Tom

Octavia Butler once wrote “Kindness eases change.  Love quiets fear.”  It is a refrain that comes to mind often as the crowd of guests gathers at the Samaritan Center.  For many of our guests, we are a place of stability and acceptance in an otherwise chaotic existence, filled with the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of living on the edge.

When I first got to know Tom, the cold was just setting in, the dark was creeping in on the daylight and he was living underneath a bridge.  He had been homeless, on and off for decades.  In his adolescence, he was diagnosed with a profound mental illness, which grew in his early twenties to be too much for his family to manage.  He secured stable housing and supports with their help, but after suddenly losing both of his parents in less than a year, his fragile security went reeling and he wound up homeless.

Years slipped away without Tom finding any solid ground to stand on.  He’d find an apartment, but something would happen – he was hit by a car, threatened by a neighbor, a landlord had a code violation – and an opportunity would be gone before Tom had a chance to make it a home.  After something went wrong, Tom would disappear on to the streets, ashamed and discouraged.  His surviving family, his sister, would receive no word from him, sometimes for years at a time.  Finally, Tom mustered the courage to try again.

We set up a plan for supports, for necessary resources and for an apartment.  Things were coming together smoothly and I was excited for Tom, for all the possibilities ahead.  His excited refrain was, “I need to get off the streets, Julie.  I can’t keep living like this.  It’s killing me.”

There was a single piece of the puzzle we were waiting to receive, before things would come together.  Two months passed in waiting.

In that time, the excitement that buzzed through Tom’s eyes faded into hesitancy.  He didn’t come around as much.  Amidst the dragging feet of bureaucratic paperwork, Tom lost heart.  The reality of what change would mean set in.  Days wouldn’t be spent trying to find shelter  from the rain, or scouring for returned cans.  An apartment, supports, stability were what Tom needed: a chance at happiness, at a new life, at building something with staying power.  But who was Tom when he didn’t have to focus solely on survival?  Once the roof was over his head and his belly full, what was next?  A chance at happiness and security meant also that there was a chance at losing it all again.  Tom’s existence was adaptable, his focus on the here and now.  Planning for long term was never an option.

I regret, my friend, that I can’t tell you the end of this story.  We’re still waiting.  Yes, for that last piece of the puzzle.   But also, I think, for that shift in Tom’s perception that will help him see outside of the immediacy that has consumed his existence for so long.  For him to gather up the courage needed for that next big step into the unknown.

But until then, as for the past three decades, The Samaritan Center will be here: serving with kindness to ease change and love to quiet fear, all wrapped up in the security of another meal.  We may not know what comes next for Tom, or for any of our guests, but we know that we will be here, saving them a spot at the table as they navigate life’s changes.