By Anna Daniels
Halina is dead.
The effervescent petite blonde with the ebullient smear of sky blue eyeshadow above her sky blue eyes died in a residential hotel earlier this year.
I met Halina over a decade ago while I was working at the information desk of the old Central Library downtown on E Street. She was in the library searching for information on how to replace a lost ID. On a return trip she was looking for the address of her daughter Jessica.
She was a memorable presence—that sky blue eyeshadow, the girlish laugh, her genuine gratitude with the assistance she received. Halina would return to the library to simply say hello or to request all over again information on how to replace her lost ID or find Jessica’s address.
Those requests, repeated over time, were an indication that there was more to Halina’s life than her physical appearance or brief interactions at the library information desk superficially conveyed. One day Halina confirmed what I had suspected for a while—she was homeless.
Whatever belongings, identification and money they had between the two of them were confiscated in sweeps, lost, rained on or robbed with numbing regularity.
Halina, like so many homeless women, had a partner. Donnie provided both companionship and protection. He recycled cans and whatever else he could scavenge to bring in some money. I would see Halina from time to time on Fifth Avenue panhandling. She and Donnie ended up living in Mission Valley by the river, in an encampment with other homeless men and women.
I asked Halina why she and Donnie didn’t find shelter at Father Joe’s or another emergency shelter. Her smile froze.
“I am not going back to a refugee camp.”
Halina had told me at some point that she spent her childhood in a Polish refugee camp after World War II. She quickly changed the subject, but she conveyed a sense of horror and terror at the recollection.
Whatever belongings, identification and money they had between the two of them were confiscated in sweeps, lost, rained on or robbed with numbing regularity. Donnie was jailed for unlawfully sleeping in the streets, before that municipal code was found unconstitutional.
Each time these losses occurred, Halina would be back in the library requesting information on how to replace her IDs and find her daughter Jessica’s address. Each time I would express my concern and she would say “Oh, honey, don’t worry about me. We’ll be just fine. I know we’re going to find a place soon.”
Then one day Halina came into the library and she was unrecognizable. She was limping; her face was swollen and bruised. Ugly black stitches held the skin on one cheek together. Her blue eyes were little more than slits. One of her arms was in a sling. In some ways even more shocking, she was dirty. “Halina, what happened?”
“Donnie had a shopping cart filled with bottles and cans and someone started goofing around and pushed the cart right into me.” She whispered “Oh honey, I’ll be okay.” One corner of her mouth slightly twisted upward in an attempt at a reassuring smile.
Halina was never the same afterward. What was different was more than the poorly healed arm that remained slightly bent and which hung oddly at her side. Gone was the blue eyeshadow. Her face looked gaunt; most concerning, the indomitable light in those clear blue eyes had been extinguished.
I do not know what was written on her death certificate as the cause of death, but I would venture that it was her respectability.
Halina always talked about getting a real place of her own. She described to me curtains on windows, a homey place where she could cook and decorate with pretty things. She had had those things in her life once and then at some point she didn’t. After the accident at the river encampment, that dream had evaporated, replaced by a grim resoluteness to simply get through each day with the dwindling energy and resources available to her.
She and Donnie, who was clearly no protector, separated. One day she came into the library with a young slender man and introduced me to Mark. Her desire for companionship and need for protection had once again asserted itself. Mark was touchingly committed to Halina and shared her optimism about the future.
Halina and Mark would take up residence in a downtown residential hotel (SRO) from time to time, but when the money ran out, they would be back in the streets. Like so many other homeless people, they rented week to week because they were never able to pull together enough money to pay the deposit required to maintain a room on a monthly basis.
I received a call from Alan Bugg, a friend and librarian at the Central Library, who cared deeply about Halina. He told me that Mark had come into the library to let him know that Halina had died.
I was not particularly surprised to hear that Halina, who had managed to survive World War II in Poland and who had clung for so many years to that vision of white lace curtains in the home of her dreams, was dead. Life in the streets for homeless women is brutal. Halina had managed to survive longer than many of her homeless women cohorts.
I have no idea whether Halina has found a final resting place. I do not know what was written on her death certificate as the cause of death, but I would venture that it was her respectability.
For those who define the problem of homelessness as an aesthetic issue, as a form of visual blight that taxpayers shouldn’t be subjected to as opposed to a moral issue and societal failing, Halina’s respectable homelessness offered no rebuke.
Over the course of the past two decades I have met women who have been reduced to living in their cars, or seeking shelter in empty apartments and garages, or taking up temporary residence under a freeway overpass or on the banks of the river. These women have been young and old, black and white and brown, but the one trait they all have in common is that not one of them “looked homeless.”
Their hair is neat and combed, their clothes clean, their nails trimmed and often polished. Halina and these other women lost, for all manner of reasons, their normal, respectable lives. Their appearance is in many ways their last connection to their identity and everything they have lost, a reminder of everything they still aspire to. It is what keeps these women partially safe–and sane, while at the same time rendering invisible the urgency of their situation.
And because Halina was so respectable in both her manner and appearance, she went unnoticed. For those who define the problem of homelessness as an aesthetic issue, as a form of visual blight that taxpayers shouldn’t be subjected to as opposed to a moral issue and societal failing, Halina’s respectable homelessness offered no rebuke.
Halina surprised me when she told me one day that her favorite book was The Family of Man, a collection of photographs created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. “That is such a beautiful book.”
She hugged the copy of the book that I later bought for her to her heart with such joy. I knew that it would be soon lost in a sweep, a rainstorm, or a sudden move to another temporary habitation.
I’m sitting here now with my own yellowed paperback copy of The Family of Man. It was assigned reading in one of my high school English classes in the 60s. Although the book and certainly the title feel dated in certain ways, the theme of how we are connected across the globe as humans and the ways that we express our common humanity are still powerful and accessible.
Steichen wrote in his introduction “The Family of Man has been created in a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.” Halina, in her unique way, had that passionate spirit.
I believe that it was often that spirit alone that kept her alive. I can still hear her voice “Oh honey, don’t worry about me. We’ll find a place soon.”
Author note: The names of Halina’s daughter and companions have been changed.