Posted on April 3, 2012
This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.
For those of us who have never been homeless, I think it’s hard if not impossible to understand the complex mixture of feelings that is experienced by someone who has been homeless on the day their nightmare ends and they move into permanent housing. On Thursday, March 29, it was my privilege to witness one person’s private journey as she turned the key in the lock of her brand new apartment home.
It was a perfect day for a move. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue, the sun was warm and the breeze was mild. The woman (I’ll call her Sandra) who presented herself at the office of The Crossings at Fourth & Preston, our newest development in Charlottesville, looked about my age. Her face was worn but she seemed almost giddy as she practically skipped behind the property manager to the elevator. She lunged for the button and I laughingly told her she reminded me of my 13-year-old. “I can’t believe I’ll be taking this elevator up and down every day,” she said rubbing her hands in delight. “It’s going to take a while for that to get old.”
On the way to her unit, she stopped to admire every pristine detail, from the light fixtures to the paneling. It was as if she did not want to arrive too quickly, as if she was savoring every exquisite moment of anticipation. Her hands shook as she slipped the key into the lock and, as the door swung open, I suddenly realized I was taking part in a deeply intimate moment, both bitter and sweet in equal measures.
It is not unusual for joy to express itself sometimes as tears, at other times as dancing. This new tenant erupted into both as she tentatively walked into the apartment, clasping her hands and rocking from side to side. The spacious room barely seemed able to contain her overflowing feelings of happiness and relief. Almost immediately, she threw open the window and took in the view below. What was she seeing? What was she remembering?
What does “home” mean to any of us? Comfort? Stability? Family? Peace? Surely for Sandra, just a year younger than me and a mother like myself, it meant all that and so much more. “I have worked all my life. I did everything I was supposed to. How did I end up this way? How did this happen to me?” I did not ask questions, but some details emerged. She had moved around a lot in her life. She had a daughter living up north that she had not seen in several years. She had been evicted from her last apartment and it seemed as though she had been living for a while in her car. She joked about it, calling herself “residentially challenged.” But later she bristled with resentment as she talked about the assumptions people made that she had become homeless because of “poor life choices.” She made a point of distancing herself from downtown “hangouts” and other homeless individuals who frequented those places. “That’s not me.”
We worked all morning, loading her car with boxes and bags that she had been able to store at a local church. It was the familiar things we all accumulate: plastic hangers, a box of kitchen knives, books, stacks of neatly folded clothes, a set of luggage given to her by her grandmother when she was fifteen. As we delivered the last of it to her apartment, Sandra turned to me and said, “I thought I was going to have to do all this by myself today, that I wouldn’t have anyone to share it with. Thank you!”
I can’t say with any confidence why so much terrible misery exists in the world. Do all things really happen for a reason? Does everything truly happen “exactly the way it’s supposed to”, as we who are so blessed like to insist? All I know is that, if we can heal even a fraction of that misery by responding with kindness and compassion when the opportunity comes our way, then maybe there is redemption in that – for the ones who suffer and for us too.
When I drove to Charlottesville that morning, I had no idea what the day held in store for me. I thought I would be taking a few photos and distributing some donations, but it turned out to be so much better. For that, I am the one who is thankful.