For many, 2019 was difficult; for nearly all of us, 2020 has been immensely more so. Some have complained vociferously about having to spend much more time at home in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Their unending litany—“I’m so bored! I’m so frustrated! I hate staying home! I want to go out!”—overlooks one simple point: the incredible luxury of actually having a home to stay in.
Many have been unable to shelter at home for the most basic reason of all—they are homeless. One article suggests that through the end of October, 2020, the COVID-19 mortality rate for sheltered homeless persons in New York City was seventy-five (75%) percent higher than for those who have homes. (The article noted that due to a lack of data, it did not include mortality rates for unsheltered persons—in other words, those who were living on the streets rather than in a shelter.)
December 21 is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Last year, I attended a service honoring those who had died over the previous year while experiencing homelessness. As the organizer said, for many of them, this service would be “the only remembrance and recognition of their passing.” Afterward, I shared the following essay about the service, and about a homeless man named George who changed my life.
As we face the longest night of the year, let us not forget those who have no home in which to take shelter from the darkness.
December 21. The shortest day of the year. The longest night. The greatest darkness.
How fitting that this day is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Across the country, memorial services honor and remember those who have died in the past year while experiencing homelessness.
The service for the Greater Hartford region was held today at Center Church in Hartford. I wouldn’t have known about it but for a Facebook post by Cuatro Puntos, a local chamber music group that not only performs around the area, but also leads a group called Music Moves Hartford, a choir comprised largely of people experiencing homelessness. One sentence from the post struck me: “For many, this will be the only remembrance and recognition of their passing.”
A statement that can–and should–break your heart.
And so, on the last Saturday before Christmas, when many were finishing shopping and making their final holiday preparations, I headed into Hartford. A handful of people were gathered on the stone steps of Center Church, waiting for the doors to open. An iron fence around the church’s property was draped with scarves and hats and shawls; a sign invited anyone who needed anything to take it. At the top of the steps, next to doors that must have been at least fifteen feet high, was a tent. Later, I saw other tents pitched next to the building, their occupants peering out to see what was happening.
Shortly before the appointed hour, a young man opened the doors. We filed into the church which was a bit fancier than a classic New England house of worship, with stained glass windows, ornate carvings, and a high pulpit. Still, the basics were there: white pews with doors, greenery draped along the balcony, Advent wreath with purple and pink candles. I slipped into a pew, noting that unlike some, these boasted cushions.
Never having been to such a service, I didn’t know what to expect. As it turned out, it was simple and quiet. Cuatro Puntos musicians played, as did a young man from Center Church. Two poets read.
At the front of the church stood a tripod bearing a large round circle that held a cluster of keys; each key represented a person who had died this year while experiencing homelessness. We were each given a piece of paper bearing the name of one of the people who had passed. When the leader read each name, a bell was struck. Then, the person holding that name stood and read the name, echoing it back. Since there were more names than attendees, we began echoing back every name to honor them all. It turned out that after the program had been prepared, three more names became known, and we spoke their names, too.
After the service, we took tea lights and the circle of keys out to the incredibly icy ancient burial ground next to the church, and we laid them on the unmarked grave in that small graveyard.
At one point in the service, the attendees were invited to share thoughts and reflections. I hadn’t planned to speak, but after a woman rose to talk about a recently deceased acquaintance from her AA meeting, I found myself rising and heading to the front to tell this small group about George. As I told them, I don’t know if George is still walking among us. All I know is that he played an important part in my life, and I wanted to tell that story. What you are about to read contains much more detail than I recounted, in part because I didn’t want to take up too much time at the service. Here, I can tell you more.
Fifteen years ago, I began volunteering at a local soup kitchen. On the fourth Saturday of every month, I spearheaded a team from my church which purchased, cooked, and served breakfast to whoever came in the door. In addition, I served breakfast on the second Tuesday of each month.
On a Tuesday in the spring of 2008, I was getting ready to start breaking down the breakfast service when I heard what sounded like a tiny mew. Some women perk up if they hear a child crying; I respond to a cat’s meow. I looked around, but I didn’t see who could be responsible for such a delicate sound.
On the steps outside, a few of the men were gathered. In their midst was a tiny black-and-white kitten. George, who was one of the regulars, explained. It seemed that someone had come along who was trying to get rid of his cat’s litter by giving the kittens to homeless people. The sheer idiocy of such a plan was nearly blinding. Even so, George was a cat lover, and he could not resist this little baby.
The problem was that George was staying with his nephew, and the nephew already had a cat. As we tried to coax the kitten to drink a little bit of milk out of a styrofoam bowl, I assured George that I’d get the kitten checked out by my vet and then I’d find it a home. At the time, I had two cats, a twenty-year-old and an eleven-year-old. Adopting a kitten wasn’t on my radar.
I drove home down the highway with one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the gear shift, and one hand holding the kitten against my chest so it wouldn’t crawl beneath my feet or under seats or wherever else a kitten might go. When I got back to town, I stopped at the vet to see if they had a carrier I could borrow for the remainder of the trip and to make an appointment to have the kitten checked out.
“What’s its name?” the receptionist asked. I was still pretending to myself that I didn’t plan to keep the kitten, so I said it didn’t yet have a name. She replied, “We’ll just call it ‘Foundling.’” I wasn’t crazy about that idea, but I allowed as how it was feasible for the very short term.
I took the kitten home and set it up in the bathroom. Because it was so young, I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. I called my sister, who volunteered at a cat shelter, to see if she had any insights. “Look under the tail,” she said. “See whether you see two dots or a dot and a dash.” I don’t recall now which I reported, but she announced, “It’s a boy.”
By this time, of course, the kitten had a home—mine. So I needed to come up with a name. I handed it the stuffed hammerhead shark because the tail was small enough for a kitten-sized mouth to chew on it. The kitten’s tiny face lit up as if I’d given it a tremendous gift, and I was reminded of Oliver Twist—“Please, sir, I want some more.” The alternative was to name the kitten after its benefactor. So, Oliver or George. I figured I had time to decide.
I took the kitten to the vet that afternoon. The vet concurred with my assessment that it was probably about six weeks old. He examined it and announced, “You have a little girl!”
“Are you sure?” I blurted.
He chuckled. “I do this for a living.”
All of which meant that Oliver and George were out the window as possible names. I considered Georgina for about two seconds before rejecting it, which left me with Olivia. And so, Olivia she was, and is.
The next time I served breakfast, I updated George on Olivia’s status. I showed him photos of the little one in her bathroom safe room, and he swooned. From there on out, every time he came in, his first words as soon as he saw me were, “How’s the baby?” Of all the people who loved to see pictures of Livy, George was second only to me.
After about a year, George stopped coming in to the soup kitchen. This wasn’t unusual. Guests often moved on, or they found housing in an area that wasn’t convenient to us. Several months later, though, a woman from my church who came to serve mentioned that she worked for an eye doctor who treated local homeless patients. It turned out that one of his patients was George. Sadly—but unsurprisingly—he’d had an eye condition for which he’d been unable to get treatment, and it had advanced to the point where his vision was nearly gone. I asked her to give him my best and let him know that the baby was doing beautifully.
Not too long after that, someone brought George in on a day when I was there. As I’d heard, his vision was minimal, but when he realized it was I behind the counter, his first words were, “How’s the baby?” I told him stories about her and whipped out some photos; whether he could see them, I don’t know, but he was as excited as if he could.
I never saw George again. Maybe he moved away; maybe something else happened. I doubt I’ll ever know. At the outset of this ministry, the person who ran it counseled us that anonymity was a significant facet since some people find it a source of embarrassment to accept food from a soup kitchen. As a result, I don’t know George’s last name. I wouldn’t know where to find him if I did.
Olivia is now eleven years old. She is beautiful, elegant, and sometimes goofy. I’m beginning to see some subtle signs of aging, such as her use of steps to get up on the bed. She is also becoming more vocal about her desires. Even now, she is full of surprises, the latest being her willingness to bathe and be bathed by little Charlotte, a young tuxedo girl whom I adopted last year. I’d have sworn it could never happen, but it does.
Olivia is one of the great joys of my life. If it weren’t for George, Liv and I would never have met.
It might seem odd to go to a memorial service and talk about a person who may or may not be dead, one whose claim to fame is having given me a cat. But whether or not he is still with us—and I don’t know the answer to this—I wanted the people there to understand that George was a real person, just like the rest of us. He was more than just his homeless state or his food insecurity. George was a good man, a caring man, a gentle man. He loved cats. He had the courage to reach out and take this tiny homeless kitten, to try to keep her safe even when he had no way of knowing how he might provide for her. In other words, he was a brave man, a man of faith. Which puts him ahead of a lot of people who have more obvious reasons to feel secure.
As we headed from the burial ground back to the church, a reporter for the local paper asked me some questions. She’d been there throughout with her camera, and she needed information for her story. I was glad to hear the service was being covered. I confirmed that I was the one who had told the story about the cat. She made notes and said, “And she was given to you by a homeless man?”
I stopped on the sidewalk. “George,” I said as clearly as I could. “His name was George.” She wrote his name in her notebook, and in the December twilight, I felt the quiet confidence that at least once more, George’s name would be known.