When sleeping on the street in bitter weather feels ‘fine’

RICHMOND, Va. -- Meet Rosemary.

She’s 72, from Tennessee by way of New York.

She’s been sleeping sitting up on a near West End sidewalk this bitter winter, wrapped in blankets and a sleeping bag and covered in plastic.

I went by to check on her Wednesday night and posted this on Facebook with a photo of what appears to be a pile of trash waiting for pickup:

There’s a homeless woman under all this plastic and ice off Malvern near W. Broad.

It’s 24 degrees.

I asked her if she wanted a ride or just sit for a while in my warm car?

“I’m fine.”

Something to eat?

“No, I’m fine.”

Can I do anything for you?

“No, I’m fine. Thank you for checking on me.”

Are you sure?

“I’m fine.”

I’ve met plenty of rugged homeless people over the years, but this night is a raw one to wait out without a fire.

I wonder what she’ll think about during those long moments deep in the night.

How could life turn out this way?

Feels wrong to drive away.

Rosemary

There was a small flood of responses.

People went down almost immediately to see what they could do to help. And I heard from many people who have tried desperately to help Rosemary over the past year.

Susan DeMarco wrote: Sometimes I bring her coffee. I worry about her all the time. She always tells me she is fine.

Melanie Anne Miller: I feed her soup and food when I can. She has no plan on going to a shelter.

Seth Nichols: I live near her and have tried to help her many times over the summer with food and supplies Mark....She won't accept any help, I don't fully understand it either.
She's a real trooper w/o any concern for her own safety...
Bums me out she insists on persevering this weather alone and cold.

Rick Harris: Mark, I visit her every night during the week to make sure she's ok. She's been out there for at least 6 months. I offered her everything under the sun but I can't force her to move. I brought her coffee last night. She knows my name and her story just doesn't add up. I gave her that tarp and there's a sleeping bag underneath. Sad situation but the best we can do is check on her until she's ready.

I had a long talk with Bob Hummer with Moments of Hope homeless outreach.

“There are a lot of people who have tried, definitely,” he said. “It’s very frustrating,”

He said his group put her up in a hotel for as long as they could while tracking down her estranged family.

He and others have offered her tickets back home. Richmond police officers have tried to sort out her situation repeatedly. On Thursday, they took her to DMV to get identification.

I visited with Rosemary Thursday. She said she’s comfortable and happy. The cold weather hasn’t been as bad as it is in New York.

“I’m a U.S. Marshal - a lieutenant,” she said. “I was put here because there’s a problem on this street.”

She said her van and belongings got stolen in New York so she bought a bus ticket for Richmond in November of 2016. It appears she’s been here before.

We talked about her two sons, but she couldn’t say why they weren’t together as a family. One is a U.S. Marshal, she said, and the other is a “Supreme Court judge.”

She was very pleasant and insistent she was just fine. She said she’s been able to sleep pretty soundly, even when the temperature dropped near zero.

I asked her if she’d be willing to go to a shelter and she said there isn’t room.

Rosemary said she likes it here and the people are kind to her.

Former neighbor Jason Cottrell came up as we chatted and greeted her warmly, bringing her a plate of hot food.

“We’ve all tried to help her,” he said a little later. “I want to say she’s a free spirit. I don’t know. I just don’t know . . . We do care. We’re all compassionate. You just don’t know what to do sometimes.”

Rosemary is not the only woman sleeping out in this weather.

Just down the Boulevard near the Greyhound bus station there’s been a woman there waiting for about 10 years now for an estate to be settled, she tells me. Lots of people have tried to help her over the years.

And for the past six months, a 23-year-old woman has slept on the sidewalk by the CVS at W. Broad and the Boulevard, bundled up very much like Rosemary.

Dozens of people have tried to help her. For the most part, she refuses any assistance. I’m told a Richmond police officer has been trying to track down her family.

So what do you do?

You can’t force people to accept help.

And unless less there’s a justifiable belief that a person is a real danger to themselves or others, you can’t drag them in for a mental evaluation.

There are Rosemarys across this land. People who need more than just hot food, warm clothes, shelter, jobs and housing - all of which are crucial.

It looks like she could use help sorting out her Social Security and perhaps disability. But she repeats that she’s fine, that she doesn’t need any help.

There are clearly people offering her support, concern and love. I get a sense she would like to be left alone, even though her survival story plays out in plain sight.

I asked her what it would take for her to come out of the cold.

“I don’t know,” she said, hesitating. “One of these days I’ll go in.”

37.540725 -77.436048