Everyone Should Have This
An Unexpected Encounter with the Neighbors without Home
Content warning: mention of domestic abuse
I might have not talked to her if I hadn't mistaken her as my neighbor. I was about to plug in my earphones for an afternoon walk, an escape from my home office. A woman, perhaps in her 30s, was standing on the stoop of a nearby house with two duffel bags. They were all black matching her windbreaker and long pants. Her white face was pale from the chill, and her lips trembled.
“My husband left me. I'm tired of following him.”
Her sudden confession stopped my steps, and I listened to Emily’s experience of living homeless in an abusive relationship.
I rushed into my house and ran up to my desk upstairs. I opened my laptop and jotted down information about resources and my phone number. I tried to slow down my breath. I can do this. I can do this. I then rummaged through my kitchen and collected a bottle of water, granola bars, and tangerines.
When I came back out, Emily was waiting across from my house.
“My husband came back.”
He was sitting on a stoop a few yards away, and a cargo van was blocking the view between us and him. Since Emily didn’t have a phone (“He doesn’t let me have one.”), I offered to call shelters for her, but she said no. She will make calls at her work—West High where she works as a janitor. She thought her husband might get upset if he thinks she’s trying to leave him. Her two hands were still tightly holding onto her duffel bags.
“When he’s upset, he says things, it hurts me.”
I knew I had to stay calm. I pulled out my teacher mode and made firm eye contact with Emily.
“You deserve to feel safe. You don’t have to stay with him if you don’t want to.”
“I want to give him a chance, but it’s hard, it hurts.”
I told Emily that he already had his chances, and she doesn’t have to give him any more. I also explained that the first place on my memo offered counseling and other support for women who are experiencing similar situations as hers. That was most I could do for her as we stood on a sidewalk. Although I had received years of therapy for my depression and anxiety, I had no experience of supporting victims of domestic violence. I wondered what would happen if Emily loses my memo or gets it taken away.
“Do you see that blue house?” I extended my index finger. “I live there. Knock on the door if you need more help. Do you know what street we are on?”
“Yeah, I know. We are on Bernon.”
Then it was time to meet Emily’s husband. I had no idea what to say, but there was only one way to find out. I wasn’t going to walk away. I had already done that numerous times in my life. I got Emily's permission to talk to him and walked over.
At first, I was taken aback. He was not White as I imagined, and he was as short as I am—5’ 3’’. His slumped shoulders made him look incapable of managing any damage to anyone, let alone Emily who had a bigger build than his. He was wearing black pants and a black sweatshirt, which seemed insufficient for protection from what the world threw at him. My initial fear of this man dissipated promptly.
“Hi, my name is Linda. What’s your name?”
“I’m T. What's your nationality?"
"I'm Korean American. How about you?"
I learned that T was homeless as well and was open to my help. We sat side by side while calling shelters to find a bed. When T’s phone was kept on hold by Coordinated Entry System (CES) without being able to reach a human voice, I tried a church-based shelter, which operated outside of CES.
“Where do you sleep then?” I asked T.
“Here and there. Sometimes at my friend’s place when he’s in a better mood.”
T and Emily were stretched thin on getting help from their family and friends. T’s brother also lived in the city but was out of town temporarily. His house was occupied by multiple families anyway. Emily had told me earlier that her parents were deceased and she didn’t have any other family members.
"They do help us, but they can't help us every day," T said.
By now, we have given up on the CES line but were able to confirm availabilities at the church.
Emily was out of sight, so T said,
“Gonna walk to the corner and try to get some soup. She might be there as well.”
“You mean the Chinese restaurant?”
“Yeah, have you been there?”
“No, I haven’t, but I see people gather in front of it all the time.”
“It’s pretty good. You must cook at home, right?”
I couldn’t tell him that I don’t use that restaurant because they serve low-quality food for cheap price. It was hard enough for me to admit that I have a home where I can make my own food. We bid farewell and parted.
Once I got home, I collapsed on the floor and cried. All the emotions I had been holding together poured out at once. Without the wintery wind outside, my jacket felt too warm. The wooden floor and white walls of my room were clean and comforting. Everyone should have this. Everyone…
Things are definitely not okay, but at least I’m learning to not look away. I wish you found a glimpse of humanity in my encounter with these neighbors. I also wish you a warm holiday season. Thank you for reading my closing letter for 2021. See you in 2022!
P.S. Check out this poem where JoJo, my former homeless neighbor, appears.