~ 39th Day ~
Casa Esperanza...The Skeptic...Detox Center...New Memories.
Not surprised that last night was full of vivid dreams, ranging from terrors to triumphs. Good thing Karen is a sound sleeper, otherwise she might have been woken up several times from either the laughter or the screams. Despite the consistency of sound sleep, I felt rested and ready for the awesomeness that today was expectant to bring. Karen, Daniel and I would be venturing back to the place where the 3 of us first met: Casa Esperanza.
There are 3 main shelters in Santa Barbara... The Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and Casa Esperanza. I stayed at the Sally twice as well as Casa two different times. The shelters are temporary resting places for people all year round, though the winter time brings a higher number of people needing a safe place. Many people who stay there have a history of substance abuse as well as metal illnesses... or both. But not all the people who check in for a bed have this history or even current struggles. Such was the case for my sweet friend Karen. She is from France and after going through a nasty divorce, she was left with only a few belongings and ended up finding shelter at the Casa. She had been staying there for a little while when I found my way off the streets and in through the doors to find rest myself. Karen was and still is beautiful and she has done a lot of modeling in her lifetime. I had posted a few black and white pictures from her modeling days a few posts ago, but forgot to explain those pictures. Her back-story was unlike the majority of those staying at Casa and she is currently writing a memoir of nuggets of her story along with her short but impressionable time being homeless. She was known for her striking appearance and for always carrying around several composition notebooks in which she recorded people's stories and experiences on the streets. These stories will be interlaced throughout her book and I'm honored to be one of the character developments in her book. Our time together during my visit back to SB is said to be the last chapter of her memoir and today's adventures will surely be written on these pages.
The morning was spent by me writing about a day that had already passed, while Karen was flying around the apartment on the emotional roller coaster her mind was taking her on. There was a visible battle going on in her head and I witnessed the down-spiral of her fear of the unknown that I, myself, had experienced many times before. When someone knows they are going back to re-visit places where we lived during the darker chapters of our life-story, our mind can set us up with worrying and fear. I tried to calm her down by talking about things other than the places we soon would be going, and encouraged Karen to not let her mind take her to where she wasn't presently at. We were still in the safety of her apartment, but she was mentally at Casa and Pershing Park where we would go later. As I typed, prayers were being fervently whispered for my fragile friend. We laughed about her behavior that morning after we came back from the places... only then did she acknowledge the unnecessary worrying and fretting, but that was part of the process she needed to go through. We can learn from and take away something positive from every negative reaction.
We hopped in Tumbler early in the afternoon and went to pick up Daniel at the library. The trio of friends were returning to our meeting place. Karen was still a ball of nerves when we parked near Casa and though I had been praying for her (and all of us including the people we would see there), my fervency picked up as we began to walk the sidewalk that led to the shelter. A tidal wave of memories crashed over me as this building came into view and the battle waged war in my own mind which I fought with praying in Jesus mighty and matchless name. My 2 stays here in the shelter and at the detox center that is connected to it will be shared another time, for, like the Wall, so much happened inside and around these walls. What I will share is that my time here wasn't exactly a safe haven, for I choose to continue using drugs and alcohol while living here. The only time I was clean for a short period of time was when I checked myself (after much persuasion) into the detox program for a week plus. The rest of the days were a cloudy with few clear skies in my mind.
Casa was often the overflow for people who were released from the local psych wards. I remember often seeing the large white van from the wards open the back doors and push our the men and women whose stay at their facility had come to a dead end and they were dropped off on the other side of the street across from Casa. They would then wander over to the metal door in their scattered and confused mind. With the last dose of their medication wearing off, their state of mind was compromised and the staff at Casa was left to try to calm them down due their drastic change of scenery. The people here at Casa were largely unstable and unmedicated.
The woman's dorm where Karen and I had a bunk bed together was not used by me to sleep all that often. The upper smoking patio deck was where I most often could be found during the night hours and I was usually joined by others whose addictions were running wild into the night. The dorm had over 50 bunks (the men's dorm had almost twice the beds) and the variety of women were differing and distinct to say the very least. From addicts to bag ladies, from sound-minded to not at all sound-minded, from those on their meds to those in great need of meds, from those sleeping quietly to those talking to the invisible people that they had grown accustomed to having as their only friends, from those who were young to those who were old... we all made up a collection of fabric that wove together a temporary family. I'm glad Karen's memory is good and she wrote down names and stories, 'cause my mind was scorched.
The courtyard was open to anyone who wanted to walk through the familiar metal door, so the 3 of us wandered right in and just stood to the side at first, for we were taking it all in. There were around 25-30 people sitting and standing around and at first, we didn't recognize anyone. The door that led inside the building was closed, and after giving my friends a mischievous smirk, I walked over to the turquoise door and turned the handle. Karen followed me inside and we found ourselves standing in front of the long desk of the office area where we had stood so many times before. Three young ladies, who were obviously staff, were behind the counter and I introduced myself telling them that we used to live here many years ago and wanted to re-visit the shelter. They were't at all interested in our being here and honestly, looked quite perturbed that we were interrupting their conversation that was about their annoyance of some of the people staying here at the present moment. The staff when we were here was a collage of both compassionate and lacking compassion people. This is typical of shelters... the people who work at them are either walking in their calling or simply settling for a paycheck without clocking in their hearts to the people they work with. So sad, but the ones who do see their job as the mission field that it is, are the ones who are the most effective with helping the people who walk through these types of doors. These 3 ladies didn't appear to be in-joying their mission field today and though they might have been having a collective bad day, it was discouraging that the only thing these staff members had to say to us Casa Alumni who wanted to thank them for what this shelter had provided for us, was "You both need to leave now cause we're in the middle of something here." My flesh got the better of me after this and though I had wanted to leave the desk with a rock, I didn't feel like blessing them for way they treated us and probably treated the other residents here. Yep, I totally failed in showing them kindness despite their lack thereof. It takes a special breed of people to not only work in shelters, but to treat the people like the human beings they still are despite their current situation. Obviously, I was more than a little salty at these staff members, but my single raised eyebrow was lowered when another staff member walked up to the desk area just as we were about to walk back outside.
This was the director of the detox program who now stood next to me, smiling at the girl she well recognized. We clasped our arms around one another and Carmen kept saying how different I looked, and how proud she was that I had finally gotten back on my feet. Our joy-full conversation was soon interrupted with a loud, exaggerated clearing of the throat by one of the disgruntled staff members and we were asked to take our little reunion outside. I had to let out another deep sigh and ask God to help me love these ladies and not let the bitter taste in my mouth sour my wanting to bring the light of Jesus into this dark and dismal place. They were added to my long list of people to pray for. Often, the staff at rehabs and shelters are just as lost as the people who come to stay her... we all need constant help with deweeding our hearts.
Along with the blessing that Carmen was to me, I also recall another staff member who played a significant role in my time in SB, not only while at Casa, but while on the streets. Her name was also Katie and she was one of the youngest staff members at the shelter. Katie kept a consistent smile on her sweet face and she was loved and looked up to by the residents there despite her young age. One of most meaningful time she helped me was after a particular rape while living at the Wall. I walked to Casa after it happen (but stopped to smoke a rock on the way to numb out a little) and though I wasn't on the sign-in sheet for a bed that night, she allowed me to come sit in her office when I found her inside the building. I don't remember how long I sat in that chair by her desk or what we talked about, but I do recall her holding me for a while as this was really what I came to find her for. Katie was one of the few staff members who I trusted and knew that she looked at their job at the shelter as a mission field and not as a paycheck. There was another staff member who I was close to as well, both while living there and while on the streets, but we were close 'cause we got high on crystal meth together. While back in SB, I have heard that she is not working at Casa any longer, but she is still around the area... and not doing well.
But back to the staff member who was a vessel of light and was now radiating her still shining brightness on me once again. Carmen was and is a ray of hope and light at Casa. Her heart is healthy because she is willing to be open about her own life that is a work in progress (she doesn't look down on the people here) is that is what makes her so effective in ministering to the people she works with here who are in their own process of healing. Though my mind was foggy when I was a patient of hers, I remember her deep love and compassion for me and my journey through the valley. Her arms were always open to give me a hugs that I so desperately needed. We caught up on our journeys briefly and I gave her a rock with a simple heart on it. Moisture was in both our eyes that sparkled with gratitude for God's restoration.
Daniel and Karen were found sitting under the shade of some bushed and talking with some people who were wondering who the new faces were and what we were doing here. It was probably obvious that we weren't checking in for a bed that night, but that we were sitting in the courtyard said that we were still there for something. The reason was beyond coming back to Casa for our own closure... we were there to talk with the people who were still there. Karen had calmed down and was able to be present with the people instead of letting the other memories take her away mentally from where she was physically. There were some great conversations had with several people and much could be written of our hour in the courtyard. I'll share only one of these encounters and the name of this person will not be revealed due to her asking to keep her name and face confidential.
This was a lady who lived with us when we stayed here years ago. She had aged and her mind was still functioning, but the alcohol and most likely drugs, had done some more damage. We started talking by the sign-in sheet near the metal door, but took the conversation and ourselves just outside the walls and from earshot of others. Casa is a known gossip center, and she didn't want others hearing what she would trust me with telling. The battle with alcohol was voiced and I gave her a mint after she asked if I could smell the liquor on her breath. My old friend told me a lot about the chapters that had been written since I last saw her. She was going to school for culinary arts, and for this I gave her a big hug and told her how proud I was of her steps to get back on her feet. The rest was not so uplifting though and I struggled to find things to commend her on. Still, many highfives and hugs were given throughout our talk, for I saw how deep the sadness had taken residence in her aging eyes that had seen more than one should in her years. The thing that kept being repeated over and over by her was, "Katie, I'm so glad you are radiating the light of God. I can't believe how gorgeous and beautiful you are both inside and out... But I am a skeptic. You are so different now, but I am a skeptic and I keep trying to find something to doubt that God can change someone like you or me. I'll always be a skeptic." She said this phrase probably 20 times in the next 30 mins till finally I grabbed her shoulders firmly, yet with gentleness, and said, "------, you keep saying that you are a skeptic and there is power of life and death in one's words. As long as you keep speaking this over yourself, you keep this label alive. I charge you to stop speaking this into your spirit and search for a positive word to replace this label. It doesn't have to be 'I'm a believer in Jesus', but maybe you could start saying 'I'm searching for clarity and truth' or 'I'm a pilgrim in progress.' You don't have to believe what I'm sharing about my journey, but don't be so quick to try and find the doubt or skepticism. I didn't even mention God before you pointed out that I must have found God. Therefore, you saw Him in me before I even said He was now living in and through me. That is proof that should drive away doubt right there." Before we had this talk about the power of words and living the labels that we allow to stay stuck on our hearts, this woman had asked me a question that made me do an invisible fist pump to God. She had looked me straight in my eyes and asked, "Have you been born again, Katie?" I was overjoyed to tell her I absolutely had been born again and was forever changed because of this re-dedication to standing on the solid Rock. Though I am not perfect and often slip off that sure foundation throughout the day, it is so cool when others can see the light of God shining through us and in a way, can smell His fragrance without us even saying a word that we have been saved by the grace and mercy of our King. There is a saying that I love that says, "We witness to others, only using words if necessary." This self-proclaimed skeptic was witnessed to and I pray that she no longer proclaims that she finds more doubt than faith in our God who can massage even the hearts of those who try to deny His undeniable existence.
We left Casa with new memories and hearts full of gratitude for the purpose in the often painful days when we called this place our temporary home. While walking back on the sidewalk, I happened to look down while thanking and praising God for what He had just orchestrated, and there before my next step, was a cross made from 2 thin leaves from a nearby tree. Though this may be a stretch of a sign from God of the cross that is still providing freedom and forgiveness today, it was a clear and obvious message of love to my heart. My eyes are often searching for visible signs of God in nature, though it's these reminders of His unfailing grace and love when I'm not even looking for them, that hold even more special meaning. Hungry and in need of time to process our experience of returning to the shelter, I drove Tumbler to a nearby McDonalds. Daniel and Karen ordered their lunch and I ordered a large iced coffee along with 30 cheeseburgers and 20 fries for the unknown number of people we would be visiting next... the Pershing family.
I wasn't very gracious in allowing my friends to eat slowly, as my antsy heart was anxious to sit and eat with those who rarely sat in a McDonadl's booth or even ate from here. When they still had a few bites of their sandwiches left, Daniel looked at me in my visible restless state and said, "You want to go to the park, don't you?" Yeppers, and the coffee I was sipping wasn't helping to keep me contently calm spending time here when we could be with those who were so more in need of food. We hopped back in Tumbler and poor Daniel, with his lanky legs, was sardined in the backseat of the truck I'd lived out of for the last 7 weeks. He is not one to grumble or complain and he was simply glad to be with his old friends. Karen was comfortable in the roomy front seat, but her nerves were making her uncomfortable once again like this morning's experience.
A little backstory on why this trip to Pershing was especially purposeful (beyond bringing the people much needed nourishment) was that Karen's last memory of this park was a scary experience and she hadn't stepped foot back in Pershing since that dark memory. Years ago, she was walking back from the beach and had been followed by a group of guys. Scared of what they wanted, she began to run and then tripped on the uneven sidewalk. The guys were about to surround her when a nearby man and his son came over to help her up and chase off the men. Who knows what could or would have happened late that night if not for the man and son seeing Karen's need of intervention, but the memory had stuck with her and today she would be going back to face the fear of this park in general.
I had purposefully planned on bringing bags of food with us not only to feed the family, but also to create a diversion for my friend who had found the courage to go back to the place that held this last memory. When you yourself or someone else is going to re-visit a dark place of their past, it's important to go with the intention of not only facing the fear, but in doing so, to do something that will create a new, positive memory. Whether it's feeding some people like we were about to do, or going to have a picnic with other friends, bringing a frisbee to toss around, volunteering to clean up an area or paint an apartment, or do some garden work... wherever the place is and the dark memory is attatched, go for a specific reason other than the obvious one of going back to face the fear. That way, the facing of that memory isn't at the forefront of one's mind, but rather they can think about the positive and helpful reason they are going. The memory and fear will be faced while they are doing something to help someone else. That was really wordy in trying to explain, but hopefully the point was clear: To face something inside oneself, it's helpful to get OUTSIDE yourself. It's like doing 2 things at once and both you and someone else are helped in the process. Such was the case this afternoon for Karen. While we were walking into the park, I noticed her focus wasn't the sidewalk where that last memory was made, but she was smiling as she walked towards the group of people whom we were about to feed. It was beautiful and watching Karen and Daniel interact with the people was so cool to witness. And they were hungry, so the burgers and fries were right on time. The time was also right for Karen to re-visit this park... and make a new, fresh and beautiful memory that she can now look back on and smile instead of shiver.
We stayed at Pershing for quite awhile and my family was glad to meet some of my friends. While I sat with Gator, Hydro, 2 Feathers, Bruce, Ray Ray and Bruiser, 3 others guys were seen walking into the park from a distance. I met them halfway and asked if they were hungry. Indeed, they were, so they were invited to come join the group that huddled around the McDonald's bags. I asked the new guys where they were from, where they had just came from and how long they had been in SB. They had just arrived and this was there first afternoon and one of them said, "And what a welcome this is for us!" I saw them over the next few days in Pershing as well as on State Street, and many more conversations would be had with them individually and collectively. The one who kept tugging on my spirit was named Eddie, who carried around a large black case for his electric guitar but had no amp. We talked in between huge bites of his cheeseburgers and I learned much about some chapters of this young wander's life-story. I gave Eddie a "We All Have A Story" rock and he would pull it out every time I saw him in the following days.
We could have stayed much longer than we did, but I felt it was time to go. This feeling of needing to leave the park came suddenly and even though I was right in the middle of listening to one of the new guy's tell me about some of his past chapters, I looked away from his face and turned my gaze towards Daniel, sitting a few feet away from me. I have him the "are you ready to go?" look. He had sensed the time to move on as well and he nodded in an agreeing confirmation. Right after he nodded and we both began to stand up, the radio that Hydro constantly has playing music changed from a Doobie Brother's song to another group (?) song with the opening lyrics "I don't know how we're gonna get out of here"... and I finished the song's sentence with "but we'll start by standing up and saying see ya'll later to my family forever." They all cracked up and hugs were distributed all around. Even Karen shook their hands and hugged a few of the people before walking away, having handed out food to those in need as well as facing her fears in process.
What a day it had been. All of us were a combination of pumped up and exhausted. Daniel was dropped off at HotSpots on the busy strip where Salvatore was waiting. Yesterday, I had made a trip to K-Mart in between the awesome mission fields that God walked with me on, and I bought 2 sleeping bags for my brothers. The nights can get cold here even though California is know for it's warm, sunny weather for the most part. No reason Daniel and Salvatore, who were faithful ministers of God's love to those on the streets and warmed so many people's hearts, had to sleep through the cool nights without warmth. It was a small gift for the treasure that both their friendship meant to me.... priceless.
We often have to step outside ourselves
To discover what is inside us all along.
Fear can keep us from missing out
On helping someone else out.
Create a new memory today,
Pack courage and hope.
~Unshakable Peace, Courage and Purpose~
cling to the Rock