I couldn’t just walk by

Yesterday, as I walked from my car to our local hipster bicycle bar, I heard a woman yell, “Sir, sir! Do you have a phone that I can use to make a call?” I looked across the street and realized she was talking to me. I am generally a little leery about interacting with random strangers on the street, but she had two kids and her voice carried a sense of urgency. I couldn’t just walk by without addressing her.

I crossed the street to meet her, and as I got closer, I saw that she had two black eyes. I didn’t ask what happened, but instead opened the phone app on my droid and handed it to her.

Her call was brief. Disappointing. There was no answer on the other end and seemed a little distressed. After she hung up, she said that someone may call back from the number that she dialed and asked me to let them know that she’s waiting outside. About 10 seconds later, I received a call from a number that I didn’t recognize. It was the call that she was waiting for.

“Hi, I just called and I was looking for x. Hi x. I found a place to stay near x and they are going to charge $27. Can you still help me? I borrowed phones from 5 random people and have been trying to reach you…. Oh. You can’t…”

And she hung up. The person who had promised to help couldn’t or just wouldn’t. The look of devastation on the woman’s face was heartbreaking. It looked like she was about to cry, but held back at the last second.

And this is when it really hit home that I needed to ask her what her situation was. Why was she out on the street sporting two black eyes with her two adorable and energetic little girls?

She told me that she had been in an abusive relationship and she just got out of the hospital. A counselor there gave her information for a place for temporary housing and a number for another agency that could help. The shelter was filled until late this week, but the other agency would help her find something until her spot at the shelter was available. She just needed to find a hotel or cheap place that would provide a room for a couple of nights and the agency would pay. The person who’d promised to help her didn’t honor that commitment and that’s the conversation that I overheard. I asked her what she was going to do and she told me, “I guess I’ll have to ask for a dollar from 27 people on the street.”

I have never done this for a person who I’ve met on the street, but I told her that I could help. And I did. I told her to stay where she was and I withdrew $40 for her from a nearby ATM. When I got back, I asked her name, told her mine and told her that someone close to me had experienced domestic violence and her story hit home with me. I wished her luck and we parted ways.

A couple of years ago, if I were in the same situation, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But after seeing Private Violence last year at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, I have a very surface understanding of how hard it can be to get out of a violent situation and how horrifying things can get. I don’t know what she would have done if we hadn’t run into each other and I don’t know if she’ll end up with her abuser again. I do know that I would have regretted it if I’d just walked by.