Erica is 62 years old. I met her Wednesday at the Greyhound station in downtown Houston. That’s where the prison van had dropped her off that morning after she had served her time. She didn’t have a voucher for a bus ticket because she was from Houston. Unfortunately, being “from Houston” didn’t mean she had a place to go in Houston. She had been homeless when she was arrested.
Dropped off on a side street along with 5 other ladies, they assisted her in hobbling around the corner to the bus station entrance. Erica had very recently had hip surgery in prison and was not fully recovered. But the walker she was using had been taken from her. It was state property and had to be left behind. Three of the ladies waited outside. They had managed to contact friends or family in Houston and were waiting for their rides to arrive. The other two helped her inside where she was able to sit down on a bench. They went to stand in line to cash in their vouchers for bus tickets to Amarillo. They were expected at a drug rehab program there for a three month stay before they could go home. Failure to arrive would mean a return to prison.
Erica looked like the homeless lady she was. A security guard wanted to know why she was loitering around the bus station. Unless she was about to get on a bus, she would have to leave. She was waiting on her friends, in line to buy tickets, she said. She was close to a panic attack when we found her there.
The prison bus ministry meets these newly released ladies at the Greyhound station to assist them in those first few hours after release. Hours that are both exhilarating as the drink in freedom and terrifying in the sense of being alone and penniless in a strange place. We introduce ourselves to looks of great relief and gratitude.
The bus to Amarillo won’t leave for a couple of hours. We take our new friends across the street to a room behind the Salvation Army office. The SA has loaned us use of the space and we have hamburgers, clothes, toiletries, and prayers waiting for them. We sit and eat together and they share a little of their personal stories. We find clothes for them to replace the ill- fitting garments they were given at the prison. One lady is beside herself with relief that we can offer her some sanitary products for the long bus ride to Amarillo.
Most importantly, we have a walker we can give to Erica. It had just been donated and brought in two days before. God is good. She moves much better now. She says, “Bless you” to us about a hundred times. She asks if we have any ibuprofen. I find some in my purse. She changes into a pair of tan slacks and a pretty lime green knit top. From a basket of donated jewelry, she takes a silver tone necklace with lime green beads on it and a matching pair of silver and lime green earrings. She finds an unexpected treasure in her new toiletry kit: A small sample size lipstick. She dabs a little on. Erica the homeless lady is now Erica, somebody’s grandma.
We circle up in prayer, then head back across the street to the bus station. Erica makes the journey across more easily this time, with ibuprofen in her system and a walker instead of another person to lean on. At the station we say our goodbyes to the ladies headed off to Amarillo and they get in line to move through security.
Meanwhile, one of our volunteers, Betty, has been working her cell phone. There is a lady who volunteers in the prison and has her own ministry to those coming out with no where to go. Erica had her cell phone number and Betty calls her. She starts working on finding Erica some housing. She will call us back. Meanwhile, we can take Erica to Sally’s House for the night, but she will have to leave first thing in the morning. Sally’s House is a women’s shelter run by the Salvation Army. It’s a good place. We pile in the car and head that direction. Erica sees police officers on bicycles and starts to reminisce. She and her brothers and sisters used to pull a wagon behind their Schwin and pretend it was a bus, stopping at each driveway in the neighborhood, which were the bus stops. “Those were really good times,” she says wistfully.
The call back comes. Our contact will pick Erica up first thing in the morning and get her into a longer term shelter until she can arrange permanent housing. We’ve worked with her before. We know her to be a reliable, caring, woman of God. Erica will be in good hands. We arrive at Sally’s House and ring the bell. A wonderful, sweet lady comes out and embraces us. We have met her before and she is familiar with our ministry. She thanks us for helping Erica find her way to shelter at Sally’s. We say our goodbyes and Erica says, “I can’t thank you all enough. You have been such a blessing to me.” We crawl back in the car to head home, knowing that we have received a far greater blessing from her. Kathie Gallagher