Death on the Streets

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I am tired of people dying.

I say that like I have some say in the matter, but of course, I don’t. And I get the whole ‘circle of life’ thing. And I am not all that scared at the prospect of my dying or anything. I think I am just tired of folks dying who shouldn’t be dying.

Like my friend Cowboy, who died way too young in a ditch in the woods because our health care system failed him. Or Shon, who died in jail after being arrested for drinking a ‘malt beverage’ in public and a jailer beat the everloving shit out of him. Or baby CJ, who never got to be held by his momma. Or Keisha, who was hit by a drunk driver and drug like a dog down the street. Or Kathy, who died at 15 of Sickle Cell.

Some of it is the randomness of this world, and some of it is injustice. But all of it sucks.

If you do this work long enough, you will have folks die on you. Homelessness has a high mortality rate.

And if you are like me, you get mad. But you also learn that anger by itself is impotent. Focused anger, on the other hand, can move mountains and start revolutions.

I had been in Raleigh about four months when I met Stephanie. She was the first death I knew about, and it devastated me. Processing her death was a big deal for me, and helped me shed some of my illusions about what should or should not happen.

It was also the topic of a lot of my talks to churches that first year. And in the inevitable Q& A after my talks, I got to process it more and more.

Here is an old blog post I originally wrote for a website that no longer exists – it has been republished in various forms around the web. It is the story of my dealing with Stephanie’s death, and it also marks the last time I pulled punches when asked hard questions.

* * *

At 23, most people her age are very conscious of their appearance, but Stephanie’s wardrobe consisted of thrift store finds and cast offs, leaning heavily toward stretch pants and sweatshirts that advertised events she had never seen and places she would never visit. She was a heavy girl, perhaps 250 pounds and her greasy, stringy hair only served to accentuate her poor skin. Because of her weight, she shuffled more than walked and her head was always bowed, seeking not to offend, avoiding eye contact.

The first time I met her, she was in line for food in the park. She shuffled along, mumbling thanks, eyes on the ground. Over the following months, I tried to engage her but whether it was my being male, or her inner demons, it just was not happening. Like a dog that had been struck once too often, she flinched at contact.

When there was an open bed, Stephanie would stay at the woman’s shelter, but more often than not she had to make other arrangements. On cold nights, she would trade sexual favors in exchange for a warm bed. To pick up spending money, she would trade sex for money – very little money.

Because of her weight and mental issues, often the promise of a warm bed was revoked, or the money not paid after the oral sex had been given. Several people later told me Stephanie was often sexually assaulted and raped, unable to resist her attackers.

The last time I saw her was on a Thursday in early November. It was unseasonably cold that day, with a sharp, piercing wind. Stephanie shuffled down the sidewalk, huddled down into her jacket, oblivious to my wave, ignoring me when I called.

Stephanie made it into the women’s shelter that night. There she could sleep; secure in the knowledge she was safe. In her sleep, Stephanie died of complications from sleep apnea. At age 23, she was another statistic of life, and death, on the streets.

I told Stephanie’s story in a talk I gave at a church luncheon. When I finished, they prayed fervent prayers that Stephanie would be at peace in the loving arms of Jesus. They prayed that those who injure and molest women like Stephanie would be caught and punished. They prayed for God’s kingdom to come and for shalom to rest on our city.

At the end of the talk, a lady came up to me, obviously moved by my story. Then she asked me the question I dread most: “How could God allow this to happen to Stephanie? Was this all part of God’s plan?”

If you spend much time working in the inner-city, you try not to ask yourself that question–not because you don’t know what the answer is, but because you do. And if you tell people the answer to that question, they get mad at you, and they call you names, and they don’t invite you back.

What I wanted to tell that lady, but did not, was God did have a plan to take care of Stephanie; God’s plan was us.

I wanted to tell her that it is not we who are waiting on God to act, but rather it is God who is waiting on us. I wanted to tell her that what Stephanie really had needed was not this lady’s prayers but a safe place to sleep at night. What I wanted to tell that lady, but didn’t, is that it is very obvious that we have the resources to help invisible people just like Stephanie but we simply lack the will to do so.

I did not tell that church lady any of that. But I wish I had.

2 thoughts on “Death on the Streets

  1. Li Andru Stiles

    I SOO AGREE WITH YOU Hugh, and have been BLESSED AND HONORED TO HAVE MET Cowboy and Shon Who I SOO MISS AND WILL ALWAYS RECOGNIZE THEIR LIFE, and am glad to have you as a Relative (friend who is like FAM)!! THANKS FOR THIS< AND ALL YOU DO FOR US!!! I AM SOO NOT GOING TO LET INJUSTICE GO IGNORED!! ….

    Reply
  2. Abbie Watters

    May I borrow your story for our hunger blog? We are in Tacoma, Washington, and I think many people don’t read your blog. I was particularly moved by your conclusion. “What I wanted to tell that lady, but did not, was God did have a plan to take care of Stephanie; God’s plan was us.
    I wanted to tell her that it is not we who are waiting on God to act, but rather it is God who is waiting on us. I wanted to tell her that what Stephanie really had needed was not this lady’s prayers but a safe place to sleep at night. What I wanted to tell that lady, but didn’t, is that it is very obvious that we have the resources to help invisible people just like Stephanie but we simply lack the will to do so.”

    Reply

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