When you're alone, December is a long and dreary month. The wind stings colder and the streets appear more deserted.
Maria is alone and expecting a baby. For more than eight months, she has been anxious for two – hungry, tired, and often cold for two. She is also homeless in a frozen city with no emergency shelter.
The cheerfully lit Christmas decorations in Butte give her a cutting reminder of the joylessness of her nights. Life was not supposed to turn out like this. The sublime Dante, who felt deeply the cruel wound of aloneness, poignantly wept the words, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.”
Maria represents the faceless, almost invisible vulnerability and brokenness among us. Paradoxically, she and her baby are the face of conscience. Conscience can be gentle, even subtle, but it is never ambiguous.
A young woman, homeless and due to give birth around Dec. 25, is not just a disturbing news item, it is a parable that is impossible to ignore. The way we respond to her needs defines our community. So the story of Maria is inseparable from our story.
The journey that took this smart, healthy, and likeable woman to the icy streets of Butte is predictably tortuous. It began with the persistent ache of an unsettled childhood in multiple locations in South Dakota. Then followed lonely years isolated in Alaska and finally trying to make it in Colorado.
At every vulnerable juncture of this complicated path, some people took advantage of a young girl despicably and criminally. And there were, of course, the freely acknowledged terrible choices. She says, “It took detachment and spiritual growth to realize how wrong and unhealthy my decisions had been.”
Colorado brought her some joy as well as terror. Earlier this year, she married Jeremy, an Army combat veteran. He is currently recovering from and being treated for a head injury and so is temporarily separated from his new bride. She speaks lovingly of him as well as of her confidence that he will be a “good daddy.”
The Denver safety net she found was stretched and overflowing with unmet needs. She recalls the days she visited Catholic Charities: “There were so many people there. Even pregnant, the best I could do was to enter a lottery for emergency shelter, but I had no luck.”
That is when panic set in. “I became terrified that I would spend my entire pregnancy and part of the winter on the streets.”
Someone suggested to her that in Montana, the crowds are smaller and the compassion bigger. Skid row, Denver, was very dangerous, and she had nothing left to lose, so she took her chance. In mid-October, exhausted, scared, and lonely, she climbed onto a bus headed for Butte.
At her destination, with no shelter, again there was no room at the inn.
“Initially, Maria and I butted heads. She was in a crisis, and I was knee deep in alligators.”
This is how Action Inc. housing advocate Joan Heinz recalls with complete candor the first encounter. ”Immediate assistance was not available — which didn’t sit well with this young woman soon to have a baby.”
Maria’s memories are softer. She immediately noticed the sharp contrast with her Denver experiences: “Maybe Joan was having a bad day, but I found everyone there to be friendly, understanding, and especially curious about my story.”
Heinz is not timid about exposing the challenges of placing the homeless into housing. “Often, in my work, people simply do not try to help themselves. Blaming, denial, lies, and self-loathing are common behaviors from folks who have been pushed to the very limits of survival in a society of material character. I put Maria in this box and saw little hope for her and her child.”
But Heinz — whom Margie Seccomb, Action Inc. CEO, describes as tireless, loving, and respectful — concedes promptly that in Maria’s case, she was wrong.
What happened next is fascinating.
“I was a 16-year-old junior in high school when I got pregnant with my son.” This is how Julie Endy, executive director at New Hope Clinic, explains the genesis of her life’s calling to help vulnerable pregnant women find themselves and plan for their baby’s life.
In mid-November, New Hope Clinic is where Maria went next. She needed help with baby stuff and prenatal care. The staff was extremely welcoming. She was especially touched by their patience: “They give me water and food right away and allowed me to take my time in learning about what to expect about pregnancy, birth, and parenting.”
Endy captures her vivid impressions: “Maria could become upset because she was scared. But she is humble, very sweet, and wants to be a good mom and do the right things for her baby.” She adds: “I couldn’t imagine being homeless at Christmas time and pregnant not having any family around.”
Maria began making the necessary efforts. With a New Hope peer advocate, she returned to Action Inc.
Heinz shares her observations: “Maria had worked hard daily to check off a list of tasks not easily accomplished. Everything was now in place for her except a place to live. The wait for public housing is unpredictable. With nowhere else to go, she was put up in a motel as a temporary solution to a long-term problem. From this base, she has continued to make progress every day.”
On Dec. 12, Maria came to our parish Christmas party. She wore a seasonal red jacket and a gentle smile. The loud and joyful effervescence of dozens of children gave her an appropriate preview of parenting. It was a moment of grace to see her happy and at peace.
More recently, she texted me: “I am grateful for the people I met in Butte. They have made me feel safer than I have for so long.” Then, with emotional pride, she sent ultrasound images of her son.
She has reconnected with her mother and plans to return to her after the birth. Until then, with the very generous financial support of the community, our coalition team, including the parish, will be her family and cover her motel expenses and whatever else she needs. We feel blessed to do it. As Joan Heinz says: “Maria inspires me.”
From Bleak Street, a courageous woman sends a powerful message: 'Tis the season to fall in love with life and goodness all over again.