photo by Sheri Dixon

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Homeless and Hopeless in Hermann Park

Houston Texas has a huge homeless population. Not surprising since it's the 4th largest city in the US, and it's blessed with being in a very mild climate.

You see them everywhere, if you pay attention.

Under overpasses cardboard walls crumple in on meager possessions that only look like refuse to most of the rest of us.

Tucked into empty lots, backed into doorways, people lost from within and invisible from without wile away the days that all must run together in a never-ending procession of nightmare and surprise.

We noticed the Houston Homeless on our very first trip there. Those first years' pilgrimages to the cancer hospital included our little dog who would go to Doggy Daycare while we were otherwise occupied, and Doggy Daycare was past the hospitals, past Hermann Park, and just past the Museum District.

That first morning we were stopped at a stoplight in front of a church. Not Sunday morning, yet the entire yard was filled with a queue of humanity quietly silently awaiting entrance. It's a soup kitchen.

Where the Homeless go during the day I'm not sure, but one winter evening we were retrieving our little dog just after dark, and though the parents and children, bikers and joggers had long left Hermann Park, the Homeless had appeared like Ghost Moths- hovering lightly and and almost luminously in their nocturnal perches.

I was so preoccupied with my husband's health, I didn't give much thought to the Homeless of Hermann Park till we were faced with an Incident.

Illness has taken a great financial toll on our family- we no longer have a credit card, and very little cash. I try to bring as much extra cash as I can, "just in case", and this particular trip I had brought 7 days' worth of cash for what was supposed to be a 4 day trip. My husband contracted MRSA in hospital and we were there 10 days, not 4. Not 7. Ten.

Now, the hospital allows patients to cash a personal check a day for up to $50.

Our hotel room was $65 per day.

I was able to cobble together enough to survive, stay in the hotel, eat, and coast home on gas fumes, but that little episode gave me pause and I couldn't help but wonder

How many of the Hermann Park Homeless have family members in one of the many hospitals of the Hospital District? We came perilously close to "camping" in our auto that last few nights. What if I'd been OUT out of money, not just ALMOST out of money? What if my husband had been delayed by MONTHS instead of days?

In the last 8 years we've been with insurance, without insurance, and on medicare. Ward's been employed and unemployed. We've had medical trips when we've had money and medical trips when I've literally felt like I've gone begging for funds.

But the one thing that's been lurking at the back of my mind- behind the weedy shrubberies and crouched next to an old shopping cart- is the knowledge that like so many people who are "one paycheck away from eviction", without our safety net of family and friends, we'd be truly and honestly "one medical procedure away from living in Hermann Park".

What happens when the money runs out before the medical emergency is fixed? We're currently here 2 weeks and with no foreseeable date to go home- ground to a halt by a snowballing hairball of unexpected complications. We thought we'd be here 5 days- 7 at the most. We've got options, and support, and more love than a family can absorb without overflowing, and we're OK. We can weather this storm under roof and with full tummies.

But what if we didn't have those options, support and love?

What if we didn't have a computer that linked us with people around the world who care about us? What if I'd been working several jobs to keep ahead of disaster while caring for a family and ill husband and didn't have the time, energy or heart to make and keep friends who we could fall back on?

What if we were truly alone, as so many families are in our fragmented society?

I refuse to leave Ward here, trapped helpless and afraid in a hospital bed. If I had to, I'd live on a park bench to be with him every day.

How many of the Hermann Park Homeless are doing just that- is that why they seem to disappear during the day? Are they next to the bed of a loved one- holding a hand- reassuring them that everything is alright although it's anything but?

The Hospital District in Houston is the largest in the WORLD- just this cluster of hospitals employs 65,000 people- every one of those hundred or so waiting in the soup line could slip into any one of those great maws of medical care and be totally not noticed in the crowds.

And how many have left the hospital for the last time- mechanically leaving the empty shell of the worn out patient- going through the motions of walking, navigating hallways and crosswalks on automatic pilot- their bodies weighted to the earth while their sanity frantically flutters after the soul of the one just lost- up, up and gone- not caring what happens now to their own broken-hearted shell.

I wonder about these things.

But I'm mortally afraid to know the truth.

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