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Dying At Home

From Will O'Brien.

I wanted to share this memory of a powerful experience and learning at Project HOME from a few years back.

Hardly had I passed through the door when I sensed an unusual serenity. The spacious community room was clean and well-lit. The walls were adorned with vividly-colored canvasses, the work of homeless artists. Some forty-odd chairs were set in a semi-circle. Karen, a former homeless woman who lives with a particularly daunting mental illness, was playing hymns on the console piano in the corner. Others, like me, were entering the room in a reverential quiet, taking a program from the small table at the entrance. Instead of the usual bustle of meetings, an almost sacred calm held sway.

At the front of the room, a simple table was converted into a makeshift altar: a white lace tablecloth, topped by a lit candle, a vase of flowers, and a photo of Sarae.

The slightly grainy photo captured Sarae perfectly: the close-cropped hair, her slightly dour and wrinkled face, with the gentling curves of a tight smile. The look in her eyes, true to life, suggested she was both present to you and at the same time distant, in her own world.

Sarae’s death shocked us. Earlier that spring, a regular check-up showed some alarming irregularities in her liver. Sarae maintained her daily regiment, until just a few short weeks ago, when she took the unprecedented step of leaving her thrift store job early due to fatigue. The awful discovery: cancer, malevolent, advanced, untreatable. Sarae mustered a soft stoicism, never complaining of pain. Without fuss or fanfare, she made her peace, expressing gratefulness for a long life. Her one insistence: she wanted to stay “at home,” in her small, tidy room at our permanent, supportive residence for persons who had been homeless and lived with a mental illness. Her case worker and the rest of the staff did yeoman’s duty to realize Sarae’s simple desire. Fate took its course quickly. Just a few weeks later, she lay dying on her bed, her friend and fellow resident Cass holding her hand as she passed from us.

Sarae had been a touchstone of our community. She first moved into our Fairmount Avenue residence some thirteen years earlier. Her arrival came on the heels of a political maelstrom: our development of this permanent housing facility had been blocked for five years by particularly trenchant and well-oiled political and legal forces who didn’t want “those people” in their neighborhood. After a long and draining string of courtroom challenges, street marches and rallies - all marked by a fierce public debate on fair housing and neighborhood safety - the facility finally opened. It was a major fair-housing victory and the advent of a high-quality, dignified home for 48 men and women who had worked hard to escape the clutches of the streets.

Sarae’s self-effacing demeanor was a stark contrast to the Sturm und Drang that had occasioned the opening of her new home. Prior to coming to Fairmount Avenue, Sarae had spent some time in our transitional house for persons with mental illness. We knew little about her history, her background, her experience of homelessness. Had she been married? Did she have family anywhere? In all the time she was with us, she had lived close to the bone, revealing only the scantest traces of her past.

But for all that lay hidden beneath her ferociously guarded demeanor, Sarae had an impact on all of us. Now as we gathered in the Fairmount Avenue community room to mourn, to remember, to celebrate, the repercussions of her simple life would be expressed with due reverence.

We read a little Scripture. With Karen’s piano accompaniment, we sang some hymns. And, with Sara’s photo looking out at us all, we shared who she had been to us. Various residents, staff members, and friends, some on the edge of tears, reminisced

To a person, we all recalled her quiet personality, but we were just as unanimous that her kindness and gentleness had left its mark on us. Fellow residents had been encouraged and strengthened by Sarae’s caring spirit. We were all taken by her dutiful dependence putting in her hours as an employee of our two jobs programs, a café and a thrift store. People spoke of how, when you made a purchase, Sarae would diligently count out your change with time-consuming exactitude – never failing to wish you a good day with her trademark smile. One resident remarked how Sarae would have appreciated the brightly colored flowers on the altar – flowers and greenery were a staple ornament in her otherwise sparsely furnished room.

Hearing the various recollections - some tinged with tears, others with chuckles - I found my mind unexpectedly wandering back to distant memories, some I hadn’t thought of for years. Old images were coming to me, unbidden, of my first encounters with persons on the streets of Philadelphia. Shortly after arriving in the city twenty years earlier, a young and fervent do-gooder, I did a weekly volunteer stint of street outreach. Homelessness was still a fairly new social phenomenon, one that bewildered and frustrated the collective social conscience of the city, as well as its human service system. Each Thursday night I went out, as part of a pair of well-intentioned non-professionals, to walk the streets of Center City, armed with coffee, sandwiches, and note pads. We encountered folks, made a stab at some minimally decent and affirming human contact, offered our meager wares, tried to understand their situation, and if possible, gave them helpful contact information about shelter and services (which were in slim supply).

Among the troubled urban refugees we met were those then labeled “bag ladies” – women with serious mental illness, many elderly, most of whom had been discharged from psychiatric hospitals in a criminal perversion of social policy. Their plight pricked the conscience of the professional service providers but defied their best efforts. Dozens of them lived on the streets. Week after week we got to know them – Marian, Jean, Ruth, others. Each one had staked out her personal geography, often in the niche of a building, surrounded by milk crates and sundry belongings. We usually knew where to find them – and when we arrived, we experienced a strange and moving ritual in which they invited us into their makeshift “homes,” often offering us snacks or drinks that they had procured in their daily scavenging. The women had also formed a sort of community of mutual support. It was not unusual for one of them to say, “You should keep an eye out for Lucy – she doesn’t seem too well, and I haven’t seen her. She might be down in Suburban Station.”

These street encounters evoked a storm of wildly varying feelings in me. I felt a rage that humans beings could be so wretchedly neglected and forced to live in such horrendous conditions. At the same time, I experienced a deep awe at the beauty and dignity of these women – as if they were revealing wonders of the human spirit hitherto unknown to me. It was also not unusual for me to head home after my three hours of outreach burdened with a crushing sense of helplessness – how could I save these women, how could I possible alleviate this travesty of suffering?

Looking at Sarae’s face in the photograph and hearing the sundry testimonies about her, I then found my mind wandering to yet another startling, long dormant memory. As part of my deepening commitment and advocacy, I had taken up with a gang of Philadelphia’s fairly radical Christian activists, many of whom had logged years working with and on behalf of folks in poor communities and socially marginalized situations. One rather dramatic experience from those days was an annual pilgrimage I would make every Good Friday with a couple of other folks, a grizzled ex-veteran-turned-peace-activist and a renegade Catholic priest. We would travel to a far corner of the Northeast, to a neighborhood I am sure I could never find today. My priest friend had learned of a plot of land that functioned as a municipal “potter’s field” – an unnamed, unmarked graveyard where the City would bury the bodies of persons who had died alone and anonymously. Many of those buried were homeless persons who had died on the streets. We were convinced and convicted that the degradation these unknown brothers and sisters had experienced in their lives should not extend into the further indignity of an unhonored death. So we went there to hold a brief prayer service, a belated memorial, a meager effort to hallow their passing and scrap a bit of decency out of the awful tragedy of dying alone and abandoned.

For much of the next two decades, I had the opportunity to participate in building programs that provided concrete solutions to the struggles of many homeless men and women on the streets. For a couple of years, I worked with Women of Hope, a pair of small residences that were built in the 1980s that offered a dignified and caring home for many of the same women I knew from the streets. I joined with an amazing group of persons who founded and developed Project HOME, starting with temporary, makeshift emergency shelters for some of the especially vulnerable men on the streets and growing into a nationally recognized program of multiple residences and comprehensive services. In those almost twenty years, I was blessed to be part of an impassioned, energetic, and talented group of people – including some remarkable men and women who themselves had experienced homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental illness. These folks formed a community of relentless hope, turning visions into reality, starting with impossibilities and ending up with effective solutions. Over the course of several years, I witnessed hundreds of lives transformed and renewed.

Two decades of memories circled back to the present moment. We were gathered, in the welcoming environment of this community room, in a facility where the three upper floors provided secure and dignified homes for men and women who had known life on the streets as well as the chronic struggle of severe mental illness. We had come from different corners of society – some from experiences of extreme poverty, some from comfort and privilege. Our presence in this room was made possibly by the struggle and persistence, the organizing and activism, of many persons, some themselves homeless and poor.

We gathered as a community to grieve, remember, and celebrate a sister. This had been Sarae’s home; these people, her family. She had not died alone and anonymous: her death was hallowed and enveloped in loving care by a group of persons whose lives she had enriched in her quiet way.

We struggle to ensure that all persons in our society have a chance at a decent life. But perhaps just as important is a decent death. And perhaps that is one of the meanings of home: the place where we can die in grace and dignity.


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