Esther Altshul Helfgott: The Homeless One
This work is dedicated to the legions of homeless people who line the streets and under-paths of our society. It is particularly dedicated to those homeless people who suffer from schizophrenia. For it is a schizophrenic woman who knocks on Genevieve Beach's door, and it is a schizophrenic woman, Crysta, who is my very good friend and who writes very good poetry, even when she is sick. What follows here began as an email conversation between me and Genevieve; but the woman whom I refer to as Ellen reminded me so much of Crysta that I began recording Crysta's voice as well. I wanted her on the page with me, perhaps, for no other reason than to keep me company. But also because I wondered what her life would have been like if she had not been discharged by the military with a pension and life's circumstances had made her homeless, too. Most important, I wanted to learn and to understand. So I took to interspersing our four voices mine, Genevieve's, Ellen's and Crysta's; then, I added others and, as my reading took hold, I included bibliography and additional information until homelessness and schizophrenia threatened to overtake my desk, my life. And well they should, because both diseases homelessness and schizophrenia belong to each of us.
Homelessness is society's disease.
Schizophrenia is society's disease.
Every disease is society's disease.
Society is its own disease.
We must fix it. For we are it
I'm hiding in the bedroom on account
the homeless one is knocking on the door.
She's hoping for another handout.
I gave her $3 yesterday morning.
She came back later asking for more.
I gave her another 2. She said she
wouldn't come today or tomorrow.
If she does I won't open the door.
Everyone tells me not to give her money,
but I feel sorry for her. She s schizophrenic
clear in the first part of the day; later
thinks a creep is after her.
She's been coming here four years.
She upsets me.
I know there s a law against pan-handling.
Should I wear a sign saying Patsy?
You're not a patsy, Gen.
The woman needs medication.
Have you suggested she go to Harborview?
What's her name?
I'm glad you re not opening the door.
Damn that Genevieve.
Her name is Ellen. She's mentioned her priest
and doctor. I don't know about medication.
Sometimes, they're afraid of it.
I know, wish I didn't.
But, then, I wouldn't know Crysta.
I ask her: Did you take your medication?
Medication is a cage.
Medication is mind control.
Medication comes from doctors.
I don't trust doctors.
They strap me to the bed. They tie my wrists.
I wish I could be off medication.
It s a government plot.
Ellen came tonight at 5:30.
I gave her $3. She asked for more.
It s becoming a pattern now.
I told her, You always ask for more!
She went on at length, standing
in her transparent pale green overcoat.
Did you take your medication, Crysta?
Yes, Esther, I took my meds, Esther.
My meds, my meds. Meds, Esther,
not medication. Meds is what we call them.
It became a pattern long ago, Gen.
Why are you irritated now?
Do you want to invite her in?
Does she knock next door,
make the rounds
of the neighborhood?
I'm irritated now because she s become more insistent,
asks for an increase each time I answer the door.
I wanted to invite her in a long time ago.
She was all dressed up, wore boots and a scarf.
I'm not scared of her, though Rosemary, a retired RN,
says schizophrenics can become dangerous when crossed.
I've seen no evidence of hostility in Ellen.
No, she never goes next door.
Why wouldn #t a homeless person feel hostile,
schizophrenic or not?
Once when she was pounding on my door,
Edward, my neighbor who's a doctor, told her to be quiet.
She answered with a rude suggestion.
She used to get $1 from Trudy up the next corner,
but not any more.
Gen, Crysta hasn't called in days.
She doesn't answer the phone.
If I don't hear from her tonight,
I'll call the VA or West Seattle Psychiatric.
I think she s on one of those wards.
Ellen said she hadn t eaten or smoked cigarettes
for I don't know how long.
The cold air was coming in the living room.
I was in the midst of fixing a salad.
I backed away from the door, said I had to go.
Where the hell s that woman?
I want my money.
Twenty years ago, when Crysta lived in New York City
she had a place to sleep - some theatre group s crowded floor -
but she garbage-picked for food. Said: You find good garbage
in the good parts of town, bad garbage in the bad parts.
I wonder if she knocked on doors.
She doesn't come for about a week -
the first of each month when her SSI comes.
Then by the end of the month she's strapped,
asks if she can borrow, yes borrow, some money.
I'm glad I m on my side of the door.
Crysta just called from the Psych Ward.
I was so glad to hear her voice.
How could I be mad? She's sad and tired.
Her life takes her places I can't see.
Even when worlds I don't experience open up for me,
I can't feel her burns: arms, legs, stomach
A year ago, I phoned the Univ. Church street minister.
He assigned her a mattress on the floor.
Ellen didn't like the smell of the place
and made other arrangements.
I've asked her where she sleeps.
She says, Wherever I can.
I've told her: Go to the shelters.
She says, Fuck the shelters.
I'd miss her if she didn t come.
Genevieve s hiding again.
I hate her. She's mean.
The homeless one has knocked
and banged on the door twice today.
I haven t answered, figuring she got enough
yesterday and is playing me for a complete sucker.
is a shelter in Belltown/downtown,
in existence since Dec 1990,
houses 40 women each night.
Also has a transitional housing program.
Both programs are sponsored
by Catholic Community Services
Neighbors have heard her standing in the street shouting,
but I never have. Quincy, across the street,
has offered to get rid of her for me.
He could let her down as easily as anyone,
but I don t take him up on it. His wife, Barbara,
who is an artist, just shakes her head at me.
Ellen's artistic, too, you know. She loves flowers.
Once, she brought me a vase of cut-glass.
I used to give her $5 a day, but I ve cut down to 3.
Gen, I'm worried about Ellen's coming so much.
Should I be?
No, don't worry. She's just a pest.
What does she look like? Well,
she's about 5'6'' inches, maybe 50 years old,
has scraggly brown hair tucked under a beret
or other head gear. Her teeth are black.
She doesn't push a cart, but carries
plastic bags of clothing.
Her wardrobe varies. She goes to Value Village
or other thrift stores like me.
She leaves her bags next to my front steps.
Once I said: Are you ever going to take these bags?
She said, I hope so.
Ron Konzak, Bainbridge Island Architect
There is a certain amount of irony in the term affordable housing.
It implies that our concept of normal housing is housing that is unaffordable.
And in actuality that is the current reality for most of the people in the world.
I'll take her picture someday,
and we'll have a record of the real Ellen.
She walks quite sprightly
and seems to be in good health
except for her mental condition.
She mentioned her medication recently,
said: That creep knocked it out of my hands
and the pills scattered all over.
The creep who is imaginary?
I can usually hear her coming up the front steps
as she talks to herself. (I talk to myself too,
but usually not that loud).
If Ellen took her medicine, her creep
would disappear; for awhile, at least.
She probably hears other voices, too.
The voices incapacitate.
They comment on everything I do.
They tell me to kill myself
They tell me I ll hang.
When I came home yesterday afternoon,
Ellen had put a fancy wreath on my front door.
Megan, who is a social worker,
bumped into her and said not to come at night
or twice a day. My neighbors
like to give advice. They are very caring,
but I have to make my own decisions about Ellen.
Minimum Standards for Quality Living Environment
1. Shelter from the elements.
2. Personal security.
3. Space for the preparation and consumption of food.
4. Provision for personal hygiene.
5. Sanitary facilities for relieving one's self.
6. Secure storage for one's possessions.
When Ellen knocked at 6:15 pm
I asked her if she had brought the wreath.
She was grinning:
Yes, I hope you like it.
I assured her I did, and said,
Just a minute, I'll get you some money.
She said, No, I don't want it.
But I got another $5 for her,
and asked her where she would sleep tonight,
as it's predicted to be below freezing.
She said a man gave her a sleeping bag.
I told her Mayor Schell had beds
set up for homeless women.
She hadn't heard but said she d find out about it.
She smiled broadly and hugged herself.
She felt warm toward me. We said goodbye,
and I closed the door.
re-affirming the City of Seattle's
commitment to addressing the housing
and service needs of homeless people,
Megan phoned to tell me to be consistent with Ellen
not giving into her demands for more than $3 per day
and not opening the door more than once a day.
I'm trying to do that, but will do it in my way.
Seattle Times, 12/17/98: ...Hammond House,
a new 25-bed women s shelter has opened
as part of the city s increased effort to help
the homeless. [A] businessman ... is providing
space for the shelter ... in a basement
off Stewart Street near First Avenue
She came this evening in the cold.
I gave her $3 and the newspaper item about beds
for women. She was most grateful.
I do hope they aren't filled when she gets there.
The Nutcracker ballet was excellent,
but the drive home on the frozen streets was scary.
I'm so relieved to be safely home.
the number of homeless persons in Seattle
defined as persons who do not have permanent housing
is estimated to average over 5,000 persons per night, and
include single women, children, frail elderly, adolescents
and young adults, persons with mental illness
or substance abuse problems and single men; and ...
In 1997, Gen was giving Ellen $5 a day.
Then 4. Now 3. More when she begs insistently.
Ellen is part of Genevieve s community
as much as Genevieve is part of Ellen's.
I wonder if the women see themselves that way.
Copyright©2003, 2004: Esther Altshul Helfgott
originally published by Kota Press, Seattle, WA. 1999, 2000
Cover graphics and design by Harry Jones
Webdesign: Rudolf Suesske: June 2004