Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chance Encounter With Formerly Homeless Sex Abuse and Rape Survivor

The woman on the bicycle was very angry.  We had only passed her on the Springwater Corridor minutes before when she followed us on her bicycle to give us a piece of her mind.

“I just had to tell you, I don’t like being stereotyped.  I am not homeless; I am not like these people.  These people (the homeless) are bad.  So don’t stereotype me.”

My daughter and I were walking along the Springwater Corridor, a bike and walking trail along Johnson Creek a hundred yards east of the Cartlandia food truck court off of SE 82nd, on the border between Portland, Oregon, and Clackamas County.  We had passed the woman, resting with her bicycle just a few minutes before.  We had eaten at Cartlandia and then walked to Green Lents food forest at Malden Court.  My daughter is interested in food gardening.

There are many homeless encampments along the Springwater Corridor.  Portland mayor, Charle Hales, formally tolerated them and the city provided dumpsters for garbage as well as Honey Bucket outhouses.  Other cities sent their homeless to Portland and encampments proliferated on certain city property such as the Sprinwater Corridor.  Homeless encampments lined a fence by Cartlandia until the owner of the food truck court sued the city.  The city swept the fence along Cartlandia, but the homeless merely moved farther down the Corridor.  I occasionally give out food, clothes, water and sometimes bedding to the homeless because the first survivor of clergy abuse that I worked with was homeless.  I quickly learned that trauma survivors and people with biologically mental disorders comprised many of those who live on the streets.

Back to the story about the woman on the bicycle.  I sensed that there was more to the story than what she was telling.  When my daughter and I first encountered her along the trail, I suppose it crossed both my and my daughter’s mind that she was homeless because I had met some many homeless along the Corridor handing out goods to homeless people.  Some homeless people I encountered owned bicycles and used them to collect cans for the small amount of cash they earned through returns.  This woman carried with her two black plastic bags bulging with what appeared to be empty soda and beer cans.  I say appeared because I couldn’t see for sure what is under the black plastic.

My daughter and I had been eating a crepe filled with ice cream and a smoothie as we walked.  

Given that it was my habit to give to food to homeless people, I turned to my daughter and asked her, “Do we have anything to give?”

My daughter examined the slimy, brown crepe into which the ice cream had now melted and the mostly empty plastic cup of smoothie.

“No,” she said, “It’s too disgusting.”

I don’t know if the woman on the bike thought that we said that she was too disgusting or she simply hated being stereotyped as being homeless.  I don’t know precisely what caused her anger, but her sudden and extreme anger told me was profoundly wounded.  I knew her emotional outburst was typical of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder common among victims of trauma experienced during abuse or combat.

I learned how to work more compassionately with survivors of child sex abuse, clergy abuse, and domestic violence by studying and practicing Compassionate Listening and Non-Violent Communication.

I simply replied to her accusation that we had stereotyped her as a homeless person, “Thank you for sharing your feelings with us, but I know that many homeless people are not bad people.  I worked with a child sex abuse survivor who was homeless.  I know many homeless people have suffered physical or sexual or emotional abuse as child or rape as an adult.”

The woman responded quickly, “I am a child sex abuse survivor.”

I added, “And many women who live outside become victims of rape.”

The woman replied, “All homeless women get raped.  Men just come into your tent.  That’s why homeless women do drugs.  They don’t want to fall asleep and get raped.”

She added, “I lived on the streets until a year ago, but I am not like these people.  I got myself off the streets.  That’s why I collect cans.  I am trying to provide a home for me and my dog.”

By then the woman was feeling a little guilty.  She added, “I’d give you a hug, but I don’t do hugs.”

I replied, “I understand.  I am a child sex abuse survivor.  I only hug my children and a few close friends.  Go home and hug your dog.”

“I will do that,” she replied smiling.

In a few short sentences of listening, treating the woman with respect and validating traumatic experiences common among homeless peple, the truth came out and the woman’s anger dissipated.

My daughter and I discussed the interaction later.  My daughter wondered if she, my daughter, had said and done something wrong.

I said, “Nobody did anything wrong.  We maybe could have been better with our choice of words, but our intent was good.  The woman has been abused so many times in her life that she can’t trust that she won’t be abused again.  She wasn’t mad at us.  She was mad at all the bad things in her life.  We actually gave her a great gift.  We gave her a chance to express that anger in safety, and she has known so little safety in her life.”

So next time you pass a homeless person, be open to the thought that maybe there is something to their story that you don’t know, whether it is sexual trauma in childhood or adulthood or combat or a biologically based mental disorder.  Please remember that a little compassion can help heal the wounds and perhaps help the person take a step forward.  And you will feel better for being kind instead of angry.

Copyright 2016 Virginia Pickles Jones



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