Monday: I don't have to ask who was murdered. Clients always tell me.
"See that church?" says Danny, "The old lady slept outside there. They found out she had $135 and waited til she was asleep."
"You know who did it?"
"Oh yeah, they're right..." His finger trailed in the air as we drove past a highway exit ramp. "Those two. Right there. Smothered her in her tent."
Another client pipes up. "That's what happened to Sam. He got some money, he got him and his girlfriend a hotel room, she left to go do something and came back with some other guys and killed him."
Tuesday: The following event was covered by several news sources. So far only two colleagues have accused me of colluding with the police, but it still hurts.
I was pulled in last minute for a huge sweep downtown that the city, the police, the health department, and every other underpaid do-gooder had organized for two months. Of the sixty homeless people under that bridge, I offered housing to six of them, of whom five either cursed me out, biked away into the forest, said they had enough for a cheap motel, or insisted they were Jesus come to raise the dead.
That left my one client for the day, a sick old woman with an eye infection, one foot, and a wheelchair parked over the world's largest puddle of piss. She'd been to the ER so often that she'd gotten behind on rent, and was afraid of being evicted.
I asked how much she owed, $250 for rent plus another $55 for the water bill. The six service providers around her wheelchair stood frozen, possibly imagining the paper trail needed to justify such an expense (these same people would later endure endless Kafkaesque fuckery to justify paying for her $70 power bill).
"This is stupid," I said, "I'll pay it."
The rest of the day became an ordeal of being unable to throw money at problems. Three hours in a leasing office. Her landlady was missing, no one *but* the landlady could accept money orders, the tenant could not designate someone else to set up an online account to pay the rent (a city employee tried making one for me with the passcode OliverTwist), and it wasn't clear whether the woman could re-enter her apartment until all her utilities were paid as well.
Eventually I passed the money order to her other case manager and moved on to the next problem.
"She has a shelter bed referral," said my boss's boss, bent over a laptop and some cold Chinese takeout, "But they saw how sick she was and said she needed her meds refilled before they would admit her." A long list of prescriptions sat on the table and she tapped the top one. "At the very least she needs this one."
I asked the client, "How much is this medicine?"
"Oooo it's very expensive. You'll need to call around."
"Really?" I looked at her other case manager, one of many underpaid do-gooders in a cheap wig. She nodded, yes, very expensive.
The case manager asked if I could pay for the meds as well, since she herself couldn't afford the expense. Fifteen of us crowded a makeshift conference room/kitchen that lacked personal effects and food, the bland impermanence of employees who would likely burn out in another year and switch departments.
I called several pharmacies. Nobody carried this stuff. Finally I asked for the client's ID (a xerox she keeps wadded up in her cleavage), walked to the hospital that dispensed her meds, and asked a very kind pharmacist if she could help me out.
"Ooo" she said, looking at her computer screen, "We only carry the name brand. You sure you wanna pay for this?"
I have no idea what my client's diagnosis is. Her immune system could be maxed out and floating on thousand dollar injections of donated antibodies. Chemo treatments administered by beautiful, bored Ukrainian strippers. Mineral supplements mined from asteroids.
She looked at me over her glasses. "It's eleven dollars."
(To be fair, $11 is a lot to someone on the street. Two McDonald's meals. Two packs of awful cigarettes that are probably packed with asbestos. Eleven bus trips on a disabled card.)
With meds in hand, I returned to a nearly empty building. When I'd asked the boss's boss about my lady's bed referral, she'd only said one word (let's say it's "meatgrinder") and that could have meant many places. Was it Saint Meatgrinder's? Our Lady of the Immaculate Meatgrinder? The shelter on Meatgrinder Lane, a long dirty stretch of rats and broken glass south of city hall? The only person left was an exhausted intern, who scratched out a random address and showed us the door.
Saint Meatgrinder's was only six blocks away. It was the wrong shelter, but the security guard kindly gave me directions to the women's shelter on Meatgrinder Lane, which prompted a long series of knocking on doors and asking people where in the hell this shelter was.
"Are you lost?" asked a cop.
"Yeah I'm supposed to be dropping my client at the women's shelter."
"Oh it doesn't open til 5pm."
I fumed at the idea that the other case workers would have simply dropped this woman at high noon in 95 degree weather for five hours. "Where's the entrance sign?"
"There is no sign. You go down there," he said, pointing to a staircase that ended in another locked door, "And you wait."
Another phone call and my boss's boss's boss arrived, instantly spotting the pastor's car and verifying that, yes, the building was occupied but no one was answering the door. He assured me my lady would be taken care of. I handed her a plate of Chinese food and tagged out.
Wednesday: There were five of us on the affordable housing panel, an architect, a zoning wonk, the head of a sustainable green construction company, a staffer from the mayor's office, and me, and for once I was the odd man out.
The city planned to create more affordable housing units based on AMI (average median income), which, where I live, is $52,000, and especially hilarious since no one in the audience, neither the students or the faculty members or myself, earned that amount, much less expected my clientele to earn ten percent of AMI.
I spoke for about ninty seconds on boarding houses, for which I was paid $500, and listened to a discussion on homestead exemptions. Afterward I was approached by an earnest high school senior who wanted to get hard data on temporary shelters, but when I suggested she actually target the homeless in her zip code a nearby architect shut it down. "I'm on that planning committee. The home owner's association will kill it. We've already tried."
Thursday: Dixie's mom was 12 when she had her. I'd forgotten this until Dixie mentioned that her mom's birthday was coming up and she clicked her teeth at the idea of going to a dance club. "That's mom, she just gave birth to my brother three months ago and already she wants to turn it up and do shots." (Dixie is the oldest of nine children. Tomorrow her mom will be 37.)
In the last two years we've helped Dixie move onto a better set of problems. Where before she'd been on the sidewalk with her children scattered in various abandoned houses, they now enjoy the more mundane issues of finding a home in a better school district, juggling work with grandma's schedule, and the endless hair care that come with having four black daughters.
"Where's your dad?"
"We don't know who my dad is. Grandma was on drugs and...did things she shouldn't have and put my mom in a tough situation."
Years of foster homes, sexual abuse from her stepfather, and eventual pregnancy at sixteen left Dixie fatally depressed, stopped only by the intervention of a very understanding policewoman. "She told me to get out of bed. I had a baby. I had to feed the baby, dress the baby, spend time with him. She said that baby was gonna be my rock, and she was right. I have a picture somewhere of him when he was two, wearing my high school graduation cap."
Dixie really wants to be a cop. She's taking classes. She's also conflicted because her nine-year-old son just admitted to being sexually abused by his older half-brother, and she has no idea what to do. I'm glad I'm her friend and not her case manager, because otherwise I'd have to report her.
I gave her the phone number of a free child counselling service and when my husband made flirty noises about joining me in the shower I begged him not to touch me.
Friday: We were required to take a three hour class on drug abuse intervention. What I didn't learn from the powerpoint I learned far, far more from the ex-crack dealers sitting on either side of me. How crack users will move their bodies after five days of no sleep. How crack heads and smack addicts sequester themselves when they want to get high. And most importantly, how state Congress only started getting serious about remedies when heroin customers started being tracked back into upper middle class suburbs.
I spent a sweaty hour looking for a client in parks and garages, and on my way home noticed an art exhibition had opened. Most of it was crap, but one piece struck me, a burned length of telephone pole lashed to a second pole with black netting, set against a soft minimalist soundtrack. It reminded me of the abandoned homeless encampments off the coast of California, where police had swept everyone and left behind large sculptures fashioned from driftwood.
I lay on the cool brick floor for several minutes, alone, and thought of the Pacific.