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Remembering Nellie

“For mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face…” — William Blake

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She could be seen nearly any day of the week, sitting on the the sidewalk outside the market or liquor store. She would usually have her cats with her, crowded into a pet box. She wore several layers of clothing which she got from the free box, topped off by a floppy hat made of white cotton eyelet. Her name was Nellie.

Nellie painted whiskers on her face and colored her mouth with a blue felt pen that someone kindly bought for her. She could not go into the stores any more because she smelled bad. The shower program for the homeless at a local church had to be discontinued for reconstruction, so there was no place for her to bathe. The soup kitchen at another church was also discontinued, so she no longer had the assurance of a regular meal.

Nellie called herself “Mercy Child.” The cats earned her the nickname “the cat lady”; they were sometimes taken away from her to the Humane Society by someone who cared about cats. No matter; she always appeared with more cats in the box. She had a style and charm all her own, and was fun-loving besides; she was seen sliding down the hill behind the high school on a piece of cardboard with the rest of the kids.

Nellie appeared on the streets sometime in 1984, complete with a horse she stabled just out of town. The land-owner where the horse stayed would bring it to town for her to ride, which she did on a small piece of land in the center of town that had been dedicated by the state as open space. Its use consisted of a path that crossed it, which function was governed by some kind of local board. The lot was a sacred thing to its board, which got a court order against Nellie so she couldn't ride there any more. Then we heard she had sold the critter.

Early in the winter of 1988, a 4' x 4' box appeared on the lot, placed up close to a fence on a boundary. It was covered with black plastic and had a heart-shaped window on one side. It was Nellie's home. Nellie was a collector, so her belongings began to accumulate in black plastic bags, and of course they would not fit inside. One day, someone picked her home up, and all her belongings, and moved them past the church that was on the same block, out onto the shoulder of the road.

There, it was easy for some of the meanest people in town to drive over her things until they were a shambles. What remained was carried away by someone who evidently intended to preserve open space. I heard from a reliable source that “someone” was a well-known businessman in town who took the remnant of her material life and burned it. Her plywood pallet, she said, and the mattress she slept on, were stolen.

Shortly after that, Nellie disappeared from the streets, having been arrested for trespassing, and spent a few days in the county jail. She is out now, but tells me that she is on probation and that other trespassing charges are pending against her. Someone opened his home to her, so for the moment, she has shelter.

There are individuals in town who are not contemptuous of Nellie or afraid of her. They know that although the reasons for her plight are unknown, her story could be theirs, “but for the grace of GOD.” They know too that the discontinued shower program and soup kitchen provided her with a recognizable and responsive community, who respected, accepted, and maybe even loved her, oddity and all. They saw that when those services were temporarily discontinued, her condition worsened.

Those who did not despise Nellie, or worry about her impact on the local tourist economy, would often buy things she needed at the market, stopping to talk with her about how she was, knowing that to ignore her was to make her a non-person, and her homelessness a non-problem. The pizza place let her charge food payable when her money came in and the bakery let her use the employee's bathroom. Another church resurrected the soup kitchen and the Saturday shower program will soon resume. But the fact remains that even those of us who cared could not figure out how to house her. Taking in the homeless means taking in the problems that made them homeless; most of us are not prepared to do that.

The setting for Nellie's story is a tiny seacoast town that has a reputation for tolerating craziness, so it is not odd that Nellie came here, perhaps drawn back by some knowledge of the 60's, when there was a more visible and viable community of others like her. We pride ourselves on being tolerant of those who are 'different'; so other homeless, who sleep under huckleberry bushes in good weather and GOD knows where in bad, are accepted. Unlike Nellie, they observe the social rule that people of culture require: that they remain largely invisible.

There are those who believe they are enlightened, who expect government to take care of Nellie. If the funds hadn't been cut, she would be locked safely behind the gates of a state hospital, properly drugged and supervised and comfortably out of sight. Still others expect her to do the old up-by-the-bootstraps gymnastics, without boots yet.

Such analysis is conjecture; the only fact that remains is the result of how we solve our problems. Surely, how we treat the most vulnerable among us is a measure of our spiritual and emotional maturity. One way that maturity is seen is in our willingness to invest ourselves in the broken lives of others.

In the name of open space, tourism, or some other device, Nellie was arrested for being homeless. While those responsible for that action show us the state of their own hearts, they also protect us from facing the inevitable: the care of our neighbors is not something we can pay government to do. Nellie is one person among a growing population of homeless that include women and children; besides the old, they are the least capable among us of managing the material world on their own.

Those who brought legal action against Nellie and those who destroyed her few belongings, show us their own heartlessness — a malady visible to all with eyes to see and ears to hear. The cultural traits of greed and pride show what has happened to us as a people. The evidence of self-serving that has caused us as a nation to fall economically, spiritually and morally shows from the highest seats in the land to locals who walk by the homeless, refusing to even do them the respect of making eye contact with them. It seems that all we know to do with our homeless is make them invisible, thereby sparing ourselves the effort required to understand the human condition of the day and the discomfort of being involved.

How readily we have come to accept substituting the county jail for shelter and man-made laws for mercy.

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