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by Fabrizia Faustinella
I’d like to notify you that there is a woman living under a bridge close to my home. She has been there for five months and I’ve been trying to help her out, but she needs a safe place to stay. She was attacked and beat up about two weeks ago. The assault resulted in head concussion and trauma to the right side of her face.
Her name is Yvette Collins. You can find her under the bridge mainly in the afternoon. She might be reluctant to accept help and move to a shelter. She seems to be very intelligent, but I’m sure she has mental health issues which keep her from thinking straight. She might have a delusional disorder.
Please, stop by as soon you can and help her out.
This is the note I sent to the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) in my city. Nobody would answer the phone, so I had no choice but to go online and report Yvette’s case via email. HOT is comprised of one sergeant, six police officers, one Metro PD officer, one senior police service officer, and four case managers from The Center for Mental Health and IDD (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities). The team helps the homeless with housing, social security cards, birth certificates, shelter referrals, medical equipment, employment, bus fare, medical care and mental health treatment.
I thought Yvette needed all the help she could get.
I saw Yvette for the first time under the bridge on Scott Street while walking on a path along the bayou which takes me all the way down to a nearby park. Walking is how I’m getting most of my exercise lately; the COVID-19 pandemic has kept me from going back to the gym. Yvette looked young and pretty, a Black woman in her mid-thirties or so, clean and well-dressed, with a pearl necklace under a light brown jacket. Oddly, she was sweeping the cement floor under the bridge with a broom. I noticed a luscious green plant in a white ceramic pot right next to one of the bridge’s pillars and, neatly arranged nearby, a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of items I could not identify, and a piece of luggage. She must have come from a house or an apartment, from some sort of sheltered environment, which would explain the plant and the broom and her healthy, fresh appearance. But who dropped her off with all that stuff? And why? Was she evicted, unable to pay the rent? This pandemic is wreaking havoc in people’s lives. It’s hard to keep a job and a roof over the head when the bills and the rent don’t get paid. Or was she rejected by her own family and abandoned out in the streets? That can happen when mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse take a toll on family relationships. Or was she a victim of domestic abuse and had to leave to keep safe?
On my way back from the park, I couldn’t help it; I had to stop by and say hi, from a distance, of course, given the need for extra precautions required by the pandemic.
“Hi, Miss! Excuse me!” I called out to her. She was standing under the bridge with the broom still in her hands.
“Oh, hi,” she said smiling at me.
“I’ve never seen you before around here. How are you? I was wondering if you might need anything.”
“I’m fine, thank you. I was just cleaning this place up because there is a lot of bats’ and birds’ poop under this bridge and that’s disgusting.”
“I just don’t think it’s safe for you to stay here and sleep here…I mean, it wouldn’t be safe for anybody, but for somebody like you, a woman and all, this is not the place to be.” I expressed my concerns with a firm tone of voice. Then I dared asking: “What happened to you? You don’t look like you have been out in the streets for too long. Where are you coming from? If you need help with finding a shelter, I can certainly make myself available. There are agencies in town which can help you to get back on your feet.”
“Well, the agencies are closed now because of the pandemic. I’ll get there when this thing blows over… I’m really fine here. I don’t need a shelter. I don’t want to go to a shelter. I have these things with me,” she said while tilting her head toward the plant and the cardboard box, “and they won’t let me take them inside. Besides, there is a lot going on in those places. They steal your stuff and whatnot. I’m safer here.”
I knew I would not have been able to change her mind about the necessity of finding a better living arrangement. I asked her if she needed food, and she said she would have appreciated some fruits; she liked celery sticks with peanut butter, not the expensive one, just any generic peanut butter would have been fine. She didn’t ask for money. While returning home, I realized that she didn’t say a word about herself and how she got into that predicament. She didn’t even tell me her real name during that first encounter. She told me that people called her “Luv.”
Over the next months, I met with Luv on a weekly basis. I brought her food supplies, water, wipes and face masks. I warned her to be very careful on the city busses, in the various neighborhood stores, and at the laundromat where she would go to wash her clothes and recharge her cell phone. I told her that the virus was out there and reminded her to never lower her guard. She seemed to be informed and up-to-date with current events. She seemed kind and thoughtful. She was even considerate of me and my family. Luv asked about my own mother and how she was dealing with the pandemic, showing a great degree of insightfulness. So why wouldn’t she seek help? She didn’t look, and never did, like she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. What was keeping her out in the streets? Many times I gave her written information on the various shelters in town, the soup kitchens, and the places where she could shower, get fresh clothes and help finding, possibly, a job and permanent housing, although I knew that many agencies were not fully functional due to the pandemic. She just was not interested.
One day Luv told me that she had an ex-husband and four grown-up children who had their own families. She must have been older than I had thought. Luv’s kids all lived “up north,” she said, but she couldn’t stand the cold weather there, so she would never consider moving closer to them. Besides, she told me, her husband was a man to avoid, although Luv didn’t volunteer any details about their relationship. She just shook her head and rolled her eyes up when she mentioned him. She also had a brother, seemingly in town, who would tell her that Fridays are weird days, and she needed to stay put on Fridays to avoid any troubles. “Don’t you think that’s true?’ she asked me once.
Then Luv started to tell me how people walking on the same path I took to the park would insult her and call her names and be unkind. She also said that the children in a nearby daycare center would sing about her all day long. They would sing about her being a whore and being worthless. I knew that this could not be true, and I started to recognize the unmistakable signs of paranoia and delusions creeping into her mind. She said that she was trying her best to ignore all that nastiness but it was very unnerving. One day, Luv asked for my email address. She said she had gone through a lot and wanted to tell me everything about herself. It looked like I might have gained her trust. Maybe she was now comfortable, I thought, with writing down her story and sharing her experiences with me.
On a Saturday, I opened my email and found three messages from a woman by the name of Yvette Collins. It was Luv.
This is what she wrote:
April 9, 2020, 1:10 pm: “One day my child asked me why I was going through so many trials and ordeals. Because I was the one feeling the blows that life can give you. I honestly didn’t think anyone noticed nor cared. The interesting thing about the question was that I had poured my heart out to my Creator asking the duplicate question.”
April 9, 2020, 2:30 pm: “In wonder what I had done in my life, thus far, that was so bad. Like, why was ‘karma’ whipping my rump for. Why was I receiving such treatment, some type of turbulence rocking my boat more than it should? In response to my question, HIS reply was something in the manner of the platform I am giving you: I want you to be able to relate to Many.”
April 10, 2020, 9:05 am: “Communication on a different level. Elucidating from experiences gives you a better understanding and understanding goes a long way. Okay, that made sense and it also made me feel a little better knowing that I was not under some ‘Karma’ curse. May we listen, may we learn and may we live.”
There was no doubt that behind Luv’s appearance of normalcy there was a struggling mind. Untreated mental illness was most likely one of the reasons why she was out in the streets and most likely the main reason why she was unable to get out of her situation.
When we met, after she wrote those emails, Luv told me that God sent her many trials so she could become a better person and find her own way in life. She also told me that God gave her many gifts and skills. She said she was clairvoyant and she could see things in her dreams that would come true. Then she showed me a beautiful necklace with a shimmering purple butterfly pendant. Luv said she made it for me. She knew how to make things like that because God gave her the gift. She loved butterflies because they were a symbol of change, transformation and hope. She said she was like a butterfly herself and she would be able to break her cocoon one of these days and fly away. Luv left the necklace on the cement floor and stepped away, so that I could get close and pick it up. She understood the need for social distancing.
I was deeply touched by Luv’s thoughtful gift and I thanked her for that. In the days that followed, I continued thinking of ways to get her out of that bridge underpass. The pandemic was negatively impacting access to all support systems for homeless people. I was afraid that too much time would go by before she could get any significant help and that something bad could happen to her, as it is so often the case with homeless people and particularly women. I knew though that she would have resisted any change, because she was convinced that she was where she was supposed to be and only God could have told her what to do next.
Then Luv disappeared for about ten days. Her belongings were nicely piled up next to the towering cement pillar of the bridge that had become her home for the past several months. I was worried about her, but I was also hopeful that maybe she had listened to my recommendations and found a shelter. When she reappeared, she had a huge black eye and bruises all over her body. Luv told me how she was attacked by a man who came fishing on the bayou. She thought he was too close to her camp and wouldn’t leave when she asked him to do so. The two got into an altercation and he beat her up. Then he moved away, farther down the bayou. Luv reached for a knife in her cardboard box and slashed all four tires of his truck which was parked nearby. After that, she found a way to get to the county hospital where she received care. She was feeling much better now and said not to worry about her. She also said that she would get a gun and kill that guy if he came around again.
Over a period of three months, the streets had taken a toll on Luv. Her beautiful face looked very much aged. The healthy glow was gone, consumed by so many deprivations and difficulties. Her legs were swollen and ravaged by insect bites. Her thinking process seemed increasingly disturbed and unbalanced.
Her plant, once luscious, was now struggling to stay alive, its leaves burnt by heat and lack of water. That’s when I finally decided to contact the Homeless Outreach Team. Maybe I should have done that right after my first encounter with Luv. I didn’t tell her anything about my betrayal and felt somewhat guilty, but I didn’t want to give her heads up and scare her away. When I saw Luv, two days after sending the message, she told me that she had a dream. In the dream, she saw people coming down under the bridge to visit her. They offered to take her with them to a better place. She said that when she woke up from that dream she made the decision to follow those people; that time had come for her to start her transformation process. Luv was now planning to go to the laundromat and wash her clothes and sleeping bag, so she would be ready for the move. Maybe then, the next time I walked my route, I would not have found her, but she said she would leave a note for me under the bridge or email me, if she ever managed to get her phone recharged, because she had lost the cord, or access to a computer. “I sure hope that this is what will happen, Luv. You really need to leave this place,” I said. “And yes, let me know where you will be going. You sure deserve better.” She smiled and seemed excited and uplifted by the prospect of leaving the bridge. I myself felt a surge of hope and excitement at the idea that her dream could come true. I had notified the outreach team after all and what if that’s what she saw in her dream? Didn’t she tell me that she had the gift of clairvoyance through her dreams? What if that was possible? What if it wasn’t just delusional thinking?
For several days in a row, I couldn’t go walking due to heavy rain. I thought of Luv many times because I knew it was tough to be under the bridge, no matter what, but heavy rain was really bad as there was leakage of water from above and the danger of the bayou raising waters, which so many times have swept away the homeless’ possessions. When the rain finally subsided, I headed straight to the bridge to look for her. There was no trace of Luv and her belongings. Where did she go? Was she safe? Did the homeless outreach team stop by and picked her up? Did she have to leave because of the severe weather?
I looked around, hoping I would find a note under a stone or some clue to tell me what happened to her. Behind the cement pillar, I saw Luv’s broom and the plant, now dead. Inside the pot there was a small plastic bag with something inside. I put on a pair of disposable gloves which I always carry with me these days. I picked up the plastic bag and opened it. Inside, there was a necklace, this one too with a butterfly pendant, a green and blue butterfly, with Love and Peace written on the wings. Then I saw a small piece of paper with broken handwriting which read: “For Your Mom, from Luv.”