Woman In The Blue Coat

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Certainly, there isn’t a soul in Ashland who would have wanted Tasha (not her real name), a 42-year-old woman with a Developmentally Delayed Disability, to be on our streets on her own during the recent freezing nights with temperatures dipping down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

When she stumbled into the winter homeless shelter Sunday evening, she shook uncontrollably, kept nodding off like she hadn’t slept in days (and she hadn’t) and mumbled incoherently. We couldn’t make out her name so we began referring to her as “the woman in the blue coat.”

Although no one knew who she was or where she came from, even our shelter guests observed her strange behavior and expressed concern over her well-being. We helped her get warm and comfortable. I put chairs around her space so guests wouldn’t trip over her in the dark when they got up to go to the bathroom. One time during the night, I remember looking across the room and seeing her sitting in one of the chairs, blankets draped over her shoulders.

“There’s a new woman who definitely needs help,” writes Vanessa Houk, Sunday Night Site Coordinator, in an email Monday morning. “Blue jacket, developmentally disabled and new in town. Very hard to understand. We couldn’t understand her name. Please watch out for her. I wish I knew who could help her.” The community’s concern for Tasha was beginning to show itself.

“After a few phone calls…, we have a plan,” writes Heidi Parker, Winter Shelter Volunteer Coordinator. “When she shows up at the shelters, … you may not be able to understand what she’s saying,  but she may have some sort of ID (unfortunately, she didn’t have any ID on her). If it’s not the middle of the night, you could call Connie Saldana, Senior and Disability Services Planner, Rogue Valley Council of Governments (RVCOG)].

It may take time to get an agency to help her.  In the meantime, she’s very vulnerable out on the street. Hopefully, we will be able to get her into a more protective environment. Thanks everyone, for watching out for her.”

As luck would have it, the women in the blue coat showed up at the winter shelter the very next night. Bob Altaras, Monday Night Site Coordinator, writes, “There was a woman by the name of Tasha (or something like that) at the shelter tonight.  She was able to tell me her name and ask for blankets, so I thought she probably wasn’t the woman you’re writing about. She definitely had some disability though.”

As I read these emails at 6 am Tuesday morning, I decided that since I had actually seen the woman in the blue coat on Sunday, I might be in a good position to identify her. So, I quickly changed my plans for the morning and drove to the site of the Monday Presbyterian Church Shelter to be there when doors opened.

Sure enough, as I walked into the shelter, I immediately spotted the infamous “blue coat” on the floor next to someone under a slew of blankets, fast asleep and snoring.

When the lights were turned on, signaling “wake up time,” Tasha stumbled to her feet and wobbled barefoot to the bathroom. When she returned, I noticed that she didn’t have any socks any where. I turned to a shelter guest who I recognized and asked, “Do you know where we can get her some clean socks?”

“Absolutely,” he smiled back as he walked over to the Christmas Tree, grabbed a pair of new wool socks hanging there and handed them to Tasha with a smile. She quickly put on one sock when another guest (new to Ashland) noticed that she couldn’t pull up her sock. “Can I help you put on your socks and shoes?” he asked. “I used to help dress my wife when she became ill.” “Sure,” replied Tasha, “Thank you. Thank you.”

He lovingly removed the sock, rolled it up and placed it on her foot gently, then did the same with the other sock. Next, he unlaced the shoes, put them on her feet and tied the laces.  

“Would you be willing to hang with us this morning?” I asked Ashland’s newest “Guardian Angel,” sensing an opportunity for him to be of service and for me to find out more about him. “I could use some help watching over Tasha in case I have to go to the bathroom, make a call or walk away to find help.” “Absolutely,” he replied, delighted to be asked.

It was heart-warming to see this shelter guest new to our community set aside his own pressing needs to help one of his peers with a greater immediate need. “This must be what God wanted me to do this morning,” he said. “Must be,” I smiled back.

The shelter co-host, who was also serving as kitchen staff, graciously found a less accident-prone paper dish and bowl and helped Tasha pick out some food she wanted to eat. We invited her to sit at a table rather than stand and stuff food into her mouth, as she was apparently very hungry.

I asked Tasha if I could give her a ride to the Starbuck’s inside of Safeway. It was 7:15 am. The Ashland Resource Center, physically located next to Safeway, opened at 9 am, and I didn’t want to leave her alone as she might wander off. I told her I liked chai, to which she replied that she, too, liked chai more than coffee. Followed by our guardian angel (GA), we caravanned down the street.

Our friends at Starbuck’s were very kind to help us get an extra chair so the three of us could sit. GA watched over Tasha, as I made my first call to Connie (who is mentioned in paragraph 5). She asked me many questions that I couldn’t answer, so I passed the phone to Tasha.

It was probably my master’s in awareness training that brought me to notice a pattern right away that Tasha would let her head droop when she sat down, like she had trouble staying awake and wanted to sleep in her chair. I brought this to her attention. She said that on the three nights on the streets before going to the shelter she hadn’t slept at all. Every once in a while, her head would raise and her eyes light up. These were brief moments of alertness (lasting no more than 60 seconds) when I could ask her questions and get clear responses.

It was probably my linguistics degree that prompted me to put my little pad of paper and pen in front of her. In one of those “alert moments,” I invited her to write down her name which wasn’t Tasha at all. Fifteen minutes went by until the next awake moment, when she wrote her birthdate (in 1975) and where she was born (Torrence, CA). I passed this information on to Connie, who started to research to see if she was in the system in Oregon. She began piecing together the puzzle of who Tasha really was.

The GA and I took turns hanging with Tasha until the Resource Center opened at 9 am. We walked with her across the parking lot to the Resource Center. Leigh was great in asking her some direct questions. He recommended we return the next day to speak with someone who could start the paperwork to get her birth certification and ID.

Outside, another shelter guest suggested four locations in town to go to stay warm during the day. I was feeling the impulse to check in on my consulting and coaching clients. GA said he had something he had to do, too, but agreed to check in on her throughout the day if needed.

On our way to one of the warm places, I received a call from Connie with wonderful news. Tasha was in the system. She had a real name and a home. She was actually a runaway from her new, assisted foster-care home in Medford. They had filed a missing person report, so they were very happy to get her back.

Connie even provided me with Tasha’s case worker’s name, phone number and address in Medford. Fortunately, I had the time to deliver her there myself. On the drive, she even asked me what I loved to do (listen to music). She reached out her warm hand and placed it on my arm. “Thank you,” she said in a soft, loving voice.

As a result of Connie’s research and concerned individuals in our community (especially the efforts of our Winter Shelter team and shelter guests setting aside their personal needs), this very vulnerable woman is now safe, warm and off the streets! Thank you!

I feel big gratitude for living in such an amazing community. I’m reminded of one of my new favorite songs called “Gratitude”. Click the “play button” below…

 

Please remember that the woman in the blue coat is just one of hundreds of unhoused members of our community. I hope you will consider joining our Ashland Winter Shelter Team. Visit WinterShelters.com for details.

In Gratitude,

Phil Johncock, Ashland Winter Shelter Team

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