March 21, 2016
By Arthur H. Gunther III
They buried Risa last week, a woman of just 57 years, 30 or so homeless. A strongly independent individual, her cancer came quickly and thoroughly, but it could not easily quiet her voice. That was a fight.
We at the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program in Spring Valley, N.Y., most especially the women who ladle out the hot soup, prepare the sandwiches and offer donated and bought items to those who come daily, knew Risa by her arrival. Articulate, she was also of determined opinion. She said what was on her mind, usually politely but firmly. A presence, surely.
It seemed that her choice was to live on the streets. That may be easy to dismiss for some of us. “Get a job.” “Call Social Services.” “Go home to family.” These are easy sentences, but there are not in the homeless vocabulary. They may try those words, but somehow, and it is an easy somehow, things fall apart. For some, mental illness, for others, addiction, and for so many, the fierce, accumulated, defensive independence that comes from living “outside,” under a bridge, in a spot all your own. And on your own. Your own boss. Independence donned as if an overcoat.
While there is not one among the homeless who would refuse a safe, private, heated, lit place, there is nobility in refusal, in foregoing any government-run, community-style, unsafe shelter that is too often akin to hell in its dismissive, costly bureaucracy. It’s often the one defiant choice the homeless can make. It is a dignity of sorts.
Risa took advantage of what was offered — the breakfast program, the annual Christmas dinner of the First Baptist Church in Spring Valley (though she was born a Jew) and Helping Hands and Safe Haven, the nonprofit overnight sheltering that despite being underfunded, manages to operate in donated church and synagogue space for the cold months.
Risa could be angry, and aren’t we all at times? You could hear it in her voice, especially on a bad day. She could and did make her self known. And how many of us do not? “I am me” must be said.
When Risa was diagnosed some months ago, the greatest of her dignity came to pass, for she showed courage in her acceptance. We don’t all do that. Her final time, in a caring hospice, visited by her friends of the street and the ladies who served her food and gave her clothing, brought the increasing light of a door opening to a big, luxurious room — more than that, a mansion and its gardens where she would no longer be homeless, nor troubled by anything. Down here, we will miss her presence, her voice.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.