Meeting Susan, the street beggar, Part 1

During my vacation, I wandered the streets of Portland like a vagabond. But not really. Because I wore nice clothes, was mostly clean, and had money for food. By the fourth day, I decided it was time to summon the courage to talk with one of the real street people.

There were several to pick from; people sitting on flat window ledges or overturned buckets with homemade cardboard signs asking for money. Since The Holy Donut was one of my favorite places, I chose to stop and talk to a woman who was begging a few yards away.

I asked her this burning question, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” She said it was no problem since The Holy Donut allows her to use theirs, but she doesn’t like to impose since it is such a small place.

She said there are other options, like the Irving Station down the street or Starbucks. I said, “What about the combination lock at Starbucks? She laughed, “We all know the combination, and they almost never change it.”

I asked her if she was homeless and she answered, “I was for several years, but now I have a studio apartment. This will sound crazy, but I miss the people at the women’s shelter and living by myself is lonely.” What she didn’t miss was the drinking, drugging, and drama that pushed her to the limit, forcing her to leave periodically, only to get back on the waiting list to return.

When she got her apartment, a local church gave her a ‘blessing box’ that included some basic kitchen items, a blanket, and a shower curtain. She said, “Do you have any idea how vital a shower curtain is to someone who has nothing? Most people don’t think about that. And I got a voucher for $200 for furnishings, so I was able to buy a table and two chairs.”

Once she retrieved her twin bed from storage and her cat, Rosie, from foster care, she avowed she had everything she needed.

She sits and asks for money because her monthly income consists of a $50 rent voucher and $169 in food stamps, and she needs money for essentials not covered by food stamps, like toilet paper and cat food. Plus she’s saving to buy dentures.

Her teeth were extracted last summer when she had a dental infection that spread through her body resulting in endocarditis (heart infection). She was in the hospital from August to October.

She said she was thankful to qualify for free care through Maine Medical Center because her bill was more than $250,000 and she doesn’t qualify for any health insurance program, including MaineCare (Medicaid).

I told her I’d like to give her some money, but I had to break a large bill, and she smiled, “That’s okay. Don’t feel any obligation.”

I said I’d be back and went looking for something I could buy with my twenty-dollar bill so I could drop a fiver or a couple of ones in her cup.

I got a phone call from my friend Lee Gaitan and told her about Susan. She asked, “Did you find out how she got in this predicament?” I said, “No, that seemed too personal. What if it is a horrible story of abuse and crime? She might not want to talk about it.”

But I realized any real reporter asks hard questions, and since I’d already broached the bathroom subject, it shouldn’t be too hard to touch on other sensitive issues. So I decided I’d go back and buy her iced tea, which would break my twenty, promote conversation, and demonstrate my generosity.

Next week I’ll share more of Susan’s story with Part 2.

Have you ever stopped to talk to a street person? What was your experience? Did you find out how they came to fall on hard times?

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49 thoughts on “Meeting Susan, the street beggar, Part 1

  1. I am glad you pulled yourself together to have a conversation with her. It’s so easy to pass by as if these people are air. I did the same at my only visit in Washington D.C. eight years ago. It seemed easier for me abroad than here in my own country

    • It was hard to do, Maria, but so gratifying. I have friends who participate in a street pastor ministry and they encounter people who are very drunk, high, and mentally ill but they still have some good conversations with them and learn a lot about overwhelming problems these folks face. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  2. Oh, Molly, I’d love to know what she thought of you and how you made the time to speak with her. I’ll wager that doesn’t happen to her very often, if at all. You’ve reminded me of the fellow who lived in the bush near my parents’ house. 20 years ago, they’d toddle along with the dog on the beach every morning and Mom would collect all the bottles and cans they found strewn on the sand or in the bins. They’d then cash them in and give the money to me and my late husband for our computer fund. One morning, this homeless chap saw my Mom leaning into a bin and he piped up “You should be wearing gloves! Do you need a pair?” Bless him. After that they always paused for a chat with him.

    • What a sweet story, Kelly. Thank you for sharing it. It is good to see the person behind the cardboard sign and Susan taught me so much. Several of my friends from my church participate in a street pastor program and routinely talk with people who live on the street. Their experience probably helped me reach out and I hope others stop and talk with Susan, but I fear most walk by without looking or view her with judgment.

  3. “You are six choices away from everyone you judge.” — said by a homeless Chicago man, to a rude passerbyer, as told by Chris Redd

    “Becoming homeless opened my eyes.” — sign of a homeless woman in Portland Maine (not Susan)

    Compassion is free.

  4. This was very interesting Molly – looking forward to part 2! More of us should go and talk to people who have had a rough time because recognition and validation of their existence as part of the community is just as important as food and money. I did this way back at the start of my blogging life with a really rough male beggar. What transpired was hilarious and I got a taste of the derision that is heaped on beggars by some passers by. I sat on the pavement with him and all his stuff for a couple of hours and was treated to some spectacular looks of disapproval from some extremely uptight middle-class aholes who just don’t get it. I mean some SERIOUSLY nasty glares! But there were others who were really lovely to him. I never did write about it for various reasons but enough time has passed now that I could do it without compromising him in any way. Well done Molly – you probably made her day – we all deserve recognition and care no matter where we are on the social scale.

    • I would be interested in what you would write about your experience, Gilly. Sally and I talked non-stop and I was taking notes, so I didn’t fully appreciate how the passers by responded to her. At one point I thought I might be inhibiting her collections, and told her I needed to wrap things up so she wasn’t short changed, but she urged me to stay and talk. She had a great impact on me for sure. I’m anxious to share part 2.

  5. You are brave and kindhearted to sit and chat with a homeless person. Homelessness is huge in Sacramento, at least the people with homes think so. So many homeless have chosen and prefer the lifestyle of living off the grid. Sacramento gets lots of homeless folks from back in in the winter time, they hop trains and stay here seasonally because of the “warm” winter weather. I am always especially saddened to hear about and see homeless women. I look forward to your next installment, Molly!

    • There are some advantages of being homeless I suppose, especially in a warm climate. I can’t think of many but I suppose there is a freedom you can’t feel when ‘tied’ to a home. Susan told me nobody wants to live like this. I am also struck by how hard it is for homeless families to stay together. We have no options in our immediate area for families so they are split up with parents in shelters and children in foster care. So sad. Thanks for chiming in, Terri.

      • Yes, I started the fund. I moved to Portland 4 years ago and saw her, her hopeful signs, and amazing spirit around town and just had to talk to her. We developed a passing acquaintanceship and then friendship over the years. I hadn’t seen her in months and when she reappeared, I immediately noticed her health had declined and her teeth were gone. When she told me what happened, I knew I could help her with this one thing that would make a huge difference in her life.

        Thank you for sharing her story – you are a great storyteller. I hope your writings will help drive more donations to her fund so we can get her a new set of teeth!

        • What a lovely story of your friendship with Susan, SallyAnn. I’m so happy you started the fund for her teeth. I always feel so bad when someone can’t access dental care, and for Susan it was almost fatal. It is such an important thing for one’s health and self esteem and when you are poor, there is no choice but to let the teeth go. I hope sharing her story helps her get new teeth.

    • That was a sweet part of her story, Becca. So sad to think of being separated from one’s pet. Did I luck out to find someone like Susan, or are there many more like her among us? Stay tuned for part 2.

  6. I spoke to someone last night that works with the homeless population in San Diego. He stated that stopping to talk and asking someone’s name helps us to remember that these are true people on the street (not just a statistic). I enjoyed hearing about Susan. Looking forward to the next installment, Molly!

  7. I have always been afraid of stopping to chat but not my husband. Sometimes he will tell the person that he won’t give them money but he will buy them a meal and then takes them to a takeout place and lets them order what they want.

    • We did that once. In lieu of a handout, we took a young beggar to lunch and shared a meal with him. It was an interesting and uncomfortable experience because he was either psychotic, high on drugs, or a bit of both. I also remember looking around to see if anyone knew us since I was embarrassed to be seen with him. I have a long way to go in the compassion department, Bernadette. I like your husband’s approach.

      • I enjoyed hearing about your encounter and am looking forward to installment 2 like everyone else. 🙂 It is hard to judge, I always remember a mutual friend’s saying, “A judgement is an unmet need”. It makes one stop and be a little introspective.

        • I like that saying, Linda. I will think about that the next time I find myself making a judgment. There is always so much more to the story if you delve into it. Thank you for leaving a comment.

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