Esther Altshul Helfgott: The Homeless One
77 South Washington St.,
Seattle, WA 98104
$1.50 lunch or dinner;
some free meals; showers,
Ellen didn't come yesterday. Maybe today,
though I'll be gone from 3 p.m.
until after dinner. Penny is meowing.
I've given her a lunch of Fancy Feast
but have to fix her litter box when I come home.
Voices tell Crysta exactly what to do.
They interfere with walking up a flight of stairs.
They tell her where to place, first, this foot, then,
that. When washing dishes, they tell her:
Scrub that spot. Wash over there.
You have to watch your every movement, she says,
have to think about everything you re doing
or you won t get it right.
I have to talk myself through it so I get it right.
What would happen if you didn't get it right?
One time when I bought a copy of Real Change,
the homeless news, I asked the vendor if he knew Ellen.
He said: Oh, yes, a man in the neighborhood gives her
$1 each day. So I think she has a beat,
and I think she s a pretty good actress. On it goes.
With Christmas coming, how can I be hard hearted?
Seattle Indian Center
329-8700; 611 12th Ave. S.
Seattle, WA 98144
Lunch M-F 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.
and neighborhood residents only.
Temple DeHirsch Sinai
seeks volunteers to spend one night
a month at its Women's Shelter.
Call June, 425-869-7010.
I couldn't walk up the stairs, couldn't wash the dishes,
couldn't complete what for most people is a simple mechanical act.
I smoke because nicotine helps take away the voices.
I know people don't like it and I worry about the cigarette smell.
I wash my clothes, my coats all the time, but I have to smoke.
Even with the cancer. I used to smoke five packs a day.
Now I'm down to three.
Once she was up to seven packs of cigarettes a day.
My chest hurts just thinking about it.
National Resource Center
on Homelessness and Mental Illness
252 Delaware Ave.
Delmar, NY 12054 800-444-7415
When the voices start
and talk about something other
than what you're doing, what happens?
They interfere with me, tell me to do the opposite
of what I'm trying to do.
I have to be especially careful of safety things,
have to watch to make myself put cigarettes out,
have to watch myself carefully,
can't stop watching.
Where do the voices come from?
How do they get in your head?
They aren't in my head.
They're outside my head.
If they were in my head,
they'd be like the voices
in everyone else's head.
I don't understand.
I thought you heard voices.
I do hear voices, Esther,
but the voices come from outside my head.
The voices inside my head are just like the voices
in everybody else's head.
You mean like when I think something to myself
and maybe argue with myself?
Yes, I have those kinds of voices, too.
You mean normal everyday voices?
Yes, the other voices, those outside my head,
come from places outside me.
Like I will hear a voice outside my window,
but I know it s not real because I live on the twelfth floor.
You imagine a voice is out there?
How does that work? You said it wasn't real.
It's not real, like the real inside my head.
But the voice outside the window is real.
How did it get there?
The government. Mind control. Brain waves.
ESP. I don't know, but they're there,
always bothering me.
Are there good and bad voices, or just bad?
The voices are bad. Why else
would the government put them there?
I haven't heard good voices for a long time.
I didn't hear voices before I joined the marines
That's how I know it s a government plot.
They're out to get me.
Who, specifically, is out to get you?
The FBI, the CIA, the doctors.
Ellen came Christmas Day at 2 p.m.
I gave her the usual $3
and wished her Merry Christmas.
She thanked me
and patted my shoulder.
I patted her back.
I wonder about Ellen s voices,
who the creep represents.
She came this morning at 9:30
just as I was having my oatmeal.
I gave her the $3. She thanked me
and grinned. Said: You dear soul!
Madeline DeFrees poetry workshop
at Richard Hugo House:
She gives an assignment on birds.
I know nothing of birds but write this:
Neologisms of an Ornithologist in a Quiet Room
Curled like a bird in its mother s nest
the patient lies on a cot mumbling: Roomboom
quietroom. Boobyhatch my egrets
regrets. Magpie, tell Wagatail:
strap me to swallowlegs.
Blue-throated doc butcherbirds my brains
again and again. Nutcracker nurse nightjars my back.
Sniper trail's me. Yellow-bellied sapsucker
twists. Oh, my arms pintail my sage.
Oh, girl, whippoorwilling
girl. Swallow me. Let the wren.
Let the quail, swallow me.
Ellen came for the second time yesterday, 8:15 p.m.
I was coming home from dinner with my cousin, Kathy.
I said to Ellen: You already came today,
but I gave her the last $3 I had in my desk drawer
and cautioned her to keep warm.
Did she sleep in a shelter
those bitter cold nights? The city
asks for donations of blankets
so people can sleep outside,
instead of opening buildings.
It doesn't make sense.
acronym for Seattle Housing And Resource Effort,
is a group of homeless and formerly homeless men and women
working together in a self-managed system of shelters
and other resources. Our long-term goal is to end homelessness.
When she s really scared - when the FBI is after her
or the doctors are putting her in restraints
she wears combat boots and carries a hammer.
Otherwise, her attire is outdoorsy rather than military.
For protection, she hides an umbrella in her pack.
Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League,
a grassroots empowerment organization of homeless
and formerly homeless women, allied with SHARE,
focusing on the problems of homeless women.
Anitra L. Freeman, Wheel Contact Person
WHEEL's goals give voice and leadership
to homeless women to organize campaigns
around increased services and safety for homeless women,
and to develop and support self-managed shelters.
(There is now, in 1998, one self-managed shelter
for women only; another may reopen soon.)
What does WHEEL
do about homeless
women who are mentally ill?
I know of a woman who won't go to shelters.
She wants to be free.
She won't take her medication,
goes house to house asking for money.
She suffers from schizophrenia
but doesn't want to see doctors.
How does one help?
That's one nobody has a complete answer to,
Esther. The Access Project, in which case workers
go out to places where homeless people are
(including under the viaducts)
to reach those who need services
(instead of sitting in offices
and waiting for them to walk in),
has helped many. We need more of that.
New Year s Eve, 1998
Ellen came today at 2:30.
I gave her five $1 bills.
She thanked me
and grinned broadly.
I hope she doesn't think
I've upped the ante
for next year.
We need more flexible services,
including safe and clean encampments
for those who cannot, or will not, come indoors;
yet, where, at least, contact can begin. We need
to demand better accountability from health services,
including mental health services,
because, currently, it is very sane to distrust doctors
and if we want vulnerable people
to trust their lives to someone,
we'd better be a lot more certain
that someone is trustworthy.
Elliot Liebow's Tell Them Who I Am:
The Lives of Homeless Women.
Free Press, 1993:
shows what many refuse to know:
that not all homeless people
suffer from schizophrenia or other
types of mental illness
We need to rebuild our human community
so that every person's instinctive reaction is to help
even a little bit, and not to shy away.
But there are many people for whom all we can do,
yet, is help a little bit; give them some kindness,
give them some dignity,
and acknowledge that we are not perfect
we can't cure everyone, we can't fix everything.
It hurts. But it is better to live with pain
than to live without caring. And someday ...
New Year s Day, 1999
Ellen hasn t struck yet.
I have a $5 bill awaiting her.
Orion Youth Service Center
1020 Virginia, Seattle, WA 98101
Hot meals Mon-Fri at noon and 6 p.m.
Age 19 and under.
Ellen came New Year s day at 2:45.
She accepted $5 with Happy New Year ! exchange.
On Saturday, the 2nd, she came at 4 pm for $3.
At 8 pm. I handed her $1,
but that didn't satisfy her.
So I gave her another 2, protesting.
I managed to smile, and she departed.
City of Seattle
Office of the Mayor
Dear Esther Altshul Helfgott:
Thank you for your E-mail concerning additional assistance
for homeless people. I am pleased to let you know
that there are outreach workers who utilize vans
and other means to reach out to homeless people on the streets.
These outreach workers are employees of community
nonprofit agencies. They try to make contact with homeless people
who are living outside or in makeshift encampments
and encourage them to utilize our community s shelters
and low-income housing. These outreach workers
are unheralded champions of our community
who make a big difference in the lives of the people they help.
Again, I appreciate knowing of your support for these efforts.
Very truly yours,
She didn't come yesterday.
Maybe she will desist for a few days.
I'm off to the Co-op to buy instant oatmeal,
and a copy of Real Change.
My friend Isabel Dickens who is Charles Dickens
great granddaughter (times four) is on the publication board
of Real Change. Isn t that a strange coincidence?
Copyright©2003, 2004: Esther Altshul Helfgott
originally published by Kota Press, Seattle, WA. 1999, 2000
Cover graphics and design by Harry Jones
Webdesign: Rudolf Suesske: June 2004