Esther  Altshul  Helfgott:  The Homeless  One

intro part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 bio/references comments/reviews

The Homeless One Continues


      Compass Center

(206) 461-7835

77 South Washington St.,

Seattle, WA 98104

$1.50 lunch or dinner;

some free meals; showers,




Ellen didn't come yesterday. Maybe today,

though I'll be gone from 3 p.m.

until after dinner. Penny is meowing.

I've given her a lunch of Fancy Feast

but have to fix her litter box when I come home.



Voices tell Crysta exactly what to do.

They interfere with walking up a flight of stairs.

They tell her where to place, first, this foot, then,

that. When washing dishes, they tell her:

Scrub that spot. Wash over there.

You have to watch your every movement, she says,

have to think about everything you re doing

or you won t get it right.



I have to talk myself through it so I get it right.



What would happen if you didn't get it right?



One time when I bought a copy of Real Change,

the homeless news, I asked the vendor if he knew Ellen.

He said: Oh, yes, a man in the neighborhood gives her

$1 each day. So I think she has a beat,

and I think she s a pretty good actress. On it goes.

With Christmas coming, how can I be hard hearted?


Seattle Indian Center

329-8700; 611 12th Ave. S.

Seattle, WA 98144

Lunch M-F 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.

Native Americans

and neighborhood residents only.


      Temple DeHirsch Sinai

seeks volunteers to spend one night

a month at its Women's Shelter.

Call June, 425-869-7010.



I couldn't walk up the stairs, couldn't wash the dishes,

couldn't complete what for most people is a simple mechanical act.

I smoke because nicotine helps take away the voices.

I know people don't like it and I worry about the cigarette smell.

I wash my clothes, my coats all the time, but I have to smoke.

Even with the cancer. I used to smoke five packs a day.

Now I'm down to three.



Once she was up to seven packs of cigarettes a day.

My chest hurts just thinking about it.


      National Resource Center

on Homelessness and Mental Illness

252 Delaware Ave.

Delmar, NY 12054 800-444-7415




When the voices start

and talk about something other

than what you're doing, what happens?



They interfere with me, tell me to do the opposite

of what I'm trying to do.

I have to be especially careful of safety things,

have to watch to make myself put cigarettes out,

have to watch myself carefully,

can't stop watching.



Where do the voices come from?

How do they get in your head?



They aren't in my head.

They're outside my head.

If they were in my head,

they'd be like the voices

in everyone else's head.



I don't understand.

I thought you heard voices.



I do hear voices, Esther,

but the voices come from outside my head.

The voices inside my head are just like the voices

in everybody else's head.



You mean like when I think something to myself

and maybe argue with myself?



Yes, I have those kinds of voices, too.



You mean normal everyday voices?



Yes, the other voices, those outside my head,

come from places outside me.

Like I will hear a voice outside my window,

but I know it s not real because I live on the twelfth floor.



You imagine a voice is out there?





How does that work? You said it wasn't real.



It's not real, like the real inside my head.

But the voice outside the window is real.



How did it get there?



The government. Mind control. Brain waves.

ESP. I don't know, but they're there,

always bothering me.



Are there good and bad voices, or just bad?



The voices are bad. Why else

would the government put them there?

I haven't heard good voices for a long time.

I didn't hear voices before I joined the marines

That's how I know it s a government plot.

They're out to get me.



Who, specifically, is out to get you?



The FBI, the CIA, the doctors.



Ellen came Christmas Day at 2 p.m.

I gave her the usual $3

and wished her Merry Christmas.

She thanked me

and patted my shoulder.

I patted her back.



I wonder about Ellen s voices,

who the creep represents.



She came this morning at 9:30

just as I was having my oatmeal.

I gave her the $3. She thanked me

and grinned. Said: You dear soul!



Madeline DeFreesá poetry workshop

at Richard Hugo House:

She gives an assignment on birds.

I know nothing of birds but write this:


Neologisms of an Ornithologist in a Quiet Room


Curled like a bird in its mother s nest

the patient lies on a cot mumbling: Roomboom

quietroom. Boobyhatch my egrets

regrets. Magpie, tell Wagatail:

strap me to swallowlegs.

Blue-throated doc butcherbirds my brains

again and again. Nutcracker nurse nightjars my back.

Sniper trail's me. Yellow-bellied sapsucker

twists. Oh, my arms pintail my sage.

Oh, girl, whippoorwilling

girl. Swallow me. Let the wren.

Let the quail, swallow me.



Ellen came for the second time yesterday, 8:15 p.m.

I was coming home from dinner with my cousin, Kathy.

I said to Ellen: You already came today,

but I gave her the last $3 I had in my desk drawer

and cautioned her to keep warm.



Did she sleep in a shelter

those bitter cold nights? The city

asks for donations of blankets

so people can sleep outside,

instead of opening buildings.

It doesn't make sense.



acronym for Seattle Housing And Resource Effort,

is a group of homeless and formerly homeless men and women

working together in a self-managed system of shelters

and other resources. Our long-term goal is to end homelessness.



When she s really scared - when the FBI is after her

or the doctors are putting her in restraintsá

she wears combat boots and carries a hammer.

Otherwise, her attire is outdoorsy rather than military.

For protection, she hides an umbrella in her pack.



Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League,

a grassroots empowerment organization of homeless

and formerly homeless women, allied with SHARE,

focusing on the problems of homeless women.


      Anitra L. Freeman, Wheel Contact Person

WHEEL's goals give voice and leadership

to homeless women to organize campaigns

around increased services and safety for homeless women,

and to develop and support self-managed shelters.

(There is now, in 1998, one self-managed shelter

for women only; another may reopen soon.)



Dear Anitra,

     What does WHEEL

do about homeless

women who are mentally ill?

I know of a woman who won't go to shelters.

She wants to be free.

She won't take her medication,

goes house to house asking for money.

She suffers from schizophrenia

but doesn't want to see doctors.

How does one help?



That's one nobody has a complete answer to,

Esther. The Access Project, in which case workers

go out to places where homeless people are

(including under the viaducts)

to reach those who need services

(instead of sitting in offices

and waiting for them to walk in),

has helped many. We need more of that.



New Year s Eve, 1998

Ellen came today at 2:30.

I gave her five $1 bills.

She thanked me

and grinned broadly.

I hope she doesn't think

I've upped the ante

for next year.



We need more flexible services,

including safe and clean encampments

for those who cannot, or will not, come indoors;

yet, where, at least, contact can begin. We need

to demand better accountability from health services,

including mental health services,

because, currently, it is very sane to distrust doctors

and if we want vulnerable people

to trust their lives to someone,

we'd better be a lot more certain

that someone is trustworthy.



Elliot Liebow's Tell Them Who I Am:

The Lives of Homeless Women.

Free Press, 1993:

shows what many refuse to know:

that not all homeless people

suffer from schizophrenia or other

types of mental illness



We need to rebuild our human community

so that every person's instinctive reaction is to help

even a little bit, and not to shy away.

But there are many people for whom all we can do,

yet, is help a little bit; give them some kindness,

give them some dignity,

and acknowledge that we are not perfect

we can't cure everyone, we can't fix everything.

It hurts. But it is better to live with pain

than to live without caring. And someday ...



New Year s Day, 1999

Ellen hasn t struck yet.

I have a $5 bill awaiting her.


Orion Youth Service Center

1020 Virginia, Seattle, WA 98101

Hot meals Mon-Fri at noon and 6 p.m.

Age 19 and under.



Ellen came New Year s day at 2:45.

She accepted $5 withá Happy New Year !á exchange.

On Saturday, the 2nd, she came at 4 pm for $3.

At 8 pm. I handed her $1,

but that didn't satisfy her.

So I gave her another 2, protesting.

I managed to smile, and she departed.


      City of Seattle

     Office of the Mayor

     March 5,1999

Dear Esther Altshul Helfgott:

     Thank you for your E-mail concerning additional assistance

for homeless people. I am pleased to let you know

that there are outreach workers who utilize vans

and other means to reach out to homeless people on the streets.

These outreach workers are employees of community

nonprofit agencies. They try to make contact with homeless people

who are living outside or in makeshift encampments

and encourage them to utilize our community s shelters

and low-income housing. These outreach workers

are unheralded champions of our community

who make a big difference in the lives of the people they help.

Again, I appreciate knowing of your support for these efforts.

                     Very truly yours,

                             PAUL SCHELL



She didn't come yesterday.

Maybe she will desist for a few days.

I'm off to the Co-op to buy instant oatmeal,

and a copy of Real Change.

My friend Isabel Dickens who is Charles Dickens

great granddaughter (times four) is on the publication board

of Real Change. Isn t that a strange coincidence?




intro part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 bio/references comments/reviews

The Homeless One Continues


Copyrightę2003, 2004: Esther Altshul Helfgott

originally published by Kota Press, Seattle, WA. 1999, 2000

Cover graphics and design by Harry Jones



Esther Altshul Helfgott's Home Page  and see also



Webdesign: Rudolf Suesske: June 2004