A couple of years ago, a visitor sought me out in the midst of a busy Wednesday drop-in. She was in her mid-thirties, nicely dressed, pretty and so bursting with obvious health that I didn’t recognize her until she jogged my memory.
Perhaps a decade before, she had spent a year or two hanging out at Sanctuary a lot with her boyfriend. Both were deeply involved in street life, with all the nasty details it entails. Then they left town for some reason I forget, and when he returned another couple of years later, he had a different woman in tow. I didn’t think about the first girl much. She was just another one of our “disappeareds”.
She had come back specifically to tell me that her life had changed radically. She was happily married; the mother of a little girl, the mention of whom lit her up. She was working as a sous chef at a flagship downtown hotel. Although she didn’t say so, that I recall, I like to think that maybe the times she helped out in our kitchen at Sanctuary had something to do with her choice of career. She did definitely tell me that none of the good stuff would have come to pass without our care for her during that desperate time. That’s really what she wanted me to know, and as you can imagine, I was thrilled to hear it.
I like recounting success stories like that. When I get going, I begin to realize that there are more of them than I am usually conscious of – it’s easy around here to have your field of vision limited by the close-at-hand images of failure, despair, heartbreak.
Still, the old adage that one learns more from failure than from success is unfortunately, painfully true.
Leann’s story goes even farther back, but I’ll never forget it. She was a pretty young woman with impossible Ojibway cheekbones and long glossy black hair. She, too, was entrenched in street life, and with a man whose own struggles with addiction infected their relationship with the kind of violence that is the more shocking because of the apparently casual way both parties accept it.
When Leann got pregnant, she was at first almost desperate to get a quick abortion. But we persuaded her to carry the child to term. Once she had decided to go the distance, Leann performed like a champ. She made it to pre-natal appointments, stayed out of trouble, quit drinking and drugging – or as near to quitting as someone with her history and immediate surroundings was likely to manage. She bore a beautiful, healthy baby, and as expected, the authorities apprehended the child within hours of the birth.
Leann stayed a day or two in hospital, cuddling the baby when she was allowed to, under supervision. Upon her discharge, having left her baby behind, she went straight to the nearest subway station and jumped in front of a train.
Where there is no vision, the people perish,
wrote Solomon in Proverbs 29. When you can’t imagine a future, there’s no point to living. That first young woman, the “successful” one, was somehow able to see the possibility of another way of life for herself, and somehow, our community was able to help cultivate that “sight” in her.
But not with Leann. We thought we were doing the right thing. Maybe she would have committed suicide regardless of what happened with her baby. We didn’t know that she was that desperate – that she was living blind, unable to see anything but a black void beyond the birth of her child. We thought the baby might even be a good thing for her, giving her something and someone to care about, lifting her beyond her own immediate fears and concerns. We had no idea how trapped and alone and useless she felt. Not until it was too late.
Women are even more vulnerable than the men in our community. Leann and others have taught us just how fragile hope can be, and that extra care needs to be taken to provide relationships, opportunities and physical spaces that are safe for street-involved women. And more than this: we are trying to find ways to help women re-calibrate their vision, to lift their eyes from the pits of despair.
I lift my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Like Leann, most of our women have far more capacity than they think. Help and hope are available. But we – all of us – have to look up to see it.
 Psalm 121:1,2 ESV