Turn the laws of nature around and see a strand of dune grass bent forward into the wind. Place a little tatter of thin grey wool around the shaft.
That was my first glimpse of Lenora Chamblis. It was New Year’s Day, 1997, and I had left the front counter and gone into my office for a moment of quiet. Seated at my old wooden desk, painted black and big enough for the office to have been built around it, I caught movement on the sidewalk up the street a little. Setting my focus as best as I could through the trifocals, I watched as a frail-looking woman fought the wind as she approached the shelter. She was thin and she clutched at the collar of an old gray coat. Head down, strands of black and gray hair whipped out beyond the blue scarf she had tied around her head, she carried a small suitcase that looked as thin and old as she…
As many have before and since, the woman stopped outside the Main Street doorway, peering in, uncertain of what to do. Sharon, the other staff member on duty, went to the door and invited her inside.
We asked her to come up to the counter so we could speak with her and find out her name. Appearing anxious, her eyes moved quickly from our faces to the other people in the room and over to the doorway as her feet made hesitant steps toward the counter. When she got close enough, I felt I was meeting an elderly, African American woman. I guessed she was in her mid-60’s. She looked so thin that I wondered when the last time was that she’d had a real meal. When I asked for her name she seemed to think on her response, and then she said “Lenora.” She wouldn’t provide a last name. We asked if she was seeking shelter, and she didn’t really reply. We tried several times in slightly different ways to engage her in a conversation that would provide us with a sense of what she needed, or at least an impression that she was o.k. and not in crisis or suffering from some major impairment, but Lenora was skilled at the art of non dialogue. When I pointed out where the bathrooms were, she left the counter, still clutching her suitcase, entered one of them and shut the door. A couple minutes later she came out, looked around our Day Room, and took a seat, alone at a vacant table. She looked straight ahead, either at the t.v. or out the main window. Sharon and I quietly decided to leave her alone for awhile and just observe.
Lenora stayed in that chair for the rest of the day. Homeless guests came and went; football games in distant places were broadcast on the t.v. in the corner; around noon things got busy with volunteers helping serve a buffet lunch; and Lenora sat, keeping to herself. At one point she slowly rocked forward and back, and a couple of times I thought she was talking to herself, but she maintained a little wall around her and succeeded in being left alone. Around four o’clock, as I was preparing to leave, I took a seat across the table from her and tried to engage her in a quiet conversation. When I asked her if she was o.k., she nodded yes. I told her that we had a bed for the night if she needed, and that she would be safe in the shelter. I told her to go to staff if she had any concerns, again pointing out that Sharon would help and that there was another female staff working the evening. I asked if there was anything she needed. Clutching her little suitcase on her lap, she looked down and said, “No.”
Thus began another story, one that would last just longer than a full year before Lenora left the Shelter. In our eyes she was here without legal documentation, having as family an older woman she called “Nana” who, twice each year, would take Lenora’s hand and guide her through a moonlight journey that began with two boats and ended with a train pulling into New York City. A couple of weeks before Lenora approached our front door she had awoken in the same flea bitten hotel room she and Nana had called work (slave labor sewing) and home for the previous two months, only to find Nana on the thin rug, sadly and quietly deceased. The only thing Lenora possessed, in addition to that gray coat and some old clothes in that tattered suitcase, was a magical word: “Quakers.” Somehow that led her to us, and more than a year later I would watch her face recede through the back window of a car driven by a real life Quaker. And that’s all I know.
I want politicians and voters to remember that translating both compassion and reasonable limits into laws and regulations is no simple task. I want people to be alert for when they are being played by others, others who frequently use fear and anger to achieve their own self interests. Remember that for every mean, manipulative, selfish and irresponsible illegal immigrant who may sneak across our border (and how many are there, really?) that there are thousands of other, undocumented aliens, who are honest to God simply trying to survive and keep family together. These numbers include some who, with absolutely nothing, have somehow survived trials and tribulations that would wear the rest of us down to the bone. It’s right to care about people like this; it’s right to shelter people like this; and it’s right to give a damn.