I spy Linda as I pull into the suburban shopping center. She stands in the median, wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. A stuffed backpack is hitched across her shoulders. She holds a cardboard sign reading, “Homeless and Hungry.” And, in smaller letters, “Anything helps! Thank you!”
Biting my bottom lip, I glance back at the line of cars trailing me, and pause. I offer to buy her lunch.
She hesitates, briefly, before nodding. “That would be great. Thanks.”
We meet at Boston Market, just across the parking lot. We order and sit down. Linda sits across from me, awkwardly. She gradually opens up.
She is a local girl. She tells me she was homeschooled, until her parents could no longer afford the curriculum. She’d gone on to get her G.E.D., testing above the average. In her early twenties, she scrounged up the funding for classes at a nearby business college, where she got a degree in entrepreneurial business.
“My dream is to open my own pizza place,” she says. “I’d like to have a sit-down restaurant, with 24-hour delivery. I’m really passionate about the pizza industry.”
She never found a job in which she could use her education or skills, she says. She worked a number of jobs, and now, at the age of 29, has found herself out of work again. She shrugs.
“My last job was cleaning rooms at a motel. I kept bringing home bed bugs, which wasn’t fair to the people I was staying with, so I had to quit.”
She applied for federal assistance, but it takes time, she explains. And there was a glitch with her paperwork. So, she waits. She’s applied for work through a local temp agency and is hopeful she will get work that way.
“Meanwhile, I keep looking,” she says. “I’ve applied at all these places,” she says, waving a hand at the window at the line of fast-food restaurants along the busy roadway. “Right before you came along, a guy stopped to tell me IHOP was hiring, so I’ll head over there next.”
She relies on a couple of close friends to keep the boys when things get really tough and she is forced to stay in places she doesn’t feel are safe for them.
“All that’s important is that my kids are safe. I do what I need to, but I try to not let it affect them. Your children come first. That’s the way I was raised. The children always come first.”
Do you have parents? Could they help?
She shakes her head. “My mom has mental health issues. She worries a lot. If she knew what I was going through, well, it wouldn’t be good for her. I try not to tell her much.”
I study her. I know mental health is a family issue, affecting children either through heredity or through environment. A half-hour spent with someone is not nearly enough to know what’s at play.
I gaze at her wide-set, clear eyes, set-off by her pale skin. Mental issues? Just a lifetime of hard knocks? Or drugs? No, I don’t think that's the case, and I am fairly savvy to that.
She reads my mind.
“I haven’t given up on finding a job, and I’ve tried to find other assistance, for me and my kids,” she says. “But most seem to be shelters that focus on homeless people with addiction problems. They want to get people like that off the streets, so they can get clean. I understand that. But I think sometimes people like us get left behind.”
I know organizations exist to help people like Linda. They must. But, as I sit across from her, sipping my soup, I can’t conjure up the name of a single one. If I—a well-off woman with internet abilities and society connections—can’t think of one, how is someone like Linda supposed to find the help she needs?
“I just try to remain positive,” she says. “I pray a lot. I know God wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle. I’m sure things will get better. They always get better, you know?”
I force a nod. I’d like to agree. I want to believe. Yet, I’m not so sure.
Linda says begging on the street doesn’t come easy.
“I don’t like to be out there, asking for help. But I do, because I feel like I have few options right now. And every little bit helps. And if I get a free meal, like this, any money I get can go toward my boys,” she says. “I just accept what I get, gladly, and then I leave. I try not to be greedy. Other people need help, too.”
Most people driving by don’t want to help though. The majority of passersby simply ignore her, and she often hears shouts of, “Get a job!”
“I’d like to tell them I’m trying,” she says. “But, I seldom get that chance.”
Some people go beyond shouting out their disdain. She once had a man stop, hand her a package, and say, “You’d better eat this, or I’ll be all over you!”
She says she uncovered the paper plate to discover a pile of regurgitated food.
“I don’t know how he could do that.” She lowers her head and then glances back up. “How could he look me in the eye, and hand that to me?”
As we finish our lunch, Linda looks down at her plate. Half her barbecue chicken remains. “I think I’ll take this home, if it’s OK with you,” she says. “I have some bread. This could make a nice sandwich for one of the boys. Maybe I can get two sandwiches out of it.”
We head outside. I reach into my purse and hand her five dollars. “Sorry,” I say. “I never carry cash. I always use my debit card.”
First-world problems. At least for some of us in the United States.
Linda smiles. “Every little bit helps. And really, you’ve already helped a lot.”
We shake hands, and I climb into my minivan. I watch her cross the parking lot. We wave at each other as I drive away. I pull onto the highway, headed back to my new condo.
Linda gave me a lifetime of things to consider. All I offered her was a cheap meal.
As trades go, it hardly seems fair.
But, sometimes, life isn’t.