A Bag of Cans

I picked up Janet hitchhiking this morning. The first time, I’d driven past her at 55mph down Route 9W. Thumb out, cigarette dangling from her lip, she stood shivering close to the metal guardrail — it was 46 degrees. She looked like she had slept in the woods – no doubt, she had. 

I drove past thinking, “Where is she going? Wonder what’s her story?” She looked worried, as if she was late for work, or that she wished she had a job to be late to. I found that to be the case. She lost her job, and her apartment, after breaking an ankle. I didn’t ask how, but from the smell of the bag of cans she lugged with her, I envisioned a cadre of circumstances: a miscalculated stride off the curb, stepping into a groundhog hole, or simply not paying attention. I’d done those  myself over a lifetime, some with, and without, the help of a bag of cans.

After a mile, I turned around. I half hoped she’d be there, half-hoped someone else had stopped for her. Flashers blinking, I pulled over gradually, giving the 18-wheeler behind me time to decelerate and pass. I stopped. She opened the door and thanked me. She wondered why I had my flashers on, what was my story: was I running out of gas? Or was I actually stopping to pick her up? She passed in her cooler, a bag of cans, and climbed in. She’d missed her bus by three minutes. Three minutes, she said, she couldn’t catch a break. She thanked me again, and told me I was one of her “Turnaround Girls.”

Trembling, she clutched a makeshift cup from an apple juice can, sharp aluminum edges folded over made for softer sipping. She cradled a second cigarette in icy-bent fingers, blue with cold and chipped nail polish. Ten minutes in the highway-side wind coupled with a night in morning dew-lined tent had frozen her to the bone. She huddled on the passenger side. I cranked the seat heater and blower motor; she defrosted.

In 5 minutes 23 seconds, from roadside to her destination, I got a glimpse of her story. I’d heard parts of this before, from people in need, some homeless, living in the woods, couch-surfing at a friend’s, tent-dwellers and those in-between on their way to permanent housing. They’d been to my office asking for help, help out, help up, any help.

Why the woods I asked? To save money for an apartment, she said, it was the only way to get ahead. But someone stole her pocketbook yesterday with $400 in savings. A friend had found her purse contents, but not before she’d cancelled her bank account; the bank charged her $30 to do so. She was back to zero. Luckily, she bought a tent two days ago; the Catskill cold had set in this week and she needed protection, but still needed a tarp. She’d been out there 10 days. She couldn’t afford a tarp. She cried, reset.

Janet would charge her phone at the convenience store. Her phone, a needed expense was her lifeline to work prospects, a human connection, a promise of another life, a home. Her battery barely holds a charge longer than an hour, she said,  but she’d make it work. She’d recycle the bag of cans she’d collected while walking and spend a dollar on coffee. She’d warm up, cry, recharge, reset.

Her warm clothes stored 30 miles away, her Kingston apartment belongings in limbo; she had no way to get to her stuff, to move them, to store them. She cried through our brief talk about support services, how a system tough to navigate was cruel and offered little help and no hope. She couldn’t access the support she needed. Anger reset her composure. She was not letting this get her down. Her sporadic surveying gig in Tug Hill provided inconsistent income that disqualified her from most services. We talked about 12-step meetings, asking for help, holding onto hope that things will turn around. She thanked me again and closed the door.

I crossed the street to get my car serviced. In the back seat, I found the bag of cans. Shame-filled, I clutched the stale-beer promise of 5-cents-on-redemption. I cringed, wondering what the Service Desk employee thought. Did he think that clanking smelly bag of cans was mine? Disgusted, I wanted to toss the bag of cans, ditch them inside the warm waiting room recycling bin, or maybe stash them out-of-sight outside under a dealership bush. Would this bag of cans really matter to Janet if it weren’t returned? What if it were her clothes bag and phone? I cried inside, reset.

I climbed into the warm shuttle van and asked the driver for two stops. Walking into the convenience store, I found Janet charging her phone, making small talk with another semi-defrosted companion. I gave her a bag of cans. She smiled, thanked me, hugged me. “It’s gonna get better, right?” Yes, I said. And walked out.

In the passenger seat, I cried, reset, and went to work… for housing for those most in need.

Do you want to share your perspective? Email Tara Collins with your story.

WIMBY: Welcome in My Backyard

WIMBY: Welcome in My BackyardTwo words I believe are very dangerous together, though benign alone: Us. Them.

Uttered in singularity, neither word brings much to mind except perhaps a grade school spelling test or two. Uttered together in virtually any context, and the speaker has just created a dichotomy that truly does not have to exist.

Yet we do this. We speak like this daily.

“Why are they so much different than us?” “Why are they taking what belongs to us”?

And when we consider our neighborhoods, our villages and cities, we pit “us” vs. “them,” and we create the phenomenon called NIMBY. Not In My Back Yard.

Let’s be honest. When we say “Why do they have to live here with us?” that is exactly what we are saying.  We are saying that “they” don’t belong. But we do. Do we stop and think what gives us the right to make this determination? Do we stop to consider who has helped each of us along the way? Do we consider that at any moment “us” can become “them”? In fact, each of one of us is a “they” to someone else.

No. We don’t consider those questions. We move forward. We close our eyes to our neighbors who have come on hard times. We close our eyes as we walk in Kingston, focusing on the new shiny renovated spaces, the blue sky, the historic district. We close our eyes to our community. We miss the beauty that can be found in need. We miss the opportunity to be more than ourselves.

We, as individual members of our community, cannot do many things on our own. We cannot individually make the opioid drug epidemic go away. We can’t stop people from developing terminal illnesses. We cannot individually hide on our porches, behind our picture windows, behind our fear hoping that someday we will go for a walk in Kingston and all of the people who make us uncomfortable — just because they are them and not us — have been cared for by someone else because we don’t want to do it.

But, a community that decides to do right by everyone who is a member of that community, can collectively do anything.

It starts with admitting to ourselves that we all know right from wrong. We were all taught this at some point. And, even if we weren’t, we know right from wrong because we are human.

We share this community, but we do not get to choose who our community members are. Learn about the community, love the community, enjoy your neighborhoods, parks and restaurants.

But never forget that this community is our community, collectively. Beautiful, ugly, new, old, rich, poor, homeowners and homeless. No matter how hard we try to separate “us” from “them,” it is impossible because it is not reality, nor should it be.

I offer WIMBY. Welcome In My Back Yard. Let’s change the conversation. Let’s open ourselves up to the opportunities that come when we avail ourselves to them.

Let’s be WE.

And most of all, let us do what is right.

Eliza Bozenski, RUPCO Advisory CouncilEliza Bozenski is a member of RUPCO’s Advisory Council since 2017. She also works as Director of Anderson Foundation for Autism, and has been with that organization since 2006.

Ulster County Community Forum on Homelessness

Ulster County Continuum of Care logoWHO:  Ulster County Continuum of Care (UCCofC)
WHAT:  UCCofC Community Forum on Homelessness
WHERE:  The Kirkland, 2 Main Street, Kingston 12401

WHEN:  Tuesday, October 25, 1-3 p.m.
WHY:  To inform a plan that will guide the work of UCCofC to reduce homelessness in our community. Open invitation to stakeholders and service providers who assist ,or whose work is impacted by, this population in need

RSVP BY:  Friday, October 21 (if possible)
CONTACT:  Kathy Germain, kgermain@rupco.org (845) 331-2140 ext. 220

As providers who either work directly with this population, or who are affected by issues that surround homelessness such as mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence, we are asking for your participation and input as we develop a local community plan to help reduce and end homelessness.
Please attend the Ulster County Continuum of Care’s (CoC) Community Forum on Homelessness. The goal of this forum is to inform a plan that will guide the work of the CoC to reduce homelessness in our community.
 
The Continuum of Care Community Forum on Homelessness will be held
Tuesday October 25th from 1-3:00 pm
at the Kirkland, 2 Main Street Kingston
 
The Ulster County Continuum of Care (CoC) is comprised of service providers to the homeless, local government representatives, faith-based organizations, and individuals. The CoC is the planning group responsible for identifying homelessness needs and accessing resources in the amount of $1.2 million annually to support agencies that provide housing and services to homeless individuals and families in Ulster County.
Please RSVP to Kathy Germain at RUPCO kgermain@rupco.org or call 845-331-9860 ext. 220 by October 21st.
 
This forum is open to the public; please share this invitation with others.

UPDATE 8/31/17: The Ulster County Continuum of Care Project Priority Listing that will be included as part of our 2017 HUD Continuum of Care Grant Submission is now available to view.

Nearly 70 regional agencies are committed to end homelessness in the Hudson Valley region, many of them are members of Ulster County Continuum of Care:

CARES Inc.
Caring Hands
Catholic Charities
Catskill Mtn. Love in the Name of Christ
Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children
Family of Woodstock-Kingston
Family of Woodstock-Ellenville
Family’s Child Care Council
Gateway Community Industries
Health Alliance of the Hudson Valley
Kingston Community Development
Kingston Landlord Assoc.
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley
Mental Health Association of Ulster County
Mid-Hudson Care Center (Albany Med. Center Kingston HIV Clinic)
Midtown Rising
Multi-County Development Corp.
PEOPLE, Inc.
Rehabilitation Support Services (RSS)
RUPCO
Soldier On
Ulster BOCES
Ulster County Catholic Charities
Ulster County Department of Social Services (DSS)
Ulster County Mental Health
Ulster County Planning
Ulster County Veteran’s Service Agency
United Way of Ulster County
VA Albany
WestCOP, INC.