I see her in the late afternoon sunlight at the entrance of the church, two sister missionaries clearly trying to comfort her, before I even manage to park.  She is dirty, disheveled, and clothed only in a thin nightgown which bore evidence that she’d either fallen, or possibly slept, in the dirt.  She smells terrible.  She starts sobbing incoherently the moment she sees me, her eyes wholly unable to meet mine.  They’d come to the church and found her that way, the Sisters say, and they couldn’t understand her very well, except for my name, so they’d called me.  We sit her down in the foyer where she rocks herself in her chair and sobs unintelligible words.  I speak sternly, almost harshly, to her that I can’t understand and that she needs to tell me what happened.  My tone shocks the Sisters, but I have to speak that way sometimes or she doesn’t exert the effort it takes to control her emotions.  She says she’s just gotten out of jail.  She’s been in jail for a week.  There’d been a late-night altercation in the housing program she was in (she’d tried to kill her roommate) and the police had come and put her in jail.  They’d put her back on the street a week later with nothing but the nightclothes she’d been arrested in.  She has no phone, no clothes, no money, no bus pass.  She is so ashamed.  She knows how hard we’d worked to get her into that program, and now she’s ruined everything.  It is her fault.  Her fault.  She is so sorry.

She’d wandered for two days, gradually covering the 12 miles from the jail to the church, sleeping outside in nothing but the flimsy nightgown that would have had me shivering in the afternoon sunshine.  I’m surprised her illnesses hadn’t killed her.  I’m surprised she could walk that far with her hip (they’d confiscated her cane).  I get her warmed and fed, put her up in a motel room, and arrange to pick up her things from the program (those that haven’t been stolen).  But what now?  Three of us had spent hours and hours getting her into that program.  The program’s advocates are sympathetic — they feel the roommate had it coming.  But they can’t take her back.  Not even the jail wants her.

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He’d come into the foyer second hour.  All he wanted was help to get to his brother who lived just up the coast from LA.  The bishop asked if I would take him to the train station and buy him a train ticket.  I was happy to.  I was less happy when I saw him.  He clearly hadn’t washed himself or his clothes in weeks.  I didn’t realize quite how badly he smelled until we were nearly to the car, and I realized the “mud” on his shoes probably wasn’t mud.  Not wanting to demean him, yet wanting my car to be habitable afterwards, I put a towel on the seat before inviting him to get in.  As we drove, windows down, my polite conversation was met with aggravation, so we mostly drove in silence.  I presented him at the ticket booth indicating I would pay, but when she asked for ID, he acted as if he’d been slapped.  She can’t sell him a ticket without ID, she explained.  His face turned red and he began spitting expletives at her.  Shocked, I didn’t know what to do.  The security guard started moving in our direction, and he became louder still, cursing her, me, innocent bystanders, and the guard.  As the guard reached for his radio, he yelled for everyone to stay away from him and started backing toward the door.  Last I saw him, he was outside the terminal cursing the guard who stood in the doorway.

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I drove past the restaurant where she’d said she be, having promised to take her to a motel.  I’d asked her to be out front so I wouldn’t have to park, but she wasn’t there.  I even went in and couldn’t find her.  So, I texted her to come out front, and eventually a tall young woman with orange-dyed hair, piercings, super short shorts, and medium-sized backpack emerged.  We quickly identified each other, and she tried to make a good show, but her smile never reached her eyes.  Her thoughts preoccupied her.  As my wife reached out to give her a hug, I smelled the strong scent of cigarettes and alcohol and saw the baby bump under her t-shirt.

As we drove, I told her that I’d talked with her mom, her dad, and her bishop already, and that all of them were very worried about her.  I didn’t tell her that her dad had said that if he ever saw her boyfriend he’d immediately call the police, and then the boyfriend was going hope they showed up quick.  But I think she knew.  And besides, she and her boyfriend had gotten in a fight and he’d left her.  I didn’t completely understand everything, but shortly after they’d entered the state, the cops arrested them and she spent three days in jail.  Her brother drove 200 miles to pick her up and put her in a motel until she could sort things out at the courthouse.  When he’d had to leave, the boyfriend had magically reappeared, until they’d fought.  She had no credit card, no money, and the closest thing she had to an ID was a fuzzy picture of herself and her name printed on the plastic bag that the jail had stored her personal possessions in.  The motel didn’t consider that adequate and wouldn’t allow her to re-register, so I was taking her somewhere else.

The reception lady at the new motel was extremely nice, scanned the picture on the bag, and found a smoking room for her.  I typed in the credit card numbers her mom read me over the phone, making sure, at her mom’s insistence, that she didn’t see them.  Fortunately, her case worker in her home state (the same one who had placed her first baby) could give her a little money now and then.  All checked in, we looked at each other and she burst into tears.  Gratitude?  Not exactly.  She was grateful, but mostly she had looked at us and then at herself, and found herself wanting.  She hated herself.  She hated her boyfriend.  She hated that she was an addict.  My wife gave her another hug, and I told her that God loves her and not to give up on herself.  It wasn’t trite — we meant it.  But I’d heard that 90% of ten-year drug addicts never regained sobriety, and she was 26, meaning her ten years were coming up quick.  If I didn’t have much hope for her, how could she?  As we walked away, I promised her I’d arrange an Uber for her to appear at the courthouse.

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A member of the ward had called the bishop and said that her friend had no food, so we’d gone.  My wife had brought a sizable portion of fried rice left from our dinner and we’d knocked on the door of the decidedly downscale motel room.  A blond woman of average height and build answered the door, her haggard face both desperate and defiant.  Hearing who we were and that we’d brought dinner, her face relaxed and she invited us in.  The room had an old microwave, but she and her young son (5?) simply dumped the fried rice on the paper plates we’d brought and started eating ravenously.  The almost-two-year-old stared at us with wide eyes and wouldn’t eat.  The woman said she had three more kids, two sons who were staying with their football coach, and her eldest, a daughter, who’d been institutionalized and who would be getting released in a few months on her eighteenth birthday.

As I continued asking questions, she glanced at her son and asked if I’d step outside with her, which I did.  The toddler followed and threw a fit when my wife tried to intercept her, so the three of us communed in the semi-dark parking lot.  Would my church be able to help her?  She’d rented the motel for two weeks, and she still had three more days, but they were about to put her storage unit up for sale unless she could come up with the $540 in fees and back rent, and they wouldn’t let her in to get her stuff.  She’d been homeless for about a month.  Does our church have a program for single mothers like her?  I started asking about the fathers, but all three of them were completely out of the picture, and as I was asking the baby was fussing.  Frustrated, she reached down the neck of her blouse and pulled out her bare breast, pausing to shoot me glance of defiance before picking up the toddler and holding her to it.  No, none of the fathers could help, she said.  No, none of her siblings would help.  Her parents were divorced, she hated her dad, and her mom couldn’t help.

The church helped.  Her storage unit was paid for, the Relief Society brought in meals periodically (since they couldn’t cook), and their stay at the motel was extended weeks at a time.  Over the next couple weeks, I spoke with almost all her siblings and both parents.  She hadn’t wanted me to, and had only given me their numbers when the bishop made it a condition for church support.  They’d all come crossways with her (and apparently with each other) and said she was difficult.  Her dad called her a selfish bitch who always insisted on doing things her way and fighting with everybody.  I’d seen a little of her aggression when she’d just about leaped over the counter at the storage unit attendant.  But one of her sisters, the former drug addict who’d found Jesus and gotten married in Minnesota, said she could help her if she’d come out there.

The bishop called a meeting with her and the RS president, and offered to pay her family’s way to Minnesota.  She refused.  Her boys didn’t want to leave their football teams (possibly the most stable thing in their lives).  And how could she abandon her daughter again, who expected her to be there when she got out?  But the bishop said he couldn’t just continue to support her without some sort of viable plan.  And, she needed family support.  She was adamant.  She would not abandon her daughter again, and he couldn’t make her.  But what did she have to offer her daughter?  To sleep next to her on the street?  Her daughter would have more help than she had.  Child Protective Services was likely to take her children if she continued to live the way she was.  Furious, she told us all to go to hell, she would not go to Minnesota.  She stormed out.  She had two weeks left in the motel before the church money ran out.

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It was the second time I was standing in the office of the impound lot.  The first time, they didn’t give him his jeep because he didn’t have the registration.  He wasn’t going to get it overnight, either, because it was registered in a state a thousand miles away, but the sheriff told him he’d get it released as long as he never saw him in our town again.  I couldn’t believe I was about to use fast offerings to get this guy’s jeep out of impound.  He’d recently gotten out of jail, met a woman (who’d been helping him stay clean, he said), and they’d driven a thousand miles because he figured he could get a job at the racetrack.  He’d worked with the horses there before.  But when he arrived, he found out he’d been blacklisted.  He was out of money and looking for work.  He and his woman had been sleeping in the jeep when the sheriff took an interest in them.  He said his back window was missing and the cops thought it an eyesore.  The sheriff ran his name, found a warrant for his arrest in San Bernardino (which he claims should have been expunged years ago).  He then searched the car, found drug paraphernalia, and threw them both in jail, impounding the jeep.  He’d sworn to me he’d been clean since he’d gotten out, that the drug paraphernalia was just in among his other stuff and that he didn’t know it was there.  Sure.  The sheriff found it fast enough.  The sheriff had let them go the next day, but he couldn’t come up with the approximately $270 dollars he needed to get his jeep back.  He hit up old friends and started raising money, but each additional night in the impound yard was an additional $40, plus some sort of recording fee every three days or something.  The sheriff told him if he saw them sleeping around here, he’d throw them back in jail, so he’d had to spend $40/night at the campground to sleep in the dirt.  What else could he do?  He couldn’t get around.  He couldn’t raise money faster than he was being forced to spend it, let alone as fast as his fines were increasing.  Everything they owned was in that jeep, and they wouldn’t give him access.

On the one hand, I instinctively didn’t like the guy.  He was a fast talker and he carefully watched my face for every reaction to what he said.  Made me feel like a mark.  Also, if he was so clean, why the drug paraphernalia?  Why were the cops clearly trying to make his life hell?  The release slip from jail made it look like the cops caught them doing drugs, but he’d denied it.

On the other hand, how is it the sheriff can simply arrest someone without charging them and confiscate their property?  The impound fees constituted an extra-judicial fine.  The guy was stuck in a situation that had no way out.

I handed the impound attendant my credit card.  $570.  Holy crap.  What a racket.  They must have been changing the jeep’s sheets and making its bed.  Nope.  It emerged full of ants that had found some food in there.  What a mess.

He thanked me profusely.  Thanked me for covering the whole thing, so he’d have money for gas.  Told me he was very, very grateful, and that he knew he had another chance.  He wasn’t going to waste it.  And then he started cleaning the ants out of his jeep.

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She’d met with the missionaries twice before she’d told them she had no food.  One of the ward missionaries had gotten her and her son some groceries to last until I could visit them.  The moment she opened the door, my eyes instinctively dropped into the plunging neckline of her blouse.  I commanded them up to her face, which smiled in a flirty manner and invited me inside.  Her manner and tight jeans matched what the low blouse was saying, and I’d wished I’d brought my wife, even though her son was standing right there.  She apparently saw disapproval in my hesitation or recognized me from when I’d dropped by her son’s phone he’d left at mutual, and her manner changed.  She discreetly pulled at the back of her blouse, making the neckline rise.

Her son clearly loved her, but it was also clear he pretty much only ate when he stayed with his father, and he was okay with that.  She seemed able-bodied, and said she didn’t want a handout, just a job (she’d just been fired… again).  She took me up on my offer to work in my yard.  I’d offered a rate greater than the Mexican day-laborers outside Home Depot got, even though I knew she wouldn’t be nearly as good as them.  She showed up at the prescribed time and I gave her instructions before leaving.  When I came back, it was clear she’d been working very hard the whole time I was gone and had gotten a lot done.  But she hadn’t done as I’d asked.  She was exhausted and pleased with herself, and practically beamed at me.  I was impressed at her effort and annoyed with the result.  No wonder this woman couldn’t keep a job — she wouldn’t follow instructions.  Deciding she needed to know that or she’d just keep getting fired, I expressed my dissatisfaction.  I tried to be gentle, yet firm.  As I spoke, I watched her face turn stunned, then hurt, then obstinate.  “I worked hard.  I did well,” she insisted.  “You worked hard, but you didn’t listen,” I said.  “You have to listen to your employer and do it their way, or they won’t keep you around.”  I gave her the money I’d promised, plus a good tip, but it didn’t matter.  The good feelings were gone.  It dawned on me that more than the money, she needed her self-respect, and I’d taken that from her.  She didn’t give me another chance.  She told the missionaries she wasn’t interested any more, and I never saw her again.

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I have many more stories, but no real happy endings and several rougher ones.  I’ve never once known exactly what to do, and never once felt what I’d done was adequate.  I know nothing about social work.  I’m not sure what the answers are, though I hope some of you might have some useful thoughts.  I can say that I thank God for my wife, my children, my supportive extended family, and my ward community.  We should never take our people for granted.  Most of all, I’m grateful for God’s long-suffering mercy towards me.