The woman in the alley (1 of 2)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned an incident where I ended up in a dark alley with a dead car battery on a frigid night during a street outreach shift. Here is the whole story.

It was November, back in the days when our agency used to drive people to the emergency shelters that opened only when the temperature was below 25 degrees or the snow was falling abundantly.

There was a new client around at this time whom we were just getting to know. We’ll call her Jane, and she was drawing a lot of attention to herself because she had set up a tent in an alley downtown. Not only that, but she was living in said tent right through the beginning of the Colorado winter, and right in the middle of the city where average citizens were not spared the discomfort of having to witness her struggle.

Camping isn’t allowed within the city limits, which is why most of our clients set up their camps in wilderness areas or in other places where they were less visible. But Jane was a proactive woman and had asked the church which backed the alley for their permission to temporarily live on their property while she worked on getting back into housing.

I really admire the church for putting the values they preach into action and doing something so important for someone in need, though I’m sure the leadership faced some backlash from the city and law enforcement for this decision. They even granted her access to the bathroom and I suspect they helped her with some other needs.

Jane struggled with her mental health and her journey through her 50+ years of life seemed to have been long and bumpy. She came onto our radar as an agency because volunteers consistently reported that Jane’s needs for supply items were greater than those of most of our clients. She was asking for blankets and coats almost daily, which typically were requested much less frequently.

Once we realized that she was the one inhabiting the tent in the alley and that she was not utilizing the emergency shelter when it was open, these requests made a lot more sense. Still, we worked with limited resources and could not afford to give her daily blankets and coats, and we couldn’t help wondering if she was actually using all the items or if she possibly discarded unwanted items and got new ones each night.

That evening was kind of a slow shift on the transport van as most of our clients had made their own way over to the shelter earlier in the evening, in preparation for the very snowy night that was predicted.

We decided to use our spare time to check on Jane and see if we could talk her into going to the shelter that night.

We pulled into the alley and drove slowly, looking for her tent. When we found it, we stopped about 10 feet away and kept the headlights shining on the area. We got out of the vehicle and called out to Jane, seeing if she was home and letting her know who we were and that we were there to help.

We heard rustling from inside the tent and soon the front unzipped and Jane merrily poked her head out and greeted us.

I crouched down in the snow to be at eye level with her, already chilly now that I was out of the heated van, and took in the sight in front of me.

It was a roomy tent, probably built to hold 3-4 people. There was a thick layer of mats, blankets, and coats on the bottom of the tent, probably at least 6-8 inches deep all around, and it actually looked pretty cozy.

“So that’s where all those blankets and coats are going,” I thought.

Jane was wearing layers upon layers of coats and jackets, so she appeared to be a massive woman, though in reality she was about average size. She also wore layers of hats and several scarves. There was a small propane-powered heater in one corner of the tent, which was a bit concerning in terms of safety.

She told me that she had a son in town but unfortunately the terms of the apartment where he lived prevented him from having her stay with him. He was worried about her, and brought her a can of propane for the heater earlier in the day in advance of the storm.

We talked at length about the propane heater and whether it was safe for her to have it in the tent with so many flammable items. In response to my concern, she showed me how she kept an open space around it and was very careful to prevent it from hitting the sides of the tent.

We talked with Jane for a long time, but she would not budge on her resolution to spend the night in her tent, not at the shelter.

She had experienced some traumatic events at other shelters where she had stayed in the past and she was afraid to go back, even though we assured her that this shelter was very small, with lovely staff, and the men slept separately from the women.

She felt safer in her tent than she did in any shelter.

This was the first time I had a chance to talk to Jane in depth, and she was really likeable. She was spunky, had a lot of character and seemed in control of her decisions.

“Honey, it’s sweet of you to worry about me, but I’m from Montana. We are sturdy women. I can handle a little snow,” she told me.

She then proceeded to regale me with stories of extreme weather she had endured in other places at other times in her life.

A man walked out of a nearby house and wanted to know what we were doing and if Jane was okay. We explained about our agency and what we do for people, and Jane confirmed that she was fine. The man thanked us for what we were doing and said to let him know if there was anything he could do to help Jane.

“She’s our neighbor now,” he said with sincerity, even though his residence was a house and hers was a tent that was nearly in his back yard.

I was blown away by his kindness and compassion. Most people don’t want someone living homeless right outside their house — even people who really have a heart for helping others. This man (and the way he made it sound – several of his neighbors as well) had embraced Jane as a member of their community and a human being.

It has always stuck with me as one of the remarkable moments of human connection that I have witnessed through this work.

Part 2 of this story will be published tomorrow.

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