She lay on the sidewalk covered with tattered, dirty sheets and scraps of cloth. Certainly death must be a regular part of life on the streets, but this was my first experience. The crowd swelled and shrank. There was a core group who hovered around the body mourning. Others came and went, passing by in idle curiosity. Who was this lady? By what manner did she die? No one really knew the answers to these questions. She was just another of the nameless masses that call the streets home.
We see them everywhere, faces. They peer from under the tattered scraps of plastic that they call home. We step around them on the sidewalks, their hands out, bits of change scattered in front of them on the ground. We drive past as they sleep in the medians, lying with the stray dogs. Indeed, they live in the same condition as the strays.
Faces without names. We pass by noting their wretched condition and feel an all too familiar tightening in our chests. It starts as a pang of compassion; we want to reach out, to help them. It quickly turns to a sickness in our gut as we realize how weak and limited that we are. We are helpless to lift them from their despair. So we harden ourselves. We try to forget the faces to buffer ourselves emotionally. This is only possible as long as the faces remain nameless.
For me, the lady who lay beneath the sheets remains nameless, but for a couple of our beneficiaries she had a name, mama. There is no emotional buffer for these kids against the reality of this death, no detachment from what has occurred. I stood with the crowd until almost dark consoling as best I could these kids whose names I know very well. It would’ve been dangerous to stay out any longer so I left for home. The lady’s son went with me to his current home, the half-way home. Her daughter slept in the church beside the casket. One more night with mom before saying goodbye.
This job has many challenges. We face frustrations, inconveniences, difficult living conditions, illnesses, and dangers. These things we can tolerate. What really makes this job difficult is when we start putting names with the faces.