We sat in a circle. Twelve people gathered together to debrief an 'incident' that had happened earlier in the day.
A client had died. His body found lying on the sidewalk just off the main entrance to the shelter. He'd lain there for awhile. Had been lying there when I drove in earlier that day around noon to organize the filming of a commercial for the shelter. I hadn't seen him.
No one had realized he was gone. Short staffed, no one had tried to wake him, or the several other people lying on the stretch of sidewalk just off our front doors. It was a beautiful day. Busy coping with the demands of managing a thousand people who were in the building throughout the morning and over the lunch hour, staff left people to enjoy the spring sunshine. It wouldn't have made any difference if they had tried to awaken him. The ME said there was nothing anyone could have done. He had died in his sleep, under the heat of the sun warming his body as it grew cold. He had passed from sleep into death without stirring.
Realizing something was amiss when I'd heard radio chatter and the call for the ME and not an ambulance, I'd come down from the sixth floor where we'd been filming, to see if I could be of any assistance. "Anything else I can do?" I'd asked when I'd caught up to him outside the building.
Before he could reply, a client came up to me and asked, her voice shaky, tears streaming from her eyes. "What am I supposed to do?" She queried me. "I feel so unsafe here now. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of us."
"He died of natural causes," I told her, putting my arms around her and giving her a hug. I pulled back and looked into her eyes. "Your safety is no different now than it was before. No one did this to him." I paused and hugged her again. "Perhaps your fear is more that you realize this," and I swept my hand out to encompass the building and the parking lot where we stood and so much more, "This could kill you too."
She'd told me two days before that, after having found an apartment of her own three months earlier, she had had to move back to the shelter because she'd started using crack again. "I don't want to do it," she said. "But I just can't help myself."
She glanced behind me to where his body lay on the sidewalk covered with a blanket. A bevy of police officers stood around him. "I didn't know him well, but I have talked to him. It just scares me though. His going like that. Who will care that he's gone?" She paused. "Who will care if something happens to me?"
He will be missed I told her and reminded her of what Mother Teresa once said, "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."
"You are a vital drop in the ocean of his life. You will miss him. You will mourn him. You are here to note his passing and to say good-bye."
We sat in a circle in the fifth floor staff room and talked about how we each felt. The front line staff, who do so much day in and day out to care for those who cannot or will not care for themselves, were shaken. I'd spoken with one young staff member earlier, just after the police and ME had arrived. He'd had to retreat to an office on the first floor to collect himself.
"I feel really anxious," he'd told me. "I feel like I want to run and run around the block as fast as I can."
"Breathe," I told him. "Long slow breaths through your nose, out through your mouth."
"I've never seen a dead body before." The words poured out like tears. "We didn't even know he was dead when we went to wake him up. Some guy had parked his van and come in and said, 'there's a guy lying on the sidewalk, really still.' I went out with another staff member, bent down and shook him on the shoulder. He didn't move. We realized something was wrong and rolled him over." His voice caught. Tears glistened in his eyes. "It's that image of his face. I keep seeing it. I want to erase it. But it just keeps coming back."
"It's natural," I told him. "You've had a really big shock. You want to believe there was something you could have done. Should have done. But there isn't. You did the best you could. Think about the hundreds of people you served today. You did good work today. You touched many lives and that touch could be the difference that awakens their courage to find their way back home. You could not change the course of this man's destiny."
He took a deep breath. "But I wish I could have," he whispered. "I wish I had."
For some of the staff gathered in the room it was not the first time they had encountered a client's death. One young woman had worked with another staff member delivering CPR on another man for forty-five minutes some weeks before. "They pronounced him dead in the ambulance," she said. "I couldn't change what happened to him but I'm grateful to work with such an amazing team. You make me proud."
I felt proud to be sitting amongst them too. Committed. Caring. Concerned human beings serving those for whom the shelter is often just the stopping point between drinks or hits of some concoction that will take them away from the pain and sorrow of their lives.
For the staff members sitting in that circle, the man who had passed away was not a statistic. He was not a label called homeless.
He has a name. A family. A history. A story. He was, as one client had described himself weeks before, "A father. A brother. An uncle. A son. A friend. I am an artist a musician, a carpenter," he'd said. "I laugh. I cry. I feel pain. Which of these are diminished because I am homeless?"
A life was extinguished on the sidewalk outside the shelter today. A life ended, but the man who was a father and brother, a son, and a friend, he will live on in the memories of those who knew him.
In his passing, his light has been extinguished and hope died. Hope died of his ever finding himself again. Of his ever finding his way back home.
But hope lives on in the lives of every other person at the shelter. Hope lives on in the hearts and minds and spirits of those who care so deeply for one man's passing and who work so hard to ensure no man's passing goes unnoticed. Hope lives on in the caring attitudes and willing hands each staff member extends to those who pass through our doors.
We cannot save anyone. We can only give our best and pray they will find the best within them one day, soon, to take steps that will make a difference in their lives.
And when they don't, when they pass away never having found themselves or their way back home, we can only note their passing and know, we gave our best. Our best is good enough. It is all we have to give. It is not ours to determine when someone goes. We can only determine the care we give.
I looked around the circle, saw the tears and the sadness and felt honoured to be in their midst. I am proud of the people I work with. They give their best at every moment and care when others would walk away and say, "He won't be missed. He was just a drunk. A bum."
He was none of those. He was a human being.