In retrospect, what haunted me most was wondering just how many times I’d driven past that same spot and not even known she was there. Dozens? Hundreds? I traveled on that same section of highway every day as I commuted to work, but I had never known that someone lived among the broken bottles and discarded fast food wrappers strewn along that underpass.
And then one Wednesday morning I saw her. She was shuffling along in dirty clothes, clutching a black trash bag filled with what I later learned were all the possessions she had in this world. But I didn’t stop that time, either. I drove on, and the questions began to creep along my consciousness with each mile I placed between me and her: Does she actually live there? Is that possible? How does someone wind up living on the streets? What is the story behind the image I saw that Wednesday?
I’m not naive. I know that there are homeless people in this country, especially in a city as big as Atlanta. But I began to wonder how I should feel about this fact. Was there anything I could really do to help solve the problem? Friends of mine had often said when they would see a homeless person, “Whatever you do, don’t give them any money. They just spend it on drugs.” But was that true? And was that reason enough to just pretend another human being didn’t exist, to drive on and forget it happened?
A week later I had my answer, and I was pulling my car along the side of that underpass, getting out, and walking tentatively up to this lady I had seen. I was tongue-tied at first, and as if sensing this she said, “My name’s Anna and I’m not too dangerous, so there ain’t no need to be worried.” With the ice broken, I introduced myself and asked how long she had been living at an underpass on I-285. “Good little while now,” she informed me, and then she told me a story that answered all of the questions that had been echoing across my mind for weeks.
Anna, it turned out, was 59 years old, originally from Florida, and had lived in Atlanta for ten years. At one time she had been a licensed practical nurse, had owned a car, and once lived in an apartment in a nice College Park neighborhood. Then came the car accident which left her with a broken hip, a broken arm, and four fractured ribs. She could no longer work and the insurance money only went so far. Also, she admitted, she had gotten addicted to the pain pills she took just so she could sleep. As months turned to a year, she was without work and unable to make her monthly rent payment. For a few weeks she lived in a cheap motel, but that also became too expensive. Seeking shelter from the elements, she chose to live at that underpass, and she said she was thankful to have that much cover. Thankful for the safety of an underpass.
We talked for nearly an hour, and at the end of the conversation I asked if she had any money. She shook her head and tears came to her eyes. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. I handed it to her and urged her to get something to eat. “God bless you,” Anna whispered, shaking my hand before I left.
Called away from Atlanta for a family medical emergency, I didn’t see Anna again for almost two weeks. Shamefully, I have to admit, caught up in my own mini-crisis, I didn’t think of her, either. Commuting to work when I got back to the city, I noticed Anna was no longer where I had seen her those weeks now past. I never saw her again after that. I have been by that same location hundreds of times since, and not once caught a glimpse of her. Where did she go? To a homeless shelter? I recall her saying she didn’t go to the shelters because women weren’t safe in them; many were sexually assaulted.
And just like that, as quickly as she had appeared in my nice, ordered life, she was gone, another of the unseen we try so desperately not to see, lost in the shadows.
And we drive on.