On the morning of December, 4, 2016, my wife, Beth, and I went on a bicycle ride through our neighborhood. As we crossed a nearby park on a paved bicycle trail, we passed a woman standing next to a picnic table under a Ramada. On the table were a suitcase, sleeping bag and two canvas bags. Moments later, Beth braked and then turned to me.
“Do you think we should offer to help her?”
Trusting Beth’s judgement more than my own I replied “I was thinking the same thing, but I’ll leave it up to you.”
Beth turned her bike around and I followed her back to the picnic table where we both stopped.
“Excuse me, but do you need help?”
“I’m all right, thank you, but I could use some food. I won’t take money unless you have work that I can help with, and I would only use that money for bus fare or an emergency.” As we spoke to her, we learned that she called herself Danika. She was very articulate and polite.
Beth offered to bring food and Danika dictated a specific list of needs: flour tortillas; unleavened bread; grapes; and Passover wine. “I will understand if you don’t bring me the wine,” she commented. “I would only use it for Passover.” After finishing our bike ride, Beth drove to the grocery store. While she was gone, I sent her a text: “Maybe she would like to help put up Christmas lights?”
Shortly thereafter, Beth returned to the park with the groceries. As she spoke more with Danika, she discovered that she was headed to the library next, a 1.5 mile walk from the park. She would stash her belongings behind bushes for safekeeping so that she would not have to bring them along. She used a computer at the library to check her email, search Craig’s list for work, or catch up on current events. She also used that time to charge her Government Issue cell-phone. With no service contract, it was useless as a phone, but it worked adequately as a flashlight and allowed her to listen to music.
We decided to meet Danika at the library and offer more help. When we arrived, she was sitting out front talking animatedly with a sharply dressed woman. It was clear that the two women had made a connection and when we approached her, she matter-of-factly said:
“Do you mind coming back in a while so that I can finish my conversation with Audrey?” Danika can be rather blunt.
“Okay,” Beth replied, “we’ll just go into the library for a while.”
When we returned, she had just finished her conversation.
“How would you like to help me install Christmas lights on my home?” I asked.
“While you’re there, I can wash your clothes and you can shower if you’d like,” Beth chimed in.
“Can I wash my sleeping bag, too? It got wet from the rain a few days ago and it’s still damp. I’m worried that it will get moldy.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“Our van is right over there,” I said, pointing. “Let me help you with your bags.”
The three of us carried her meager belongings to the van and then drove home. Once there, Beth began washing the sleeping bag while Danika unpacked her clothes. Meanwhile, I retrieved the Christmas lights from storage and untangled them while I waited for Danika. She joined me a few minutes later.
“I’ve never done this before, so I apologize if it doesn’t turn out well.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be happy with whatever I get. I’m just glad to have some company.”
As we worked together, I learned a little more about her life. She was from Los Angeles, and was abandoned by her birth parents at an early age. She had a brother and sister, whom she didn’t know. Although she was adopted, her birth parents were an occasional part of her life, which appeared to cause more harm than good by reinforcing memories of abandonment. Despite having an adoptive family, she carefully avoided discussing them.
She managed to graduate from high school and take a few community college classes, but frequently ruminated about her abandonment, eventually turning to the bible for comfort. She read scripture voraciously and that became a focal point of her life. Her new obsession with scripture made people around her uncomfortable and she became increasingly alienated. In January, 2016, she chose a life of homelessness, placing her fate in God’s hands.
The conversation flowed naturally and instead of feeling like I was helping a homeless person, I felt like I was merely spending time with a friend. After stringing lights, the last of the clothes were still not dry, so we offered to either make dinner at home, or take Danika to a restaurant of her choice. In her typical blunt fashion, she suggested The Cheesecake Factory, a fairly upscale restaurant famous for their cheesecake.
Having not showered in three weeks, Danika then retired to the bathroom. It took so long that I wondered if something had gone awry. After all, we knew almost nothing about her.
“Do you think she’s okay?”
Beth shrugged “I hope so.”
After showering, Danika decided to dress for the occasion. Because she and Beth were of the same build, Beth selected some of her clothes for Danika to borrow while her clothes continued to dry. A top priority for Danika was that they be warm, so she ended up with black leggings, a grey, long sleeved t-shirt, and a cream cardigan sweater. Beth even let her borrow a colorful necklace and silver earrings.
Apparently, Danika had a small stash of make-up in her suitcase, and this was the perfect time to use it. She had not been to a restaurant in a long while. Once again, she disappeared into the bathroom for a considerable time to apply makeup.
Eventually, she descended the stairs and then paused at the bottom to pull on her calf-high, black, faux-leather boots that she had recently purchased at a local supermarket with money that she had saved. Afterward, she stood and announced “I’m ready.”
I was stunned by her miraculous transformation, but said nothing until after we had ordered our meal at the restaurant, at which time I could hold it in no longer. “Danika, you are the most beautiful homeless person I have ever seen.” She smiled broadly and thanked me.
During dinner, it became evident that Danika was a very bright and resourceful woman. She knew of several shelters, assistance programs and other options available to her, and had taken advantage of them whenever she was overly hungry, sick, or beaten by the hard life that she’d chosen. It also became obvious, from the tears that occasionally streamed down her cheeks, that she was tormented by demons that might be better faced head-on instead of smothering them with scripture.
Ultimately, Danika ordered more than she could eat: bread; an appetizer of hot wings (which I shared); and a main course: herb crusted filet of salmon, asparagus and beets substituted for potatoes. After months of light meals on the fly, it was impossible to eat it all in one sitting. We requested take-out boxes for the remainder so that she could eat it later.
After returning home, an awkward silence filled our home as Danika prepared for homelessness once more. She returned the jewelry to Beth and washed her makeup off so that it would not soil the layers of clothing necessary to protect her from the night-time cold. She carefully folded and packed her clean clothes into her suitcase but did not pick out any clothes to change into.
Beth informed me later that she struggled with the situation as the shirt and sweater were among her favorites. Ultimately, she decided that keeping Danika warm through the chilly Phoenix December nights was worth the sacrifice. Soon, Danika was ready to return to the park where we had found her. “You don’t have to take me back, I’ll walk,” she insisted, to which I replied “Nonsense. I’d be happy to drive you.”
In truth, this situation broke our hearts. How could we return this wonderful, kind person to homelessness? We could easily take her in. Our children had moved out. We had plenty of space and resources. Nevertheless, Danika was on a mission. She had placed herself at the mercy of God and was bound and determined to follow His guidance. This was an important journey of self-discovery for her, perhaps the most important thing she would ever do. Unbelievably, we both felt that it would be inappropriate to offer her more than we already had. Besides, she could have mental health or other issues that we were untrained to deal with.
Beth gave Danika our email address, said goodbye and then hugged her. Although I was driving her to the park, she hugged me as well and then thanked us both. Afterward, I loaded her belongings into the van and drove back to the park where we had met her less than twelve hours earlier.
As I helped to carry her meager possessions into the park, Danika stopped next to a colorful children’s jungle gym with a small roof sheltering a raised six by six foot platform. “I’ll sleep here,” she said, “The sprinklers won’t soak me in the morning.”
I set her suitcase and two canvas bags full of food on the second of three stairs and then watched in disbelief as she unrolled her sleeping bag across the vinyl-coated steel mesh. As she prepared for the chilly night ahead, I felt that it was time to leave.
“Please remember that you are not alone. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact us by email. If you need a safe place to leave your things, you’re welcome to store them behind the large pillar by our front door.”
“Well, good night, and God bless you.”
“God bless you, too.”
With that, I turned and walked away. I held back tears on the drive home, feeling as if I had just said farewell to a daughter. When I arrived back home, Beth’s eyes were tearing up as well. I embraced her and we hugged each other tightly, both of us wondering if we’d done the right thing.
The next day, I contacted a friend who cares for battered women. She provided a list of organizations to contact. One in particular stood out: the Salvation Army’s Project Hope, a mobile outreach program that provides housing, food, bus tickets, resume writing, interview clothing, work clothing, furniture, bedding, proper identification, and referrals to other community agencies.
I printed out their information and delivered it to Danika later that day. The following day, I contacted the Salvation Army and informed them of Danika’s location and situation. Now, it will be up to Danika to remain homeless or find purpose in her life.
Update: On December 7, Danika vanished. I hope that a Project Hope driver convinced her to accept their help and then delivered her to a safer and better life, however, I may never know for sure. Either way, I hope that our few hours of kindness made a difference that she will not forget and that someday, she will be able to help someone in a similar predicament.
Image courtesy of Paul Goyette, Flikr.com
Danika’s name was changed to protect privacy.