Saturday, February 1, 2014


(Name changed to protect privacy)

I almost walked past Caroline she looked like most elderly women in the city. She was wearing a winter coat that made her look larger than she actually was a floppy hat and a colorful scarf. 

The closer I got to her I  noticed that the coat she was wearing was a little tattered. Her shoes were not the kind of shoes someone normally wears on a cold winter day, and she had two shopping carts behind her filled with various things. Next to the cart was a large suitcase that looked like it had been in the rain for quite awhile.

I approached her and offered her some socks. She smiled at me and said “You are the person that left socks in my cart the other day! I tried to run after you because I thought you may be stealing something but I am too old to run. Then I noticed the socks. That was so kind of you, thank you”. She pulled her hands out of her pocket and said, “See I am using the other pair for my hands they get so cold in this weather and I have really bad arthritis. Look at them they are blue right now even with these gloves on”.

Caroline slowly pulled one of the socks off to expose an arthritis riddled hand that was shaped like a claw because she could not straighten her fingers out completely no matter how hard she tried. When I saw this I said, “I wish I had an extra pair of gloves with me right now I would give them to you” Caroline replied, “Oh sweetheart; Thank you but I cannot wear gloves I am unable to straighten my hands out enough to get them in there. But if you have any extra mittens at home I would sure be grateful. I have tried to find some but I haven’t had any luck”. I replied, “I’ll see what I can do”.

I asked her how long she had been on the streets and where she sleeps at night.

This is her story:

She had lived in the neighborhood for almost twenty years.

Caroline's rent had been going up increasingly year after year until it reached the point that she could not pay it anymore. Like most seniors she had a fixed income and was barely able to cover her personal expenses. She spent many years teaching and had worked hard her entire life. She never married and didn’t have any children.

She tried to negotiate with her landlord but he wouldn’t budge. He knew that once she was out he could raise the rent to match the going market rate, which would be well beyond her means. She gave him all of the money she had but it was still not enough to carry her into the next month as she had depleted her savings trying to survive.

She was able to stay in the apartment for a while longer as it is difficult for landlords to usually evict someone right away. Every month she gave him what she could afford but again not enough. He gave her an eviction notice. She still tried to stay even though he was becoming increasingly aggressive. 

Caroline came home one day and all of her personal belonging were scattered in the hallway. Her door was locked and she found her other elderly neighbor crying outside the entrance to her apartment. Her neighbor said, “I tried to stop him because I knew you were not home but I couldn’t. Now I am afraid he will do this to me someday!”

Caroline had no place to go most of her friends were elderly too and lived in small apartments and much like her were struggling to get by on their social security checks.

Her neighbors helped her to organize her things and she found a couple of carts to put everything in. With her hands the way that they are she couldn’t push them very far alone and when she did she would have to push one cart to whatever location she had found that she deemed safe enough then go back and get the other one.

Caroline had now been on the streets for seven months. When she lost her home the weather was warmer but now that winter was starting she was worried. Caroline was trying to sue the landlord but again without much money, living on the streets with no cell phone or a permanent address it made it hard for her to get representation and follow through with documents etc.,.

Caroline had always been an avid reader so she gathered books that she found and tried to sell them and educate people along the way about what they were reading because even though she was no longer a teacher. Teaching was in her DNA and her passion.

People in the neighborhood helped her out as best as they could because that is what good neighbors do. If they were a shop owner they knew her face from being a customer for so many years.

The market down the street would give her a hot coffee every morning. The church on the corner let her use their bathroom when they were open. The girl that worked at the café on the corner would bring her any pastries that they didn’t sell that day.

Caroline was charming and sweet so it is no wonder people wanted to help her out. That is the thing about New Yorkers most are tough on the outside but when push comes to shove if they know you they’ve got your back.

Caroline would stand outside of a pub and wait for it to close around 3:00 a.m. she said even though there were a lot of drunks coming and going she felt safer there because there was a lot of foot traffic and it was well lit. She didn’t stay in shelters because she felt like they were too dangerous for a person her age plus she would have no place to put her two carts that were filled with her life treasures.

The snow was starting to come down again and it was getting late. I had to get home. I told her I would look for her the next day if I found some mittens.

As I walked away I wondered if she would make it through the night. I was wearing my Patagonia fleece (this isn’t an official product endorsement. It is true I was wearing Patagonia. They make great products. Hopefully they will read this and give me some socks!), a pair of thermals and wool socks with a heavy coat and yet I was still cold.

When I got home I posted the story on my Facebook page (Hey, Facebook care to help out?) and asked if any of my knitter friends could quickly make her a pair of mittens.

Within minutes I received a call from my friend Meghan’s husband Jeff he said she was making a pair of mittens but they would be made out of felt. She wanted me to know that felt is really warm. And, that she would make sure that they were as good as a knitted pair of gloves.

The next morning I arranged to meet Jeff when he dropped his daughter off at school. Meghan had made a beautiful pair of mittens. She kept in mind that Caroline’s hands were gnarled and it was hard to tug mittens on. She also made sure they had two layers so that when she needed to use her hands the bottom layer was warm but thin enough to allow her to maneuver. And, they were a nice shade of red.

After leaving Jeff I went in search of Caroline she was where I had found her the night before but she looked much more tired and a bit discouraged. No doubt from a night of shivering in the cold.

When I handed her the gloves she had a smile on her face that beamed brighter than the lights in Times Square. She exclaimed, “They are perfect! And, they are a nice color just in time for Christmas, I love them!”

I told her that I will keep an eye out for her and whenever I am passing out socks she could count on a fresh pair from me. Then we parted ways. I haven’t seen her since and worry that she didn’t make it through another night but am also hopeful that she found a permanent place to live.

As you finish reading this remember the power of social networking and share this story. Remember that we will all age someday. What is your plan for when you are too old to work? Remember to look more closely at the people that you pass on the streets that do not have a home. 

Everyone has a story.

Remember that I cannot continue to do this by only using my own funds. I need others to support this fourteen year project of compassion.

And, lastly hug your Grandma next time you see her and remember Caroline’s story. May she never have to face the same circumstances.

I’ll never forget each word Caroline said and hope that if I do see her again she will tell me that she is safe, warm and happy.

UPDATE: 2/24/14:

While running some errands in my neighborhood today I decided to take a different route home. I saw Caroline walking toward me and recognized her right away. 

I wish I had good news to report about her situation but unfortunately she is still living on the streets. Someone recently stole both of her shopping carts that were filled with all of her possessions. Which included her ID and the mittens that my friend made for her. She was on her way to see the Rabbi in our neighborhood to see if he could help her find a place to stay for awhile as snow is expected again this week. She has been dealing with the bureaucracy that comes along with not having a way to prove your identity without having the proper paperwork along with everything else that faces just to survive. 

The amazing thing about Caroline is that despite her circumstances she still maintains a positive attitude and is a pleasure to talk to. Conversation comes easily with such a wise, charming and intelligent woman. 

We spoke on the street for awhile. Next time I see her I hope I can somehow help her beyond just socks. I gave her a few pairs today. She will use one pair for mittens for her arthritic hands. With some luck my friend will make another set of mittens for her. And I will be able to find Caroline again.

Near the end of our conversation as I was bidding her farewell I told her to stay strong and that she will be on my mind as I send her thoughts of safety and good health. She said: "I come from a strong family. My father survived the Holocaust." As I walked away I thought about how fortunate I am to be alive and safe from such perils and what the future holds for Caroline and everyone that has crossed my path along the way in this life.

Caroline is a reminder to all of us that we must help each other when we have the opportunity to do so.
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  1. Have you found her again? Perhaps there is a way to set up a crowdfunding campaign so that we can get her a place to live? I would like to see this senior taken care of.

  2. Hello Ramdesh,

    Unfortunately, I have not seen her again but I look almost every day because where I first saw her is in my neighborhood. My hope is that she did find housing.
    A crowdfunding campaign is a good idea. I don't have the capacity personally to set up such a thing but if you wish to do so I am sure she would be thankful. Assuming I find her again I will see if there is some way to help her and I will let her know that people like you are concerned for her well being.

    Please email me your contact information and if I have an update I will let you know.