Loving and welcoming all our neighbors

Before she left Trinity Center to attend law school, former operations coordinator Annie Bryant wrote eloquently about three of the people we serve. Enjoy! dh

By Annie Bryant

Trinity Center is a place where anyone can come as they are.  Trinity Center exists for this purpose.  Yes, we help people move out of homelessness, find jobs and obtain vital documents.  We feed breakfast to over 300 people per week, and serve some of the best coffee in town. But every day our tables and chairs are filled with people who are not making use of any of those services.

 I remember a young man who was in the center for his first time.  I walked by and he stopped me to ask “Hey, so, we can just hang out in here?”  He looked bewildered when I replied, without hesitation, that he could.  “Awesome!”  hee replied, echoing the gratitude of many who have been arrested just for sitting down on the sidewalk.   

“Gloria” (pseudonym) is a character.  In her right mind, I can imagine her as a funny, bright, and outspoken advocate for justice.  She is those things, but pretty often her statements don’t come out quite right. For instance, one day she was angry and shouting at me with her loud, soulful voice: “You’re a serial killer!”

She likes to dress in stylish clothes,  spends time applying makeup and takes pride in her appearance. She responds well to compliments. Gloria will sometimes shout profanities at the unseen, but when approached as if she is a normal person, her face will light up, and the profanities will stop for a little while. 

She can be difficult to love, especially when you first meet her.  She can be a little bit scary when she is shouting, and you can really feel the anger she has deep inside.  Once you get to know her, you can start to see the person she was before mental illness took over — woman with a family, and children and a home. One day as the center was closing, she moved her belongings outside and sat on our porch singing beautifully and poignantly, “I want to know what love is, I want you to show me…”

There are times in everyone’s life when you need to be accepted the way you, without any expectation that you will change.  Many of our neighbors will likely “pull it together” at some point in the future.  When that day comes, we are there to help.  Many people turn to us for help because we were there for them when they didn’t want help and we didn’t judge them for not being ready to make changes. 

“John” didn’t talk to anyone at Trinity Center for years.  He stood by the phone and made phone calls, although no one heard him speak.  If you asked him how he is doing, he typically responded with a grunt.  He kept to himself, not causing any problems, and helped helps clean the center every day. 

One day John came into my office and showed me a worn bus ticket he had somehow purchased from Greyhound, and he spoke!  He told me he had this ticket and that he was going “back east.”  I asked him when he was going and if he had friends or relatives there.  He responded that he needed to get there for the holidays, and that he had been trying to call his cousins. He showed me a crumbling piece of paper with phone numbers, but no names.  I thought it was a good idea to get in touch with his family and asked if I could help.  He declined.  I told him to make sure he said goodbye before he left. 

That was over a year ago. Not much has changed, except that he comes into my office once a week, shows me his bus ticket and tells me he will be going “back east” soon.

Although we haven’t made much progress on a practical level, John is starting to open up.  He tells me about another church he goes to for breakfast on the weekends, and where he sleeps when it is freezing outside.  I told him there were probably some rooms available at a boarding house, and would he be interested in speaking to someone there?  I also asked if he would like me to help him obtain his birth certificate and ID.  No to both:  he will do that when he gets “back east.” 

Trinity Center also serves a population who cannot change.  For various reasons, some of our neighbors have little hope of being able to function at level higher than they currently operate.  They fall through the cracks of social services. For these neighbors, there is little to be done.  Legally, any adult has to give consent for services.  This right to self-determination can only be surpassed if the person is an imminent danger to themself or someone else.

On a good day, “Abbie” will sit at a table with her coffee and mutter quietly to herself.  She may approach a staff or volunteer and ask for a toothbrush or pair of socks.  On the good days, if you try to have a conversation with Abbie, she will most likely tell you about the preacher she needs to speak with, or that her brother is stealing her money, or something else that seems like it could be true, but you’re really not sure.  And she will probably say some things that are most likely true, like “My momma used to make meatballs that were this big” (gesturing with hands regarding the size of the meatballs). 

On many other days, you will see Abbie shouting profanities and walking into traffic.  You may see her shuffling along with her belongings and wonder where she is going.  She will suddenly start sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. 

In Trinity Center, Abbie is loved by many and tolerated by all.  She likes to receive hugs and exchange pleasantries.  When she smiles, you can see the beautiful spirit emerge, trapped in the same body with a severe, untreated mental illness.  Often when she is shouting, I will approach her and ask a simple question such as “How are you today Abbie?”  Many times she will stop shouting and begin a conversation in a calm tone as if she had no idea she was disrupting the atmosphere with her cursing.  But sometimes she will curse even louder and shatter her coffee mug on the floor.  In these instances, we ask her to leave, but she knows she is always welcome the next day. 

One day, Abbie asked me if I would pray with her.  Before I could answer, she had grabbed my hands and began praying “God, help me to be better received by the public…” 

When you are homeless and mentally ill in Austin, you are no one.  No one will look at you, and they may cross the street if they see you coming.  When you are in Trinity Center, people look at you  and smile.  They may shake your hand or even hug you.  They will call you by your name. They will serve you. They will love you.  They will let you be.