By Rasha Neason
I remember watching her walk back and forth past the window. She walked with a limp at a steady pace, her eyes were wide and low, and she spoke to voices only she could hear. Occasionally, she would laugh to herself and smile a toothless grin. Her coiled hair was cropped to her head, grey, and patchy.
The time was two years ago. I was in a yoga teacher training in the West End on a Saturday morning. We were on our lunch break, and everyone had left except me. I sat in the empty studio with my packed lunch listening to the hustle and bustle of the morning West End streets. I heard a voice approaching the studio door. I watched as the short older Black woman with patchy hair and a toothless grin peak her head inside the studio. Her eyes were no longer low as she glanced around. And when they landed on me, I smiled. Her toothless grin spread even wider across her face. I suppose she took my smile as an invitation for her to come into the studio since that was exactly what she did. There was clarity in her eyes as she opened her arms, limped towards me, and exclaimed, “Hey you! I haven’t seen you in a long time!”
I wondered who the “you” was she was referring to. I knew it wasn’t me, and yet I opened my arms and hugged the small woman with the patchy hair and oversized worn clothes. She was warm and smelled of poverty. Her embrace was tight, like a mother reuniting with a daughter or grandparents hugging their grandchildren before sending them back home after a summer they spent together. The hug was long and intentional. She eventually pulled away and resumed talking to herself. I started to stretch, not wanting to disturb the woman who was deep in thought in a place only visible to her. The owner of the studio/yoga instructor and some of the other students walked in the door. They looked at her with disgust, as if she were polluting the “sacred energy” of a yoga studio. They shooed her out the door without a hello. And once she had gone, it was if they could all breathe again.
I often reflect on this encounter with that elder. In the brief moment with me, she never asked for anything. Not money or food. She was content with my hug, with being invited inside, and perhaps with being seen. To be a Black woman elder who is homeless and mentally ill is to be in a constant state of invisibility. It is to be shooed away by a society that wishes that people like you would find a place under a bridge, in an alley, or behind an abandoned building.
Now, because I am also a product of this society, there have been times when I, too, have avoided the eyes of those asking for money or sitting on the side of the road. Sometimes I have turned away out of guilt, sometimes out of fear. Not until three years ago, when I was working as a canvasser on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco, was I forced to confront my biases against homeless people, or houseless individuals. Not until I had conversation after conversation with these individuals, most of whom were elders, did I begin to see them.
But the woman with the toothless grin, worn clothes, and warm hug was the first homeless Black woman elder I had seen. I wondered what was her name. Did she have any family? Did they know where she was? Did they care? What did she like to do when she was a child? What was her favorite food? Who were her parents? And how did she end up where she is today? I think about how many women like her are out there, wearing stained clothes and wandering without knowledge of where they are going or where they have been. I hope someone sees them today and perhaps invites them inside.