Imagine Dropping Your Grandmother Off to Sleep on a Sidewalk

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I first met Elaine at the Glendale Winter Shelter. She is a very sweet older woman who has lived on the streets for 20 years. At the shelter, she would come up to us and ask that we help her friends. She never asked for herself, but for those she felt were hurting worse than she was. She was always kind, polite and never once was a problem to anyone. As I spent more time with Elaine, I noticed she would be kind to people who were not kind to her, always saying "thank you" even when people were turning her away.

The Glendale Winter Shelter closed early this year, leaving around 150 homeless people with no place to go. Around three weeks ago, I was in the PATH Achieve outreach van when we noticed Elaine sleeping on the sidewalk. Near the end of a winter shelter season, we try to help those who are in need of housing the most. Elaine was at the top of our list. She is somewhat naive and can easily be taken advantage of on the streets. There was some money left to give hotel vouchers to a few people, while we tried to plug into services. We had tried earlier to connect with Elaine, but it didn't work. This time she said yes, and we drove to the hotel.

Immediately, we noticed a night-and-day improvement. Elaine's hygiene improved. She was washing her own clothes. Once she had a little dignity, she was like a whole new woman. At first, we didn't know if she would stay, but she adapted well and started to even ask, "Can you get me a house?"

I remember grocery shopping with her the very first time. She wanted Hawaiian Punch, but didn't want cups. She said, "I'm homeless, and I usually drink out of the bottle. I don't want you to spend money on me." That wrecked me, and of course we bought her cups to use.

Elaine is disabled and cannot work. She receives a little over $900 per month from Supplemental Security Income, but she cannot get food stamps. The hotel voucher money runs out in a few days and she will be back out on the streets, homeless! Section 8 housing is frozen indefinitely, Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) grants are not for chronic homeless, and there is not enough Shelter Plus Care funding to help her (or the thousands like her).

In desperation, a co-worker started to look for low income housing. The lowest we could find is $700 a month for an unfurnished single. We knew it would be a stretch. Living off $200 a month for everything but housing is crazy, but she is a senior and can eat daily at a local senior center, and we would be there to help. Now we needed to come up with security deposit for her to move in.

We had been looking into grant assistance that we can sometimes get for move-in expenses, but all money had dried up. I put out a 'Hail Mary' tweet on Twitter, and in no time, my good friend David Ruis and the Basileia Community offered to help. You'd think raising money would be the hard part.

We started to fill out the rental application, drove to the Social Security office to get proof of income and then, proceeded to the property manager's office. All afternoon, you could tell Elaine was excited. She kept asking, "When can I move in?"

We arrived at the office. The girl at the first desk started to look at the application and then asked for last known address. We all said in unison, "She's homeless." I wish I could have taken a photo of that woman's face. Her jaw dropped and clearly she was shocked. Right then and there I knew we would soon get an "excuse." The obvious one was that Elaine's income is not three times higher than the rent. But this is a month-to-month lease on an apartment complex that should be used to the type of people who have very low incomes.

My favorite part of that horrible moment was when the lady, who gave Elaine the excuses, somehow had to run out the door to leave for the day, Elaine said to her, "Thank you very much for trying to help me. It was nice to meet you."

The lady before she abruptly left handed everything to another girl in the office. This second woman seemed very nice, but said she would have to check with someone else. (There were several backroom meetings after we walked in.) She took my co-worker's credit check deposit money and said she'd get back to us. We never heard back from her, or anyone else at that property management company.

I know first hand how hard it is to go from homeless to housed. Luckily, I am a fighter. But for the thousands of sweet, innocent seniors, now homeless, there really is very little hope. I cannot tell you the ending to Elaine's story, or even my own for that matter. I am 49 with no assets. There is a very good chance I will spend my senior years on the streets because there is very little affordable housing for seniors, and even with government assistance, I will not be able to afford housing.

Housing alone will not cure homelessness. We must also be community conscious. Elaine would rather live on the streets where she has social contact with people she knows than be housed in a different part of town.

I honestly don't have the answer here. I sure wish I did. In a day or two, if we cannot find low income housing for Elaine, I will be one of the team that drives her back to where we found her on the sidewalk. Imagine dropping your grandmother off to sleep on a sidewalk.