Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coffee and Conversation Bridge the Divide Between Those Homeless and Those with a Safe Haven

Words and Images by Al Griffin

I walked into an old industrial area of Springfield midmorning in September while Summer’s heat was still upon us. Around the edges of overgrown empty lots and abandoned industrial buildings, the only shade lived under scrubby bushes along with rusted cans and homeless people in makeshift day camps. Some scattered at the sight of a stranger, probably conditioned to being run off private property by those who worry about such things.

A dog left behind barked to warn me off his piece of ground. On the opposite edge, under cool leafy trees, a blanket held two people. A woman, mid thirties, sat cross-legged on the blanket looking at me as I walked slowly through the ankle high grass toward her shade. The man lay on the blanket and appeared to be asleep with his head on a very small backpack.

I carried a camera in one hand at my side and a cup of coffee in the other hand. She looked at the coffee mostly, but seemed unsure and apprehensive. I just said hello and stopped about ten feet away so she wouldn’t feel threatened or have to look up at an uncomfortable angle. She kept looking away and fidgeting with her long hair. She hadn’t been awake very long and her companion seemed to be deeply asleep from fatigue or substance. 

I asked how she was doing and she mumbled “OK” looking down. When she looked up at the coffee again, I asked if she wanted a cup of coffee. She seemed very happy and said thanks over and over. After a few minutes, I asked if she minded if I sat down. She agreed, more relaxed with the coffee and conversation.

She called herself Bella and said her friend was Ying Ying and poked him asking if he was awake. He did not stir much. On the street for a few months, Bella said she used to work at local day care centers, but got into some “trouble’ and lost her job and ended up on the street. Ying Ying, she told me, has been on the street for a couple of years. 

Bella kept saying she had a small cut on her eye and touching it with her hand to cover the place that appeared to be the result of a blow to the face. I could offer conjecture about the cause or circumstances, but that’s pointless. The vulnerability a woman on the street must feel, the fear about predators in her social circle, are powerful forces and would cause someone to rationalize that the occasional blow from her “protector” is a small price to pay for the safety he offers. But the other version may be the true one. This man of hers may have ridden in on his white horse and saved her from savages in her jungle; he may be the knight that rescued her from her fate.

What I know is that Bella warmed to the simple offer of hot coffee and conversation the same way any stranger does at Starbucks on any given morning. We all want the same thing. We all respond to the same stimuli. We all are alike in so many ways. 

I got to bathe this morning and put on clean clothes and face the day with a bright and eager companion and a cup of hot coffee. I hope the Bellas and Ying Yings of the world have a shot at that in their near future.