Spare Change

I see Maria outside the Spanish market, squatting against the building. She is a tiny woman in her fifties who was introduced to heroin thirty years ago when she was living in New York. The father of her son used it occasionally and when he used, she was obligated to sniff some as well. It didn’t take her long to get addicted. She has grandkids, but she never sees them. Her father is still alive, but even though she misses him terribly, she doesn’t want him to see what she has become. She says she would like to quit, but she has no help. She stays here and there, and is dependent on people coming out of the market and giving her their loose change. She doesn’t beg or ask or bother people, she is just squatting there. People who know her and know what she needs hand her some change. When she gets four dollars, she walks a block and goes behind a cafe and buys from the guys in the back lot. “No Fentanyl,” she tells them. She just wants heroin, enough to keep her from being sick.

I’ve taken her to the hospital a couple times. Once when she fell and cracked a bone in her leg. A week later, she was back on the street, hobbling on a cast. Another time, over a year ago, we found her in the alley with the needle still in her jugular vein. She was breathing and we could rouse her with stimulation, but she was zoned out. She cried on the way to the hospital. She had a small bag with her. In it were clean needles and a cooker she got from the needle exchange van, along with a portable sharps container. The hospital confiscated it, and she had to go back to the needle exchange van and plead for more needles which they gave her. They have a “one used for one clean” needle policy, but can be persuaded to give more. They know people will pick up needles off the ground and use them if they have to. When I take people to the hospital now, I try to tell the staff that these clean needles they have are legally theirs and shouldn’t be summarily tossed. I had to get a doctor once to order the staff not to throw them out.

Last year I was going into the market and asked Maria if she was hungry. I had her come into the market with me.  She pointed to a sorullo in the glass display case, fried cornmeal with cheese in the middle. “Can I have something to drink, too?” She asked. She pointed to a can of Kola, which I had the woman behind the counter get as well.

The next time I saw her outside the market, I said, “You want me to buy you a sandwich or do you want two dollars?”

“Two dollars,” she said, quickly. I gave her the money and then went inside and ordered her a sorullo and a Kola, which I gave her in a small paper bag when I came back out.

“We have to put some meat on your bones,” I said.

My coworkers and I discuss how to handle the homeless. Most say they offer to buy food, but never give money. There is a guy who hangs outside Burger King named Johnny. He is in his forties, a thin hard-faced man with hair to his shoulders, who is always sitting there head down reading a paperback thriller. He also relies on people to hand him change. My old partner Jerry often invites him in to buy him a meal. When I see him, I chat with him for awhile and then give him a couple dollars and a bottle of water.  Let him decide what he wants to do with the money. (His story is he got in a bad car accident in his twenties.  His doctor gave him Percocets in increasing doses for two years and then one day just cut him off cold, saying he shouldn’t be in pain anymore).

Last Thanksgiving, I brought in turkey and gave out portions to several of the regular homeless addicts I know. They were all very grateful, but I heard later from two of them that it made their stomachs upset because they were not used to eating fatty meat. I have read that when people are addicted to heroin, eating ranks low on the totem pole of desire. They eat only to have enough strength to be able to raise the money and then go get the dope they need to keep from feeling sick. If they did a study on the homeless and addicted to heroin diet, no doubt its adherents would lower their percentage of body fat. The exercise of walking all day and not eating does the trick.

My partner and I give out oranges and apples and the homeless will sometimes eat those fruits in front of us like the zombies of the walking dead eat people. Still I think if I asked do you want orange or a dollar, they would still take the dollar. The orange might satisfy their hunger, but the dollar will help them buy their next bag of heroin, and the heroin will help them feel better.

It is pouring rain this morning. A young woman named Cloey stands in the rain holding a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. I have only seen her a couple weeks so I don’t know too much about her. She has a nice smile and a girlish manner to her words. She could be a friend of my daughter.

It is still early in the morning and I haven’t stopped at the grocery yet to get a bag of oranges. I don’t even have any dollar bills in my pocket. I do have some water in the cooler, and a pocketful of change. We stop and I get out and give her a water and some change, maybe a $1.73 or some odd number like that. I ask her how she is doing, and she thanks me, but says “I am really sick this morning.” I feel bad for her. Some day when I get a chance to talk with her further I will ask her what happened? What were the turns in her life that brought here out to these streets, begging for change in the rain?*

I see her briefly that afternoon. The rain has stopped and the sun shines through the clouds and starts to bake the water off the asphalt and grass. It’s not yet humid but it soon will be. She waves as she walks by, and then she stops briefly and says. “Thank you for this morning. I’m feeling much better now. I was really not doing well. Thank you.”

“You want a water?”

I hand her a water from the cooler I keep at my feet in the front of the ambulance. She takes it and gives me a young girl’s smile, before she walks back up toward Park Street.

I have heard people say if you want to help the homeless, give money to social organizations who help the homeless instead of putting the money directly in a homeless person’s hand. It goes along with the expression, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This implies that the money you give to the heroin addict only buys them a few hours of not being sick and they are back to square one when the money given to the organization may eventually help lift them out of their circumstances. I don’t dispute that. I do give small donations to the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition to help them with their efforts to keep people alive until they are ready to enter recovery. But I also give money directly to the homeless. It is not a lot of money. Just spare change really. I don’t consider myself a generous man.  I hang up on telephone fundraisers and don’t answer the door when charities come collecting with tin cups in their hands.  I walk right by them when they stand in front of the supermarket.  I am not a Sunday church goer so I don’t put my weekly tithe in the collection plate. In a way the city I have worked in for much of my life is my church. When I give money to a homeless person, it makes me feel spiritual — as a human being, I feel less alone in the world. I hope it makes them feel that same way. We should all feel connected.

* I get a chance to talk with her a week later.  She was born to a 14 year old mother, who gave her up at a young age because she was a heroin addict.  She is still alive, a homeless addict herself in a Western city.  Cloey tells me she tried heroin as a teenager because she wanted to know what it was about the drug that could cause her mother to care more about heroin than her own child.  “As soon as I tried it,” Cloey said.  “I understood.”

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