“Can you spare some change?” the homeless man asked? “Sorry,” I say, “I’m looking for my brother.”
My husband, Jim, and I were on East Fourth and Record Street, just a few blocks off casino row in downtown Reno. Known as an area of crime and prostitution, it’s also the location for the homeless “campus,” which includes the shelter and St. Vincent’s food pantry, thrift shop and dining room.
We started at the St. Vincent’s administrative offices, where we asked for help. I knew my brother, Gil, got a bed in the shelter. I wanted to know what services were available to him and where to find him. Honestly, I wanted someone to tell us what to do. And despite all of our efforts, financially and emotionally, he still ended up in this place.
I also wanted absolution.
I wanted someone to tell me that it wasn’t my fault that he was in one of the most despairing places I’d ever seen. I wanted someone to tell me that this was his choice; there was nothing I could have done differently. I wanted someone to tell me that bringing him back to our home, like we’ve done in the past, was the wrong thing to do. That giving him money for a motel, like we’ve done in the past, was the wrong thing to do.
That didn’t quite happen. But something did.
The gal at St. Vincent’s didn’t look at our clean and neat clothing; she didn’t ask why a sister would let her brother come to a place like Fourth Street and Record. She didn’t ask me why I was crying. She said, “I get it, you need to understand how your brother got here and how to support him.”
She explained that St. Vincent’s would provide dinner each day, except for Sundays, and a monthly coupon for clothing and toiletries. The shelter, a separate entity, would help Gil replace any lost documents (social security and ID cards) in order to apply for medical assistance, food stamps, and employment. He’d meet with a counselor once a week to help transition him “out.”
About two weeks earlier, while I was down at a conference in Las Vegas, a month after getting an eviction notice, Gil left all of his possessions, even his toothbrush, and drove on empty to the homeless shelter. He left everything. He could’ve loaded his 30-year-old Toyota with his tools or the few personal pictures he had left. He could’ve called us to have us store his belongings, like he did in the past. He didn’t. He took his dog. After spending two nights in his car, scared and cold, he took Skip, his 11-year-old Lab, down to the no-kill shelter. He couldn’t get a bed and have a dog too. He spent two more nights in his car waiting to get a bed. He was lucky that he did.
We walked down the block, towards the shelter. I hadn’t seen Gil in over three months or more, since he lost his job. I didn’t know if I was ready to see him or not; I was scared. With every step closer, I reminded myself to breathe. Jim just kept on saying, “Take it easy, Chris.”
In the last few years, Gil would rarely communicate — most times when he needed money. This summer, I thought I saw him one morning while I was driving to work. There was a man, sitting cross-legged on a street corner, with his head hung low, by one of those weekly motels. A woman passed him, and patted him on his shoulder. My heart stopped. I made a U-turn and drove slowly past him. He looked up, his eyes sunken, a thin face, but no, it wasn’t Gil. I did the same thing about three times over the next couple of weeks with different men who looked at me suspiciously, and finally decided to take a different route to work.
The man asked me for change, but when I told him I was looking for my brother, he nodded his head. We spotted Gil’s beat-up car in the parking lot. There were many people just hanging out, around the services building. Women, men, children. Jim asked, “Should we go in?” and as I tried to get myself together, just then, Jim said, “There’s your brother.”
He was wearing knee highs, a bright red T-shirt, and some gym shorts. He looked up at us in surprise, smiled, and we hugged a long time. I couldn’t say anything; I just cried and hung on. He kept on repeating, “Chris, I’m okay. I’m really okay.”
The weird thing was, he was okay. He looked better than I’d seen him in years. He didn’t look like those men I thought were him on the street. The T-shirt and shorts, from St. Vincent’s, were the right size, a medium; he didn’t look diminished, as he had when he wore his old XL clothes. He had grown a thick beard. His eyes were not sunken, he actually looked … healthy.
All he asked us for was a lock to put on his small cabinet that he kept his few belongings in. He had no money, but he didn’t need food or clothing.
The next night we drove down to the shelter and entered the gated lot to pick him up for dinner; again, folks just hanging out outside. One man was shouting and tried to talk to Gil; Gil said, “hey, man” and jumped in the backseat. He explained that the guy was a whack-job on drugs, but for some reason he gravitates towards him. Although our truck is ten years old, it’s nice. I felt self-conscious. We could drive away and leave this place. We could afford the gas and the insurance. We had jobs.
Of all impossible things, that dinner was one of the best nights I’ve had with Gil, probably since the last time I wrote about him two years ago. He was the most engaged I’ve ever seen him. He was, I dunno, just more alive. He had been such a recluse over the last several years, and now he’s forced to engage with people. Workers and shelter-mates who I know understood him better than I ever would.
He told us about the other people in the shelter — the “career homeless” who would disappear once a month after their social security checks came in. They’d get a motel room, buy their drugs or alcohol, and then show up again once they had spent it all. Or they’d leave to do “the circuit” to another shelter, in Oregon or San Francisco. He figured most of them were mentally ill. Then there were people “like him” who just wanted to get the hell out. Who couldn’t find a job.
He told us about the violence there — a fight would break out almost every night — due to drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. He said the food kitchen had gotten a deal on ham. He had salty, fatty and greasy ham for every meal. He’d never eat ham again when he got out. He said he’d gained fifteen pounds since he got there.
He told us that it was like prison; he had to check in every night and be in by a certain time; if he didn’t, he’d lose his bed. He told us about how a common problem was that some of the “inmates” would shit in the showers, and that the workers there would yell at all of them not to. One night, one of his “roommates” slipped on his own feces and cracked his head wide open. “No one felt sorry for him, as he was a mean asshole.”
Despite not wanting to engage with anyone, a few men insisted on befriending him, wanting someone “normal” to talk to. They found safety in numbers. One of those men, Gary, gave Gil a notebook to record the interactions he had there; after they were “out of this place,” he wanted to write about their experience and submit an article to the local newspaper. Another man, Cedric, was also part of their “posse.” They’d often help him up after the police would drop him off at the shelter. He’d spill out of the police car, not only drunk, but unable to get up off the sidewalk because of his advanced MS.
Funny how the universe works; my brother was a bigot. Now his two closest friends, Gary and Cedric, were black.
One day, local high school volunteers distributed highly prized socks and goodie bags. Gary and Gil got excited, thinking that the goodie bag had candy in it; no, just tampons and toothpaste. On another occasion, they all got brand-new tennis shoes. The local Christian ministry bathed the feet of the homeless before they got their new shoes. Gary, a Christian, said it reminded him of a baptism, or of Mary washing Jesus’ feet. Gil didn’t want his feet touched; he just wanted the shoes. He said, “I couldn’t believe they were touching their feet; do you know how disgusting they were?”
I sat across the table from him, torn between crying and laughing. I did start to cry, and both Gil and Jim yelled at me for bringing it down. Here we were, eating dinner in a Mexican restaurant, like everything was “normal.” Like I had a “normal” relationship with my older brother all these years, my only remaining family. He had hit bottom again. And despite telling me two years before that he’d kill himself before he was so low to go into the shelter, he wasn’t dead. He said he was “too scared to kill himself.” He had survived. He was motivated to get the hell out of there.
Within less than a month, the counselor helped Gil replace his social security card, which would allow him to work. He was put on Medicaid and got a month’s supply of insulin, which he’d been off of for over a year. He received food stamps, but really didn’t need them in the shelter. He got to know the bus system, as he didn’t have insurance or gas money.
He had three months to get back on his feet, or he’d be out on the streets at the beginning of winter. During this time, the only thing I offered to pay for was a bus pass, so he could go to job interviews. Prior to that, he said he was putting on at least seven miles a day, by foot, in crappy shoes. (I was in therapy by this point, trying to figure out my role in his journey and what was appropriate to help him with).
One week before his 90 days were up and his bed would be gone, he found a job as a housekeeper’s assistant at a local casino. He was discouraged, knowing at less than $8 an hour, it would be hard to get ahead, and he hated the menial job before he even started.
Remember Gary who wanted to write the article? Gary got out a month before Gil did and rented an apartment. His teaching credentials came through and he was not only subbing elementary school, but teaching adult ed. He offered Gil a room with another roommate from the shelter. The universe strikes again: Gary said he’d help Gil get his GED.
For the first time in years, we didn’t have Jim’s family over for Thanksgiving — they were dispersed in California. Jim went and picked up Gil, Gary, and their other roommate, Chris. Both Gary and Chris have “had it all” — relationships, kids, and wealth. They’re educated too. And they both lost everything. We didn’t talk about how or why they ended up on Record Street. Both Gary and Chris talked about their goals and what they wanted in the upcoming year. My brother was quiet.
We did our own “triathlon” — playing darts, ping pong and basketball (we didn’t play H-O-R-S-E this time; we played a shorter game of P-I-G, as it was cold outside). We ate, Gary and I drank champagne, then Jim drove them home.
Remember when I said that I was looking for absolution? I was desperate for someone to tell me how to help my brother, as all of my efforts seemed to be only temporary fixes — just like my mom, before me, before she died. Gil told me recently, “Why should I try, when Mom and you would always bail me out and give me money?” I really wanted to end this painful relationship that we’ve had for years, this cycle — wanting a brother in good and bad times; not being the mother who would worry herself to physical sickness.
Sounds simple — like all I had to do all these years was to say “no”? What a dumbass, right? To say, “You know, maybe you’ll go hungry tonight, because you’re not trying hard enough.” I couldn’t do it. We’d want to believe that he was doing everything he could to help himself. How could we judge? How could we abandon him? We’d rather pay his car insurance than have him be without a car, because without a car, he couldn’t get a job. Jim and I would rather pay than ever see him on the streets. Because we’d have nights like this that “all was normal” and all those bad memories would disappear. We’d forget that there was a reason why things were the way they were.
Well, what has been so remarkable about this journey in and out of the shelter was realizing that everything that Gil has today, a roof over his head, a job, medical care, insulin, and food stamps, is because he ended up at the shelter and because he made his way out of there. On his own.
The biggest lesson so far — I got out of the way and let him face the consequences of his choices. It’s weird that it wasn’t until then that he ended up getting the resources he needed.
I thought that I understood the term “enabling” all these years; but what I thought was love, repeatedly giving him money, offering time to help, bargaining, was just a continuation of what my mom had done since he was a teenager and dropped out of high school.
After Jim got back from driving them home, we decided that it was one of the nicest Thanksgivings we’ve ever had. It was about that night only. It was about having fun with a brother who I didn’t think I’d see again. Having fun with people who wanted to be there, who needed not to think about what they had lost. I didn’t think about what could have been, the years we’ve missed, the relationship we haven’t had. I didn’t think about future Thanksgivings, as I know that I have no control over what happens tomorrow. I don’t know what choices he’ll make, if he’ll believe in himself, or what the universe will come up with.
Sometimes, in the darkest of times, it’s really hard to find things to be grateful for. But that night, I was grateful. Today I am grateful. I am blessed. I hope that today, you too can find something to be grateful for.
Very Happy Holidays,
PS — About a month ago, I met the Marketing Director of the Northern Nevada Catholic Charities at an American Marketing Association luncheon. She said that people assume, because of their name, their efforts only help Catholics, and they throw away the direct mail piece. A week later, Jim got a letter in the mail from this nonprofit agency. This time, I didn’t throw it away.