Winter nights in the city were some of the coldest. The blistering cold winds stung her unexposed skin and the freezing rain was like a sharp slap in the face.
Charlotte pulled her jacket closer to her small frame to guard herself against the night air. She then removed a blanket from the red Target shopping cart and wrapped it around the bundle in her arms. No sounds came from the small bundle save for the sounds of a sleeping infant. When Charlotte was sure that the baby was all wrapped up tight, she placed the baby in the shopping cart and started pushing it.
Her feet felt numb in her worn black sneakers as she moved past darkened store windows. The shoes had worn out long ago but, with no money to buy new ones, she had to improvise with duct tape, cardboard, and extra socks from the dollar store. She stopped to adjust her socks and then resumed pushing the cart, careful to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk so as not to disturb her baby.
She paused at a stoplight, watching the cars go past. A wave of bitterness swept over her briefly; she envied those people who were driving home from their well paid jobs to their nice warm homes with food and family. They had everything they could possibly need but she had nothing. When the light turned green, Charlotte quickly glanced both ways and then hurriedly crossed the street. Even with the green pedestrian signal flashing, drivers in San Francisco acted like they owned the street.
The basket hit a small pothole and rattled violently but the baby inside slept on. Charlotte smiled as she thought, That girl can sleep through anything.
When she reached the other side of the street, she turned the corner and came to a small bus stop. The seat was broken and the bus schedule posted on the wall was ripped in half. The only thing left intact was the rusted metal pole with an octagonal blue sign with the bus company name and phone number. Charlotte pulled out her silver flip phone and punched in the number.
Tapping her foot impatiently as she waited for an operator, Charlotte found herself humming along with the annoying classical music. It played for about five minutes and then she was finally connected to an operator.
“Hello, my name is Tammy. How may I help you?”
“Um hello. When will the next bus arrive at 54th and Mulberry Street. Near Target.”
“Let me check.” Charlotte heard clicking noises in the background, like someone was typing on a keyboard. The cheesy classical music began playing again and Charlotte hummed along with it again as she stroked her daughter’s cheek. Tammy returned and with the same pleasant voice said, “Okay, the next bus arrives at 6:30 A.M.”
Suppressing a groan, Charlotte asked the question she already knew the answer to. “Are there any other buses that come earlier than that?”
“No, I’m sorry miss, that’s the only one. Is there anything else that I can assist you with?”
“No, that’s all right. Thank you. Good night.”
“You’re welcome and good night, miss.” With that, Tammy hung up.
A lump began forming in Charlotte’s throat which she tried to swallow. She squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them, hot tears flowed down her face. Without a bus, she would be stuck at the bus stop for the night. She would have to stay up for an entire night to ensure that no one would harm or take her daughter. And what happened if she accidentally fell asleep? She had already been up for three nights and was barely awake now. A shudder ran up her spine at the thought.
Charlotte dried her eyes and raked her hand through her thick black curly hair in frustration and exhaustion. She was about to close her phone and stick it back into her pocket but stopped. Without realizing it, she had pressed the speed dial button and looked at the top two names on the list. No, they would just shut the door in her face. They didn’t want to see her. Not after all this time.
With a sigh, she closed the phone and shoved it into her pocket. Then she glanced down at her baby girl and reached out to stroke her soft hair. “Don’t worry, Rose. I’ll find us a place to stay.”
And just like that, it came to her. There was a flyer sticking out of the broken seat as if it had been shoved there hastily. It was a flyer for a homeless shelter that accepted women and children. Moreover, it was located on 52nd and Main Street, just a few blocks from the bus stop.
Invigorated with a new purpose, Charlotte bounced up from the seat and after ensuring that Rose was tucked in tightly in the shopping cart, she began making her way to the homeless shelter. Her body was oblivious to the cold as she walked at a fast pace. She only stopped once at a red light, tapping her foot impatiently until the little green figure appeared.
It took her less than ten minutes to reach the Sacred Hearts Homeless Shelter. It was a large gray building with peeling paint and high arching windows. A warm yellow glow came from one of the windows and Charlotte could just hear the sounds of soft voices and laughter.
They would be safe and comfortable here. In her mind, she saw herself and Rose being able to take a warm shower, eating a good meal for the first time in weeks, and sleep in an actual bed. No more sleeping on park benches and inside train station bathrooms. Smiling, Charlotte removed Rose, still wrapped in her bundle of blankets, from the shopping cart and made her way to the entrance. There was a short line in front of the shelter and it took Charlotte a few minutes, but she was finally next in line. She almost bounded up to the woman at the door, who was petite with short brown hair.
“I’ve only got my daughter and I’ve got all my information and-“
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any more room. We just let in the last person that we could accomodate for the night.” There was a look of regret on her face as she played with her hands nervously.
“You have to have room. It’s just me and my daughter Rose. Please,” Charlotte pleaded. She felt hot tears stinging her eyes as they once again threatened to spill onto her face.
“But there is another shelter, a couple of blocks from here. It’s on 56th and Crane Street. Do you know where that is?”
Charlotte could only nod her head; she was too overcome with emotion to speak.
“They might have room. You should try that shelter for you and your daughter. They’ll be able to help you.” The woman reached out and gave Charlotte’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“Okay, thank you so much,” Charlotte managed to choke out.
“Good luck. Be safe.” With that, the woman smiled, turned around, and closed the door to the shelter.
Charlotte decided to abandon the shopping cart and carry Rose with the bundle of blankets. The cart was too much work to push down the street; her arms were too numb from the cold. After making sure that Rose was comfortable in her arms, she made her way to the second shelter.
Glancing up at the clouds as she walked, she noticed how much darker they looked. The storm would come soon and that meant she had to get the both of them into a warm place before the rain started.
It took her less time to get to the next shelter but unfortunately she was met with the same answer. The shelter was too full to accommodate one more person, let alone two. They then gave her directions to another shelter a few blocks away.
That was how it went on for the next three shelters. All full to capacity. The more Charlotte was turned away, the angrier and more frustrated she became. She snapped at each of the shelter organizers even though they were polite. Her frustration mainly stemmed from the fact that she couldn’t provide for her daughter. That was the job of a mother; to provide for her child and she was failing at that.
Her arms were starting to feel increasingly sore from carrying Rose but that was the least of her problems. It was getting colder and she was concerned that her daughter would catch a cold. Although Rose had continued to sleep soundly, her face was slightly tinged with pink from the cold wind. Charlotte’s feet ached, a deep throbbing ache as she came to the final shelter.
There had to be room at this shelter. She looked up the side of the brown building and saw a wooden cross attached to the roof. The words “St. Ignacio’s Catholic Shelter: We help every soul.” A feeling of relief washed over her as she walked to the door. There was no way they would deny her and Rose shelter. The sign was proof of that.
Her sore feet protested in pain as she ran to the door. An old man stood at the door; he had wisps of white hair and donned a black robe that had a white cross in the middle He greeted each person as they went in the door, making a sign of a cross on their foreheads and blessing them.
Charlotte finally made it to the door and the man smiled at her. A newfound hope rose within her but died with the man’s next words.
“Bless you, my child. And may your daughter be blessed too. I’m sorry but we are all out of room. We cannot accommodate anymore.”
Feeling as if the bottom had just dropped out of her stomach, Charlotte resisted the urge to cry. She held back the tears that stung at her eyes but a few managed to escape and make a path down her face.
This had been her last hope; there were no more shelters in this area that she could go to. Please, I’ve got to find someplace to stay. My daughter-” At this point, Charlotte thrust Rose toward the old man-“It’s cold out here for her and she could get sick.”
The old man glanced down at Rose with a look of compassion and after patting her head affectionately, he looked back up at Charlotte. “I’m sorry once again my child, there is no room here. But there are other options for you. I don’t know what those are but I have a feeling that you do. None of us are left without hope.”
Charlotte felt anger replace her hopelessness and it burst out of her. “No, I don’t have any other options! This was my last damn option! There is nowhere else for us to go. You were supposed to help me! Your sign said so. I have no one else to help me.”
The old man opened his mouth to say something but Charlotte didn’t want to hear him spout some Scripture about hope not being lost. Turning away from the shelter, she began walking, not sure of where she was going but knowing that she needed to get somewhere. It was important that she get Rose to a place where it was warm and where there was food. The meager amount of food in her coat pockets would only last so long.
Passing an alley that was littered with trash, Charlotte glanced down it, hoping that she and Rose could hunker down in a corner. They could find a place to sleep amongst the brown cardboard boxes and the old, rusted trash cans. That thought was pushed out of her mind the next second when she saw the half-conscious druggies and prostitutes.
In her mind, Charlotte ran through a list of places that she and Rose had slept at in the past three months. There was a park on Costa Avenue, the gas station bathroom on Lowell Street, and the boarded up jewelry store next to Target. But the park had been overrun with homeless people, the gas station bathroom had been set on fire, and the abandoned jewelry store had been put under surveillance when a store owner called the cops about homeless people sleeping in the abandoned store.
She finally collapsed at a bus stop, still holding Rose in her numb arms. Rose still slept soundly, her breaths causing her tiny chest to move up and down. Charlotte brushed her daughter’s curly black hair away from her face and smiled. Then tears began to flow down her face and a small sob escaped her mouth. This time she didn’t suppress the sob as it shook her whole body. She was so alone, so desperate. How had she gotten to this point? What could she do now? There was no way that she could sit at this dirty, rundown bus stop and await morning. The storm would roll in soon.
Even as she thought that, a light mist began to come down. Charlotte hurriedly pulled the blankets tighter around Rose but some of the mist hit her face. The baby stirred fitfully, her tiny hands trying to wipe the mist off. Charlotte used the sleeve of her jacket and gently wiped it off.
Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She hated to do this, but she had to for Rose. She hit the speed dial button and pressed the green button. It took only two rings until the person on the other end picked up.
“Hello”, Charlotte almost whispered into the phone. “Hello. It’s Charlotte. I need you.”
Charlotte sat at the bus stop, trying to avoid the heavy downpour when she saw a black Escalade pull up. It stopped on the other side of the street and two people stepped out. They looked around until they spotted Charlotte and raced over to where she stood.
Time seemed to stand still as Charlotte came face to face with her parents. They stood under a wide black umbrella and stared at her, not saying anything. Then Charlotte’s father reached out for the baby and Charlotte reluctantly handed Rose to him. He took the baby to the car and placed her in a car seat. With tears in her eyes, Charlotte’s mother embraced her tightly and Charlotte began to sob again. Her mother made soothing sounds as she held her tightly. “I’m sorry honey. But it’s alright now. We’ll take you both home.”
Charlotte allowed herself to be led to the car and buckled in the back seat next to her daughter. As they drove away from the bus stop, she began to drift off to sleep. For the first time in the past three months, she felt safe.