospitality House wanted to help her, and did help her in many important ways, but it was clear that we could do nothing to resolve the problem that haunted her life. Food, shelter, medical care, psychotherapy, transportation, even a place to live—yes. But ultimate resolution—no. It goes that way sometimes with people who come to the shelter, as it does with everyone one else on the planet. No one can create the path that others must walk, and who even knows to what degree we create it for ourselves? The commitment at the House is to be there reliably for people with what they need when they’re ready and able to receive it.

By the time she met Joseph, Hannah had left the shelter and gone to live at Odyssey House, a small residential care facility in Nevada City http://www.calqualitycare.org/providers/assisted-living/residential-care/profile?id=297001169 . She came back to us several times, though, still looking for her baby. Sometimes, under the impression that he was staying at the shelter, she brought little infant clothes for him to wear. These she would tenderly fold and unfold, running her fingers over them, lingering on the feel of the soft white cotton. When we told her he wasn’t there, she would leave the things anyway, just in case. After a while, we stopped saying he wasn’t there and just took the clothes, seeing how much comfort the acceptance gave her. When I spoke to her in those days, she never mentioned having cancer, as though the illness she’d been treated for—unsuccessfully—had little to do with her. In time she moved out of residential care into her own apartment, where she received help from visiting nurses and mental health case managers. The cancer was advancing and she was in decline. Almost a year after the meeting with Joseph, she passed away.

I think of her at least once a week, usually in the same troubling vision: Hannah taxiing around Grass Valley, her sweet face pressed to the window, her heart, suspended in time, held out on a slowly breaking string.

heart in hand

 

Hannah and Joseph

July 18, 2016

Hannah and Joseph

Hannah arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place seeking her lost infant. She was an older woman, quite short and rather squat, as though she had been stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
Under no circumstances would Denise, our staff monitor who had greeted Hannah at the door, violate Hospitality House policy by divulging information about a guest in the shelter without his or her permission. In the case of children, anyone under 18 staying at the shelter must be there with an adult, whose permission would be required. Denise began politely to explain this policy, but Hannah interrupted her.
“He’s my baby.”
Denise paused to consider. Hannah, who appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties, was too old to have an infant. Perhaps she was tired and confused, orIntake Office frightened, as so many people are when they first come to a homeless shelter. Denise ushered her into the small office where interviews with new guests are conducted and offered her a seat.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like some coffee and a sandwich?”
In her swivel chair, Hannah’s feet barely touched the floor. Denise took a seat facing her, where she could see Hannah’s face. It was a pretty face, softened with large, liquid brown eyes.
“No thank you, I’m not hungry. I’m looking for Joseph.”
“Tell me about him.”
Hannah told her story. She had lived in Grass Valley previously, but for the past three years had been residing, by her own choice, in a psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. The day before, without a goodbye, she had packed a small bag and made her way to the bus station, stopping only to collect the money in her savings account, which amounted to almost $400. When she arrived in Grass Valley hours later, she found a cab and took a $350 ride around town, eyes glued to the window in search of baby Joseph. Finally, having run through her money, she asked the taxi driver to take her to a homeless shelter.
With Hannah’s permission, Denise called the Bay Area hospital to let the staff there know where Hannah was and to find out a little more about her background. She learned that Hannah was withdrawn but cooperative, and delusional concerning the existence of a baby named Joseph. No amount of treatment had ever been able to shake her belief in him or diminish the urgency of her desire to find him. In addition, she had diminished mental capacities that, combined with her delusional disorder, severely hampered her ability to function “normally” in society.
Hannah remained for several months at Utah’s Place, where she did surprisingly well. She had a special sweetness about her that endeared her to everyone, and though she continued to seek Joseph, she lost the air of desperation she’d had when she first arrived. The structure of the daily and nightly routine anchoredDoor knob her, and she relished performing simple chores around the shelter like sweeping, dusting, and wiping doorknobs with a disinfectant cloth.
During the morning when the shelter was closed, she walked slowly through town, looking for her baby.

 A Tragedy on Top of a Tragedy 

Western Sierra Medical Clinic http://wsmcmed.org/ is a local medical center that provides extensive on-site medical care for our guests. Hannah visited the clinic mobile medical van when she complained of pain in her breast, and was subsequently sent to the hospital for a mammogram. The news was bad: she had breast cancer and would have to undergo treatment immediately.

Several people have undergone chemotherapy while staying at the shelter: a tragedy on top of a tragedy. Our social worker Jodi Benson, working with the county Behavioral Health Department https://www.mynevadacounty.com/nc/hhsa/bh/Pages/Home.aspx, was able to get Hannah into a small local recovery home for people suffering from mental challenges.

Joseph

As various agencies collaborated to look more deeply into Hannah’s history, they made a discovery. Thirty years ago she had indeed had a baby, and his name was Joseph. Joseph still lived in Nevada County. When they got hold of him, he agreed to meet his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for many year

Please catch my next post to learn what happened when they met. You can do that by signing up in the right-hand column.

These Stories Describe Us

June 23, 2016

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
http://www.eji.org/BryanStevenson

The suffering of the poor isn’t subtle; I first encountered it as a very young child. I grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. My family lived near the depot of the commuter train that ran up from Chicago to Milwaukee. Trains rumbled past our house morning and night, their engines lurching to a restless stop and revving back up again as they departed the station. Most passengers on that line in the 1950s were businessmen going to and from their offices in downtown Chicago, but also, going in opposite directions, were many African-American women coming to work domestic jobs in the suburbs and returning home at night to the city’s South Side.
The sight of those women walking wearily back to the station at the end of the day haunted me. One of them, Ruby, a large, openhearted woman, came to our house once a week. I watched her hoist heavy pails of dirty water around the house, crouch on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor, and wrestle the unwieldy vacuum cleaner step by step up our narrow carpeted stairs. As the day went by, it wasn’t lost on me that her morning smile went down with the waning sun. At nightfall, she trudged to the train with the other women, each on her way home to make her family dinner and care for her own children.
I always wondered why their lives were manifestly so much harder than those of the white women around me. It seemed so unfair. A lifetime of contemplating the reasons for poverty has provided many complex answers to that question, but it hasn’t changed my feelings one whit. My involvement at Hospitality House http://hhshelter.org/, a shelter in a rural county in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, California, has been a response.
In 2005 I co-founded Hospitality House along with several other people, including my late husband Utah Phillips.
Utah pic
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Phillips.

Utah had been homeless himself for two years after a devastating stint in the Korean War. [link to Utah] He passed away in 2008, never knowing about the permanent shelter building we acquired through a grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department in 2010. We named it in his honor: Utah’s Place. Some people think I became involved with the shelter because of Utah, but that isn’t true. During my time as a volunteer, I got close, and remain close, to many of the homeless guests at Hospitality House.
At the House, I’ve witnessed many people’s struggles; each one, whether won or lost, has been a meaningful story, often raw, about what we humans do and are. My purpose in this blog is to share those stories as respectfully and accurately as I can. I’ll change people’s names and may change genders and specific details to protect confidentiality. My motivation is to honor suffering and redemption, and to hold up a mirror, for however unusual their content may seem, these stories not only touch us, they describe us.
HH House picMy first story, which happened a few years ago, is about Hannah, an older woman who arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place, seeking her lost infant. She was short and squat, as though stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
I hope you’ll join me next week for the rest of this story. You can receive future posts in your inbox by clicking on the subscribe button on the right.

Your gifts change lives: see how you helped in 2015

March 6, 2016

homedata2

“The Gift of Song” to Benefit Hospitality House”

October 22, 2015

I was listening to the radio one Friday morning while in my car driving into Nevada City. I like to listen to  Jeri Ann Van Dijk’s show on Friday mornings on KVMR. Every week around 8:30, Jeri Ann invites Joanna Robinson from Hospitality House to talk about what’s going on at Hospitality House and ask for specific “requests”  that are urgently needed for her “guests”. Joanna’s sweet voice always makes me want to do something to help her out. (She never has a request for herself, by the way.)

Benefit Concert for Hospitality House Will Raise Mental Health Awareness

April 12, 2015

 

Portuguese/Canadian roots singer, song writer, and multi-instrumentalist Awna Teixeira will perform a benefit concert for Hospitality House on Thursday, July 9 at The Open Door (formerly Tomes) at 671 Maltman Drive, Grass Valley (in the Brunswick Basin). The concert will begin at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available in advance for $15 at BriarPatch Co-Op and online at hhshelter.org; they will be sold at the door for $20.

Teixeira, formerly of the popular Canadian urban roots duo Po’ Girl, is touring solo in support of the March release of her second album, Wild One, which reflects her concern with the tragedy of mental illness. She calls the international tour her “Blue Heart on Your Sleeve Tour,” named after a song on the album written for her grandmother.HH_benefitconcert_July2015

Partly, the purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of mental illness. Teixeira has been supporting mental health organizations in the countries she tours by donating proceeds from ticket sales and sales of blue heart-shaped patches that may be worn or displayed in solidarity with those who suffer from mental and emotional challenges.

Teixeira’s wish, she says, is “to break down the barriers and social stigmas of mental illness and learn how to take care of each other and ourselves. All of these songs are very personal… [a]bout people I have loved and lost, about learning to trust my true voice, about learning to find my wild again, and about my own struggle coming to terms with depression and trying to find my peace with it.”

This year Hospitality House celebrates its tenth anniversary operating as the only emergency homeless shelter in Nevada County. In addition to providing shelter, food, clothing, and access to medical care, the shelter also runs a housing program that since 2013 has placed 262 homeless Nevada County residents (including 78 children) into permanent homes of their own.

The Nevada County Behavioral Health Department sponsors an onsite psychotherapist at the shelter to provide care for the many guests who suffer from mental illness. The shelter also partners closely with Western Sierra Medical Clinic to provide ongoing managed health care.

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Panhandlers, Vagrants and Transients

August 21, 2014

 

Challenging Labels

Challenging labels 1

In September, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and the Grass Valley City Council will have to respond to the civil grand jury’s June report, “Panhandlers, vagrants and transients in a neighborhood near you?”

But well before that response was due, the language used in the report drew criticism.

The report used the phrase “panhandlers, vagrants and transients” so frequently the authors coined an acronym — PVT. The term appears 38 times in the 11-page report.

A number of individuals interviewed for this article said they preferred to be called “houseless” or “displaced residents.” Others think “homeless” is more or less the right word. But the grand jury’s term of “PVT” generated strong emotional responses for some.

Days after that report was released, Hospitality House hosted a healing workshop for some of its residents. As part of the nonprofit’s mission to shelter Nevada County’s homeless and help them find housing, the workshop was an effort to help participants address some of the root causes of homelessness.

“It’s heartbreaking, really. It doesn’t surprise me, but at the same time, it’s very disheartening. There’s obviously no compassion, none whatsoever. It’s a lazy mind, and it’s discrimination.” Challenging labels 2
Ray
a homeless resident of Nevada City

“We’re trying to empower them to help them to heal, but you can imagine what it must feel like to be a homeless person when a report such as the one (the grand jury) wrote was released,” said Cindy Maple, executive director at Hospitality House. “It was really hurtful to them.”

Hospitality House sometimes uses poster-board and markers as tools in those workshops. The idea, Maple said, is to help its clients rethink how they see themselves, using “power words.” Several participants focused on the grand jury’s acronym, PVT.

“We were sending messages back to the community as a healing exercise, and they were so meaningful that we took pictures,” Maple said.

Robert Marquardt is a homeless veteran of the United States Army. He made a sign saying “I am not a PVT. I’m just residentially challenged.”

Marquardt worked in security for more than 15 years, and later found work as a trucker. He’s currently unemployed, but looking for work and making use of the services Hospitality House provides.

He said he doesn’t want to be called a PVT.

“It does offend me,” Marquardt said. “I’m not a panhandler. I’ve never stood on a corner with a street sign begging for money.

“I’m out there trying. It’s not like I’m sitting back on my butt doing nothing. I’m trying to get something done, and to be lumped in with people who don’t want to do anything is just frustrating,” he said.

“I don’t know who’s on the grand jury, but I’m sure that they’ve never actually gotten out and talked to people who are homeless,” Marquardt said.

Laurie, another Hospitality House resident who asked to have her last name omitted, criticized the lack of evidence in the grand jury report’s list of facts.

“I just don’t appreciate that the grand jury is assuming and relying on … numbers that are maybe, not exaggerated, but guessed at,” Laurie said. “They don’t have hard facts that the homeless are actually part of that problem.

“I think the grand jury went a little over the line in trying to describe this problem, quantify it and pin it down,” she added.

Tim Robison, another Hospitality House client, said he was outraged at the grand jury’s choice in language. In response, Robison made a sign saying, “P.V.T. — It wasn’t me.” He’s a contractor, and he used to run his own business. Robison said he owned a home in Roseville, but lost it in a recent divorce. That’s how he ended up at Hospitality House.

“There’s people in here that are school teachers that are out of work. There’s people in here that are nurses that are out of work. I’ve seen a few bad apples. That’s not anybody in here, but we’re being classified with those people, too,” Robison said.

Similar sentiments were expressed at a free weekly lunch in Pioneer Park, provided by Sierra Roots.

“It’s heartbreaking, really,” said Ray, a homeless resident of Nevada City who asked to be identified by first name only. “It doesn’t surprise me, but at the same time, it’s very disheartening. There’s obviously no compassion, none whatsoever. It’s a lazy mind, and it’s discrimination.”

Most of the homeless people interviewed for this story agreed that the individuals who make up Nevada County’s homeless population should not be lumped into a single category.Challenging labels 3

And members of the Nevada County Civil grand jury might agree with that.

“The Nevada County grand jury recognizes that any discussion of the homeless problem is politically challenging. There is a fine line between providing needed services to a deserving population and enabling or encouraging the less desirable element,” members of the grand jury wrote.

But many of the individuals with behavioral issues actually have homes, according to Michael Lucas Butler, and most homeless people wouldn’t even understand the term “PVT.”

Butler lives in unincorporated Nevada County, where he camps with the property owner’s permission. He moved here in 1993, and has been without permanent housing since 2003.

Butler sees the grand jury’s report on PVTs as a mild embarrassment, but said there’s a silver lining. He hopes it gives them a reason to re-examine their work, and possibly revisit this issue at a later date.

“Now that they’ve made themselves look a little foolish, this gives them the opportunity to come up and shine like a star,” Butler said.

Among the homeless individuals interviewed for this report, there was a consensus that the solution to problems associated with the homeless community would involve more access to mental health services.

They also tend to agree that there are dangerous, obnoxious or “less desirable” elements within the homeless community that do cause serious problems.

But several homeless individuals interviewed also stated that this is a national issue. It’s much worse outside of Nevada County, they said, and the extent of the problem locally may have been exaggerated.

“I know what panhandling means, and I’ve seen very little of it here,” said Laurie at Hospitality House. “What’s happening here is not as big a problem as I’ve seen recently in other places.”

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

 

Nevada County musician takes talents to Utah’s Place

June 13, 2014

Learning how to play the guitar may not seem like a top priority for a homeless person who typically needs shelter and sustenance, first and foremost.

But, as longtime Nevada County musician and guitar teacher Kelly Fleming tells it, music may be a key need for soul survival – once the physical needs are addressed. (more…)

Volunteer gives Hospitality House gift of her mother’s piano

April 30, 2014

Judy Olson has given untold hours to serving meals to homeless guests at Hospitality House, Nevada County’s community homeless shelter and housing program. Last Monday, she gave even more: her mother’s piano, freshly tuned by a generous anonymous donor. (more…)

Cinco de Mayo: Celebrating victories large and small

April 30, 2014

Nine years ago, someone close to Teresita Juarez Lyon was homeless.

That’s when she discovered Hospitality House. (more…)