Most of us see homeless people often and in many places: The man pushing a shopping cart piled high with belongings; the woman and child asking for money in a big box store parking lot; the person holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Veteran. Please Help.”
The Homeless Crisis
Homelessness is a dire and growing problem throughout the U.S. Fueled by such reasons as untreated mental health problems, rising rents, stagnant wages, physical disability and drug abuse, the face of homelessness has come to include men and women of all ages, teenagers and children.
In New York, New York, for example, the last decade has seen a 79 percent increase in the demand for shelter, according to the report State of the Homeless 2017, with homelessness reaching 60,717 people, including 15,145 families and 22,695 children.
And in Los Angeles County, the rate of homelessness jumped 23 percent over 2016’s level, according to a report by The Los Angeles Times newspaper, rising to almost 58,000 homeless people.
The homeless crisis is found in Silicon Valley to Seattle to Omaha to Miami and all points in between. The rate of homeless in the U.S. overall was 549,928 people in 2016, the last year for which official statistics are available.
Massage therapist Cynthia Trenshaw, who has also worked as a hospital chaplain and in hospice care, wrote the following reflection on her interaction with a homeless woman in a park in downtown San Francisco, California.
She shares a profound lesson and offers a reminder that whether a person has a home or not, touch can create connection.
Two People of Dozens
She looked like a used-up prostitute. Probably she was. Her 40-some years had been hard ones. She had skin the color and texture of old dried figs.
She sat on a bench, arms crossed, head down, folded into herself. She and I were two of dozens of people in the park—a long stretch of concrete and trees in the middle of downtown San Francisco.
The sun was warm and the breeze was mid-March mild, but she wore a red velvet winter coat with a white fake-fur collar. Her purple lipstick was smeared across her left cheek and onto the fuzzy left lapel.
Exhausted, or drunk, or high, or some combination of the three, she studied my approach with her eyelids hovering at half-mast.
It was Maundy Thursday, when the Christian calendar commemorates a day when Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his friends. Several of us massage therapists went out this day to offer foot massages to homeless people on the streets of downtown San Francisco.
I introduced myself to her and made my offer. She said her name was Gloria.
Her eyes asked, what’s the catch here? Do you really know what you’re asking? Nevertheless, she removed her battered red high-heeled shoes.
Then she hesitated, in unaccustomed embarrassment at revealing a part of her body that others seldom saw. Finally she rolled down her knee-high stockings, damaged with snags and runs almost past redemption, and pulled them off.
Breathe Into the Moment
I sit on the ground before her, put my backpack between us, and drape a clean towel over it. I prop her bared feet on the makeshift ottoman.
I spread antibacterial gel over my palms and work it into my fingers, showing her that I am concerned for her well-being.
Then I smooth massage lotion between my palms, slowly—no rush, we have all the time we need for this—taking the chill off the lotion with the warmth of my hands before I touch her feet.
My hands curve around her right ankle to raise her foot; I cup her heel in my left palm and place my right hand over her arch.
No need to do anything else, just hold this dark, callused foot of this unknown woman, just hold it, just breathe into the moment.
There is nowhere else to be but this place where my skin touches her skin, no time but this time when her feet have brought her to this park and my hands have offered this work.
Our shared connection at her foot becomes a bridge across which her stories and mine now begin wordlessly to cross.
As my fingers stroke lotion over her foot, her skin hears the silent story of the therapeutic skills I’ve learned for her.
As I trace the bones of her misshapen foot, my thumbs listen to her mute memoir. Her feet are dirty, her toes deformed; fungus grows under her nails. Chunks of dirt and slough fall from wherever I touch.
It does not matter, because beneath my fingers I can feel a softening in her tired and neglected feet.
The kindness and pleasure she receives now are echoing back from her feet to my hands; I am lost in the return of that same kindness and pleasure.
The feet I am massaging have become my own feet, and I can feel the strength of my thumbs kneading at the base of my own toes. This woman whom I touch has mysteriously become me; her journey has become mine.
This Isn’t Just About Massage
Gloria didn’t speak during the 20 minutes that I worked. When I had brought the massage to completion, I sat, silent and still, looking up to study Gloria’s face.
It took several minutes for her to be aware that my hands had left her feet and for her to come back from the timeless space she had entered. Slowly her eyelids rose.
She looked me straight in the eyes, and the intensity of her gaze would not allow mine to stray from hers. She said, clearly and thoughtfully, “This isn’t just about massage, is it.”
It was a statement, not a question, and not at all what I expected. It unsettled me. But she had more to say in her rhythmic, challenging statement-questions.
“This is about receiving, isn’t it.”? A pause.
“And this is about giving, isn’t it.” A longer pause.
“And … ” She searched for the right word. “And … it’s reciprocal, isn’t it.”
She focused on me long enough to make sure I’d heard her. Then she nodded once, satisfied, and her eyes closed again.
But my mouth hung open. For, with my butt on the city pavement, with Gloria’s sole-skin and accumulated dirt all over my hands, with my heart glowing from the soul work we had exchanged, I had just heard a homeless prostitute proclaim what had taken me years to understand.
About the Author
Cynthia Trenshaw has been a nationally certified massage therapist serving street people in large cities, a hospital chaplain, a professional guardian, and a midwife to the dying. Her first book, Meeting in the Margins (SheWrites Press, Berkeley), from which this essay was republished by permission, is available at your favorite indie bookstore and at Amazon. Visit her website to listen to a radio interview with her.
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