Commentary: Up Close and Personal with Marie, On Her Own Terms

Commentary: Up Close and Personal with Marie, On Her Own Terms

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month; a time in which Cornerstones reflects on the unique challenges that face our neighbors who suffer from mental health conditions – neighbors like Marie.

Yesterday, I might have described Marie in impersonal terms, identifying her by the characteristics that allow social service agencies to fit her needs into available resource boxes. What does that look like? In her case, a person who is chronically homeless and suffering from certain physical and mental health conditions that keep her vulnerable and impose many barriers to seeing her safely housed.

Then I met Marie.

I was outside a store, waiting for the doors to open so I could rush in for office supplies for this morning’s work when I was approached by a woman. At first I thought she too was there to shop. She said hello, introduced herself, and without waiting for my response launched into a monologue, leaning in a bit too close for my comfort, and at times raising her voice in a familiar argument with someone who was not there.

While alarmed at times by certain outbursts, I stayed on, listening, as she described the deceit by those who stole her identity and life, her family’s denial of her existence – and I began to hear.

Over the course of the next hour we covered a lot of ground, from the war on drugs to shared disappointment over politics and politicians. Marie is incredibly well-informed, discussing current affairs and describing historical events with remarkable detail, and how they shaped the course of her life. When I remarked on her insights, she smiled and said she reads the newspapers and history books while waiting in grocery stores, coffee shops or the library to fill the days until she climbs back into her car to sleep.

Down memory lane, she says she is still on good terms with her ex-husband who left for a younger woman with a great figure, and we ended up laughing and lamenting the pounds we’ve put on over the years. Discovering we attended rival colleges brought another moment, a connection.

A former teacher, she offered me concrete strategies to help my son with reading comprehension. “Start with short articles on things he’s interested in, then ask him to give you the key points,” she said. “He’ll learn to love reading and the skills will transfer to his coursework.”

Off again, expressing her anger of being abandoned and reduced to living in her car, I gently broached the subject of housing and whether she had ever talked with anyone who might be able to help her. Furious, she told me of years spent in shelters and rejecting out of hand the idea of help from the government: “Once you go into that Section 8 you can never get out!” What she really needed, she told me, was to find someone who would let her house sit, where she would take good care of their home—a simple, mutual benefit exchange.

And then she asked me what I thought, what I would do.

I wanted to convince her that Cornerstones could help, and that regardless of the source of rental payments, she could find a place of her own and get help with the other things that are worrying her. But she’s seen too much, and I know only too well that the helping process is often time-consuming and can be dehumanizing, requiring forms and commitments, too often on “our” terms, and may be a disincentive to someone who needs time to build trust.

While I have had the great joy of watching the gifted, caring social workers at Cornerstones build those relationships and find housing options for hundreds of men and women over the years who live like Marie, I have to recognize that she may not be ready, that we have not yet found the options that appeal on her terms.

With this in mind, Cornerstones strives to assist these individuals in a way that is tailored to their physical and mental health needs. Using an approach called Trauma-informed Care, which begins with identifying the trauma or traumas that clients experienced which led to their ongoing struggles, including homelessness, Cornerstones’ case managers help clients create strategies and find solutions that offer them control, choice and, most importantly, hope.

Nearing the end of our conversation, and cursing myself over never having cash when needed, I asked, “Marie, how can I help you?”

She smiled and told me not to worry about her, but if I wanted to help I could go to the Reston Drop-In Center or the Embry Rucker Community Shelter and make a donation there. People would appreciate and benefit from the gesture….

She reached in for a hug, told me she hoped to see me again and where she could be found most days. Her poignant parting words will stay with me: “Tell your son good luck with his reading … and not to give up.”

Cornerstones is a nonprofit organization that promotes self-sufficiency by providing support and advocacy for those in need of food, shelter, affordable housing, quality childcare, and other human services. For more, visit