He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.
When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.
That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.
The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.
Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.
“I always wait.” he says.
Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.
“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.
I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.
Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.
A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.
A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.
A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.
A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.
Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.
I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?
As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.
“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.
“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.
Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)
At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.
I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?
Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.
Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nurse in Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.