Christmas lights do not dispel darkness. They reveal it.

The following is the fourth installment of an essay written by Jaime L. Benshoff about her experiences being homeless.

If you want to read the earlier parts, you can find them here:

Have a great week!


Finding Home

Part 4 of 6
By Jaime L. Benshoff

With the problems of meals and where I would sleep at night settled, I was able to make and keep appointments to work on my life.  When not living in pure survival as when I lived on the streets, my brain functioned well enough that I could commit to plans.

I applied for Social Security disability, made an appointment with a disability lawyer to represent me, applied for Medicaid, and spent my days walking the mile and a half to attend group therapy at a mental health facility which provided care for people without insurance.  I was taking my medication and had regular doctor visits to monitor my progress.

My shoes were beginning to split on the soles from all the walking I did.  I loved my shoes, they were Danskos clogs like what nurses wear.  They are expensive, an investment in healthy feet.

One day I went to lunch at a downtown church which feeds the homeless once a week (the churches take turns.)  This church also offered a clothing closet and featured clean, attractive donated items.  I stepped inside and my eyes fell instantly on a brand-new pair of black Danskos in my size.

The shoes were all on display behind the table from which the clothing closet volunteer supervised and in a tremulous voice I said, “I’d like to see those,” as my finger pointed to the clogs.  The volunteer smiled, “Here, try them on.”  She handed them to me.  “These are nice shoes,” she said.

Like Cinderella and the glass slipper the shoes fit.  I didn’t wear them just yet but walked back to the homeless shelter in my old shoes, hugging the bag with my new ones to my chest.

*       *       *

In the shelter the wealthy were those women who had cash for cigarettes and “Obama” phones, the free cell phones given to those who qualify.  At night after evening chores, the women with phones would troll ex boyfriends on Facebook, hoping for a hook up that would lead to a place to live.

Responses were analyzed, potential threats (another woman) were neutralized and territories (Facebook pages) were scent marked.  I observed without comment and when one of the women was successful there were weeping goodbyes.  Anyone getting out of the homeless shelter was cause for celebration.  Those of us left behind wondered when and how our turn would come.

*       *       *

The holidays were hard so making Christmas for the children in the homeless shelter became our focus.  One little girl was six years old and lived in the women’s dorm with her mother and grandmother.  One of the men in the shelter was waiting on housing, he now could pay rent because of a favorable settlement in a car accident case.

This bachelor had never been married nor had children and he requested the director’s permission to make Christmas for the three children staying there.  When the director gave his approval, plans began in earnest.  The other children weren’t in school yet, they were staying in the shelter with their young mothers and the bachelor bought them age-appropriate toys, making frequent secret trips to Walmart.

The 6-year-old, however, was in school, the bus stopped in front of the shelter every weekday morning.  The bachelor, whose name was Michael, asked me if I thought the little girl would like a tablet to watch videos on and play games.  I said I thought it was a great idea but you’d best check with her mom.

The cafeteria was at the end of the hall going away from the chapel.  It featured a large space with a dozen round tables that seated six.  Meals were served at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and were prepared by the male residents to gain kitchen skills that would train them for a job.   They were supervised by Chef Al, a Vietnam War veteran who was much loved and respected.  The cafeteria itself was brightly lit by rows of fluorescent lights.

Christmas morning started like every other morning:  up at 5 AM, breakfast to be held at 6 AM.  The shelter didn’t serve coffee so I spent my time between 5 and 6 drinking my instant coffee.  I had found, to my delighted surprise, that the water cooler had a hot water setting.  Then it is morning chores and out of the dorm to go down to breakfast.

A group of us trooped through the hallway when Evie, the six-year-old, cried “Look!”  The cafeteria lights were turned off and the room was lit by the glow of a six-foot Christmas tree festooned with lights, garland, ornaments and even a star on top.  Colorfully wrapped packages spilled over themselves on the floor surrounding the tree and there stood Michael, the bachelor, looking pleased with the effect his handiwork and a 24-hour Walmart had wrought.

“It’s beautiful!”  I was startled at the transformation of the utilitarian space.  An Episcopal priest once said Christmas lights do not dispel darkness, rather, they reveal it.

The children were being handed their gifts and we all watched as memories of Christmases past flooded us.  All too soon the moment was over, the cafeteria’s fluorescent lights were switched back on and a breakfast of hard boiled eggs and biscuits out of a can were served.  Christmas Day is just like any other day in a homeless shelter.

Next week: Part 5 of Jaime’s story.

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