'We are all homeless': An interview with Bishop Geralyn Wolf

February 20, 2003

Rhode Island bishop Geralyn Wolf spent the first month of this year as 'Aly,' a homeless woman, in shelters and soup kitchens across the northeast United States. She revealed her story in an article published in the Providence Journal in February, and spoke to Jan Nunley of Episcopal News Service.

ENS: When did you first decide to spend your sabbatical as a homeless person?

Bishop Geralyn Wolf: It wasn't a flash of lightning. It was a sense that in my rather privileged position I was losing touch with what I was yearning for, which was a sort of earthiness, people of passion and generosity.

And when I thought about experiences in life when I was in the company of people like that, I went back to St. Mary's [in Philadelphia] and the soup kitchen and realized that there was something that I found in the poor that struck my own poverty and brought me to some level of deeper freedom.

I had always wondered in the soup kitchen where many of the people came from who were homeless. So it weaved its way into my mind about a year ago, though it's something I had wanted to do long before that.

ENS: How did you go about setting it up?

Wolf: The first thing I did was decide I was going to let my hair grow. Because immediately I thought, if I'm going to do this I can't do it as the bishop of Rhode Island. I also had to think of where I wanted to do it. I was thinking of New York, but thought if my ministry is here, then it's best to be in the place where I can be most effective.

So around April [2002], Ann Nolan, the director of Travelers' Aid [in Providence] called to ask if I would be on the Travelers' Aid board. Initially I said I just couldn't do one more thing. So she invited me to come and talk with her and I liked her a lot and shared my idea of living as a homeless person. And we conversed many, many times after that. She brought into the mix Noreen Shawcross, director of the Coalition of the Homeless. I didn't meet with her very often but I met with Ann five, six times in the course of about eight months.

ENS: Had they ever done anything like this before?

Wolf: They hadn't. I think in the beginning [Ann] was trying to dissuade me, and she realized in about our second meeting that I was going to do this whether they were going to be supportive or not. I was only going to ask her for advice, I wasn't asking her to determine whether I should do this or not.

She and Noreen took me for lunch and said, if after two or three days you just don't want to continue, please don't feel badly. So I guess one or two people had tried this before but only lasted a couple of days. I felt relieved when they said that--just so that I could have a way out--but I couldn't imagine why it would be all that difficult.

We talked about issues of security and identity, identity cards. They didn't tell me anything about the staff or the clients. I assured them that I had worked with the population before and realized that--just like any other group of people--some would be wonderful, sensitive, funny; others would be angry, grumbling; some honest as they come and others always trying to beat the system.

ENS: So you made up a story.

Wolf: My story was that I had worked for the Diocese of Rhode Island for four months, and that with the job came a very small house, apartment--very small, just a couple of rooms. And the work I was doing was some maintenance, some secretarial, little bit of everything, and that when I took the job in August I knew it was going to end in December.

ENS: You went by the name 'Aly.' Where did you come up with that name?

Wolf: When I was trying to come up with an ID, the director of Travelers' Aid consulted with the editor of the [Providence Journal Bulletin], because part of the deal was that Travelers' Aid was going to help me if I helped them, and helping them meant allowing a photographer and a reporter to come and do a story, and I said sure, that'd be fine. We were talking about the ID with the editor. I was going to have a fake ID and he said no, you really need to use your own name. I thought that would be the kiss of death--so I kept looking at my name and I saw 'A-L-Y,' as three letters in it, and I thought 'that's the name.' Then I can always say, if anyone questions it, it's a nickname.

ENS: And you had ID made up…

Wolf: Yeah, I made it up myself. I needed a picture ID, and I decided that I could have gotten one from the state, but for some reason I thought maybe I'll just make my own. So I cut up our letterhead in different ways to make an ID card, took a picture of myself after my hair was dyed and put my lipstick on so that I had nice wide lips and put it all together, took it to Kinko's, laminated it, and that became my ID card. And it was fine.

ENS: Did anyone ever question it?

Wolf: A couple of times here and once in Philadelphia, and also in New York.

ENS: Did they call the diocesan offices?

Wolf: No, because most of the time it was at night.

ENS: Did anyone at the diocese know you were going to do this? Did friends know?

Wolf: I told my senior staff that I was going to do this, and the standing committee and the chancellor of the diocese, because if anything were to happen I didn't want them to be unprepared.

ENS: What was their reaction?

Wolf: Very supportive, and words of caution about safety and what I might find.

ENS: Did they manage to keep the secret?

Wolf: Yes, they did. A small group was working with me, and I told them and one other person. I didn't even tell my parents, because I didn't want them to worry. I didn't tell any of my Rhode Island friends.

ENS: But you saw some of them while you were homeless.

Wolf: I did. I saw a whole list of people, I just kept a list in the beginning of people that I saw who didn't see me. I saw two people at the mall, one of my priests was walking around the streets and I just sort of waved as I walked by.

People in churches didn't recognize me. I mean, if they did, they didn't say anything, and I haven't received a letter yet saying 'we saw you.'

ENS: What was your first day like?

Wolf: The first day I walked into Travelers' Aid--all I had to do was show an ID and sign my name, and I was able to walk into the community room. It was the day that the Patriots were playing Miami, so one of the guys had earplugs in, was listening to the radio and giving the play-by-play and sounded like Howard Cosell. He was really into it. People would interrupt him for all kinds of reasons, which agitated him, and it sort of made it a more interesting room to say the least.

I sat in a chair that was obviously used by somebody else, and when the person came back she said to me, 'That's my chair.' And Chris, the guy listening to the radio, said 'Don't worry about that'--I had already introduced myself--'Don't worry about that, Aly's my woman.' Which brought me into the group. I left the chair after a while, and we played 1000 rummy (instead of 500 rummy).

Eventually at about a quarter to five, everybody said 'come on, it's time to go.' I didn't even know where we were going. I said, 'Where would I be staying tonight?' And they said, 'Come on, we get the bus at 5:00 and we go off to'--I call it Welcome Willie in my book, it's really Welcome Arnold. 'When you get there, show your ID, register, they go through your pack, they'll give you a towel, you have to take a shower, and then they'll give you a sheet for your bed.'

So that's where I went, and sure enough, they assigned me to a bed in a room with 14 beds, blue plastic mattress tops, and I took my towel, took about a two-and-a-half minute shower because the water was cool. They gave me one sheet and I made up the bed, but I had a sleeping bag liner, so it really didn't matter to me--it was on sale at Job Lot. One sheet, one blanket, no pillow--so I always used my jacket as a pillow.

I traveled very lightly. [I had] the sleeping bag liner. I had about three pairs of socks, one change of long underwear, two changes of regular underwear, and some toiletries and that's it. Some have less, some have more. It's hard to say what's average, but you're only allowed to bring in one bag, so everything that you use you have to carry around with you all the time.

I thought a lot about 'take no purse, one coat…' because I really traveled lightly. In my pocket I had a journal that I kept, and I had a small Bible, real small, tiny print.

ENS: Did anyone comment on your reading your Bible or writing in your journal?

Wolf: They commented on writing in my journal. Somebody cracked the first day, 'Hey, we have a writer here!' So I wrote most of the journal in the ladies' room, on the bus, in places that I might go during the day like the mall.

ENS: Did people on the street talk about faith, about religion?

Wolf: Not very much. We did have lively discussions about religion, trying to figure out when Cain was cast out and met a whole bunch of people, where'd all those people come from? That was brought up several times.

There's a church that comes by to pick everybody up and take them to church, and I guess they have a meal afterwards, but the horrible thing is that they were escorted up to the balcony. When one of the women went downstairs, she said, 'everybody wrapped their arms around them just like they were holding on to their purses.'

I went to eat in another church. You had to listen to a half-hour sermon before it began, and the minister there was saying that God has chosen all the leaders of the world and that we are to honor them and so on. Man, my temperature was going up! The room was cold, but I was hot. And he said, 'Does anyone have any questions?' and I said, 'Excuse me, but how about Hitler?' And he said, 'Yes, even Hitler. After all, there's still some Jews who survived.'

I said to the woman next to me later, 'He's something.' She said, 'I don't talk, I just eat.' And the food was good, I have to admit--so good that people take the bus to get to this church, and have to sit through that kind of sermonizing. For a good meal, people will travel, and they really respect something more than a sandwich and canned soup.

ENS: Were there other times that stood out for you?

Wolf: There were only two times that I was really the least bit scared--not scared, but aware that the violence could magnify. That was the second or third day. I went to eat lunch at one of the places that serve lunch to the homeless. Two guys got into a fight. One guy walked over and carefully grasped a very large cup and said to the other one something like, 'stay away from my woman!' The other one says, 'I ain't with your woman!' And with that [the first one] smacked him across the face, breaking the cup and cutting the side of the man's face. Then he pushed him against a china closet, breaking the glass. Then a woman decided she was going to break it up, and people are telling her not to do that, and she got in the middle and one of them kicked her in the shins--my shins were killing me just watching it.

Tell you the truth, I finished my meal and walked out, and outside I tried to find out what happened to the guy. I went back the next day and the guy refused to go to the hospital. I wondered whether maybe he had a record or something.

ENS: The conventional wisdom is that the homeless are mentally ill. Did you find that to be the case?

Wolf: There were many reasons for people to be in the shelter. Mental illness was only one of them. Some of them actually were doing quite well on medication, as long as they took their meds. There were others who really needed additional help.

But there are many other reasons for people being in a shelter. Such as the family whose rent went up to the point where they couldn't afford to live there, so the landlord finally asked them to leave. The father in that family worked full time; the mother worked about two hours a day--she doesn't have the money to take the classes necessary to get a better position. But because his hourly wage is so low, they can't afford housing.

Many people have a job--part-time, some full-time job. But in order to rent an apartment here in Rhode Island, you have to pay security, last month's rent, and the first month's rent. And when you look at the apartments--I don't know what the average is now, it's like $900. I looked in the paper, out of 250 apartments to rent, 11 were between $550 and $600. There was a one bedroom in a house for $360, and a one bedroom in a house for $450. We're talking about $1800 the first month. People just don't have that.

Even with Section 8 housing, if they get on the list, they might have to wait a couple of years. Some of them have a real hard time finding an apartment that will allow children. Of course they can't say 'we don't allow children.' But when they realize people are looking for a two bedroom apartment because that's all they can afford even with Section 8, and they have three children, the landlord is apt to say 'no, I'm sorry, we don't have anything for the size of your family.'

Then there's a whole singles group. These are people, again, whose salaries are such that they just can't afford to rent an apartment. They really need to find apartments for around $300, they're making maybe $7 or $8 an hour, and a lot of them have to live by a bus because that's the only way they can get to work. In some parts of Rhode Island you have to take the bus that goes in to Providence before you can get the bus that goes out to where you're working, so the time for travel is high.

Then there are those, women especially, whose husbands have left them for one reason or another--where the marriage has broken up, usually over alcohol, gambling, drugs--and they have the children at home. Some of them that I met don't qualify for day care. So there's no way they can work, and the children are shuttled to the shelters every single night--two, three children, some extremely well-behaved. I mean, there's some who aren't, but…some of the families you meet are not the typical families you would expect to meet.

There are no color lines in the shelters in Providence. We should all be aware of making stereotypical judgments. There were those who were handicapped; we had two blind men who received SSI at $600 a month but that wouldn't support them with a home and food, so they lived in a shelter. There was a woman in a wheelchair, and another one who used to walk her all the time.

ENS: How did you react to seeing all this suffering close up?

Wolf: It's not like it was unexpected. I think my deep sadness came when I realized how fine some of these people were, many of them were, and that once you could get beyond some of the cursing and the sexual innuendoes and acting out, you realized that that's only group-talk, and group-act. If you can get beyond that you see people who really do have dreams and hopes, values, who are trying to make it, who have been put down many times, whose formal education maybe is limited.

So I realized the systemic problems. Who there is going to get a tax break? No one. How many people in the inner city are going to have access to really good schools? At one time we bused people because of race, but now I think the divide is more economic--it's a class divide. In the US we like to think that you can always pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But not everybody gets those bootstraps. Some don't even have the boots.

If education is based on local property tax, it means that the poor will always be divided from the wealthy, and then all of us suffer from poverty.

If you want an interview for a job, you need a bus pass to get there--you can't walk four and five miles for the interview. Even though some do. So you need a bus pass or ticket, and if you have no money, then you have to go to your social worker to get permission to receive a bus ticket. And even if you have the money, do you really want to spend $2.50 on transportation when you might only have $15 or $20 to last for a month? And how about doctor's appointments? You have to get to a doctor's appointment. Even being part of your own natural family--funerals, weddings--the clothes you might need… It's not easy.

Working 40 hours a week and not being able to afford an apartment says that not everybody, even if they have the bootstraps, is going to make it. Let's say you go to work at 7 a.m., and then get off at 3--some people say you can work overtime, but if you live in a shelter, it means that you're going to have to look for lunch. You have to plan ahead of time, how you're going to eat. If the bus for the shelter goes at 5:00, you can't work till 6. You're limited by the job you can have. There are all kinds of rules and regulations. If you want an address for a job, a lot of employers already know that 177 Union Street is Travelers' Aid. They don't write to you. And a phone number? There are no phone numbers. So when I applied for two jobs, do you think I heard back from them? No.

There are a whole cycle of considerations that work against what a lot of people would like to see happen.

ENS: You were on the streets during a bitter cold snap.

Wolf: The churches opened up--it was so nice to stay in the church; it was clean and the food was good. A lot of people didn't go to the regular shelters. I wound up sleeping on the floor because all the regular cots were taken. We were really overcrowded, but they were generous in opening up any spot for us to sleep in. In one place some people came in to play some wonderful music. It was like a little coffeehouse. So in the midst of all this cold there was the warmth of soup, and each other, and the music, and new surroundings, and so much cleanness. So churches were wonderful. And people honored the churches--quiet, respectful. As somebody said, 'no cussin', y'all, no cussin.' And there wasn't any cussing. People rose to the invitation and generosity.

ENS: You also visited churches for worship--Episcopal churches in particular. What did you experience there?

Wolf: Moments full of grace, and moments of deep disappointment. The graceful moments were when people actually welcomed me, asked if there was anything they could do, handed me a leaflet, invited me downstairs to coffee hour and refreshments or in some cases gave me some oranges and in another one a bag of nuts.

And then on the other side, there were those who were almost afraid to look at me.

I went to one church, they had breakfast for $3, and when I said I thought that was more than I could pay, I was reminded that it was $3 for a continental breakfast and $5 for the full breakfast. It was towards the end of the breakfast time, and so I said 'how about just some of that fruit--just a little bit.' I never received it, and that made me very sad. Part of me was wailing inside for the lack of hospitality. It was particularly difficult because it is a church I really love.

ENS: Are Episcopalians in truth 'the frozen chosen,' 'the right church for the right people,' as we've been called for so many years, and despite our efforts to shake that image?

Wolf: We're not frozen. But for some reason we choose to see whom we want to see. When you ask the question, 'When did we see you hungry?'--if you have to ask that question, probably you haven't gotten the message yet.

But the thing is, I join those who also don't look, who also are unaware of my neighbor, who close my wallet when I should open it. It's not that I'm immune from this; if anything, my eyes were opened because of the position of homelessness that I took. I like to think they were open before, but I think it's a lifetime journey into living into those passages of Scripture which hold the poor and those who mourn in such honor and esteem.

ENS: Some will say, 'but Bishop Wolf, you knew all along you had a home to go to.'

Wolf: And I say that right up front in the book I'm writing, and I also said that to the group on the day that I was to leave them: that I could never pretend to be homeless, because I have a house with heat and electricity and a bedroom. So I'm not trying to duplicate their experience, but to enter into it the best way that I can.

The other thing is that, at some level, we are all homeless, and I was tapping into my own homelessness. To touch those places is always to open the door to be fed and nurtured.

ENS: Will you miss being on the street?

Wolf: It was really hard the first day back; I thought, what am I going to do with myself today? The lively banter in the community room was so engaging. Sleeping with 14 people, and all of a sudden I was sleeping by myself. Being with so many people throughout a whole day, with opportunities to walk around the street.

I missed the raw, honest truth that defined so many of the relationships and conversations that I was privileged to be a part of. People grumble every place, and they grumbled there too, but it was better, nicer, easier to hear the grumbling directed at all kinds of agencies--instead of at me!

ENS: What will you do now when you pass someone who's homeless on the street?

Wolf: You have to use a lot of intuition. Some you just say hello to--not in a patronizing way. Others, they want money--give them some. They're going to use it on cigarettes first, because you can buy one cigarette for a quarter--that's a good cheap way to get a little enjoyment. Some will use it on booze, and some will use it on drugs--and a lot will use it on food, and a bus ticket…I warn people against making sweeping generalizations.

ENS: Is there anyone with whom you'd like to stay in contact?

Wolf: A lot of people. I think of one woman who made this beautiful Three Kings crochet, and she gave it to me--the gift of human hands that will become for me a constant sign of the generosity I received in this experience.

ENS: You said you'd made an agreement to help Travelers' Aid help the homeless. How are you going to do that?

Wolf: First of all, the article. The next step is to go to Honduras to learn about microlending or microcredit, under the auspices of Five Talents. Craig Cole, who's the director of that group, has been enormously helpful. I thought as I was in the community at Travelers' Aid that I should see if there aren't a couple here who would join me in that. And I'm working on a book.

I want people to realize that the poor really do have a gift to offer us. It is a wealth of wisdom, generosity and love, even in the midst of the vices that none of us are immune to.

Stories about Bishop Wolf's sabbatical are available from the archives of the Providence Journal at http://www.providencejournal.com/.


Author: Jennifer Levitz; Date: 02-02-2003; Section: NEWS; Page Number: A-01.

Bishop's month on the streets prompts questions, praise

Author: JENNIFER LEVITZ; Date: 02-16-2003; Section: LOCAL NEWS; Page Number: C-01.