There, There, But for the Grace of God...

But for As people trundle home from shopping with trees lashed to the tops of their cars and a trunk full of gifts, there are those among us who are less fortunate.

I happened to meet such a woman early one morning last week while driving through a back alley short-cut.

She had shoulder length white hair, wore a heavy blue parka and sat on the curb smoking. Her expression seemed to indicate she had no idea where she was or how she'd gotten there, and was mulling over her options. It had rained the night before and remained bitterly cold shortly after 7 a.m.

I stopped my Jeep, rolled down the window and called out, "Are you okay?" She looked at me curiously, then stood and walked over to the car. I could see she was very thin under the parka and her face was creased with lines that suggested years of hard living.

"Yeah, I'm okay," she said, then asked, "How 'bout you?"

Caught off guard by the question, I mumbled, "Ah yeah. I'm fine, thanks." She leaned toward me and said, "Honey, what you need is a good smoke." So saying, she pulled out a pack of cigarettes, took another for herself and offered me the same. "I'm Sue," she said, "And I know you."

I'm not accustomed to having conversations with street people. A brief exchange perhaps, wherein money passes from my hand to theirs. Depending on the circumstances at the moment, I may or may not stop. If I do, I always leave these encounters thinking, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Meaning not that I am more deserving, but if life circumstances had been different, I might be the one freezing in an alley, apparently with no place to go.

When chided by friends about the futility of donating a little cash, I generally respond, "Y'know, I don't think that guy raised his hand in kindergarten and said, "Me! Me! I can't wait to grow up and be homeless!" An astronaut, maybe, but not dragging his belongings around in a shopping cart begging for a buck.

It seemed important to Sue that I accept her gesture, so for the first time in over 30 years, I lit up. Don't know about Clinton, but when I smoked briefly as a teen, I truly did NOT inhale- just puffed away, doing my best to appear languid and bored. (I quit after my boyfriend pointed out I was behaving like a horse's ass.)

"Thanks," I said to Sue, taking little baby puffs, "but I don't think we know each other." She had a remarkable face, just this side of gaunt, with high cheekbones sharply chiseled features and dark eyes. It occurred to me to ask if she'd sit for a portrait, when it

simultaneously occurred to me that was a seriously nutty idea.

So I shifted my Jeep out of neutral and prepared to leave. "Sure you don't need anything?" I asked.

"Well... if you could spare a couple of bucks that'd be nice," Sue said.

My hand was already digging around in my purse as I had expected this request when I first stopped. "Thanks," she said, pocketing the cash. I saw her in my rear view mirror, smiling and waving as I drove away.

This incident brought to mind news stories I've read in recent months regarding Union Station's attempt to expand its facility in Pasadena with a separate wing to house homeless women. Executive Director Rabbi Marvin Gross, formerly a 25-year La Cañada resident, told me over the phone that progress has been made.

The Union Station Foundation received a conditional use permit in late August to build a 20- bed women's dormitory annexed to their

site on Raymond Street. Originally, the Raymond Street shelter was designed with 36 beds for men in 1983, the perception being at the time that few women were homeless.

By 1989, the Station had begun to accommodate women. Some stay in the men's dorm while others are housed in an offsite, family members center which holds 50 beds. Gross estimates that today 50 percent of the homeless are women, based upon various studies and his personal observations as executive director since 1995.

Still a rabbi, Gross is not currently affiliated with any temple. "Union Station is my congregation," he said.

If you know of someone in need of social services, medical care or shelter, please contact the Union Station Foundation at (626) 240-4550. the Grace of God...

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