Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christianson

Seeing His Wayfor Jeff
By Norah Pollard

A homeless man is living under the stairs
of the defunct Stratford Festival Theater. 
He’s built a little fort under there with 
salvaged trash bags and pieces of wood.
You’d never know he’s there.
But he’ll come out from time to time
to brave the cold and talk to the people who
walk their jacketed dogs through the woods.
He’s friendly enough.
Won’t ask for money,
but he’ll take the blankets and socks some folks provide,
the apples and sandwiches I bring.
Not a drinker, but walks to the town AA meetings
for warmth, free coffee and donuts,
and to be with others who know what bottom is.

Ice hems the river’s shore.
Sixty-three days today he’s known this cold.
(He’s made a chalk mark on the wall
for each day beneath the stairs.) 
The shelters are all filled—he’s on a list. In fact,
he’s on thirty-one lists, from Greenwich to Hartford,
but no residents have left for ritzier digs
or died.

He tells his story to anyone who asks,
as if, by the telling, he’ll come to understand 
the unbelievable. It’s become a kind of chant for him:
job lost, house lost, the truck, the wife—
then he’ll laugh a little. It’s hard to hear.
Perhaps he’s laughing at the ordinariness
of his tragedy, the banality of his tale.
Perhaps he’s laughing that the joke is on him.
Perhaps he’s laughing because there is no joke. 
And then he’ll point to the blue-black river and say,
“But look at my view!”
And mean it.

After this long in the cold, with
the sharp winds blowing in from the river
and the snow that comes in the night and
bricks him in his cave, he tells me today
he’s beginning to not know who he is
or what he’s for.
He says it’s not a bad feeling.
He says he’s been talking with the trees,
that the night owl hoo-hoo’s him,
the raccoons and possums are his “mates.”
He stands for long times in the snow
watching the birds,
watching the river.
He’s beginning to notice everything.

These cold, cold days have me thinking of Jeff, living ‘neath stairs through that long, severe winter. (This was around 2016, some years before the theater burned in 2019.) Our Stratford cops would check on Jeff every day to make sure he was o.k. They would bring him coffee and, uh-huh, a donut. They would chat with him. Jeff was grateful for their society. Jeff was grateful for any company. (Jeff was very affable and was as hungry for company as he was for food.) Other townsfolk brought him food and warm things…and company.

There were some law-abiding, God-fearing neighbors who expressed fear of Jeff. At least, I think it was fear that made them angry about Jeff. Or maybe it was a there-goes-the-neighborhood view. Or maybe it was because of never having read Luke’s parable 10:25-37. 

One day he was just gone. After some inquiries, I learned a place had been found for him in the Fairfield area. I wish him well. 

The homeless are numerous. According to The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “About 653,100 people [in the United States] experienced homelessness on a single night in 2023, according to an annual count done in January. This year’s result is the highest number of people reported as experiencing homelessness on a single night since reporting began in 2007.”  

Every homeless person is human, has a story. We tend to think most homeless people are addicts or mentally ill, but most sources (National Homelessness Law Center, National Alliance to End Homelessness, The Atlantic, etc., etc.) rank the causes, in terms of the situation of the homeless as:

    •       Lack of affordable housing

    •       Unemployment

    •       Poverty

    •       Low wages

    •       Mental illness and the lack of needed services (Single adult individuals)

    •       Substance abuse and the lack of needed services (Single adult individuals)

I do not know how we can help 653,100 homeless people, but understanding and compassion is not useless. 

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