… and The Rose Ladies
by: Stacie S. Gonzalez
Patricia Anne Holley (“Pat”), a single mom to three children, former caterer, and present day angel on Earth, met me at the door to her Colorado Springs residence one windy, late afternoon in October. She tugged a small respirator behind her and greeted me with a smile and a “Hello, c’mon in!” The wind presents a challenge for people like Pat who battle COPD, so it was a good day to stay indoors and chat.
At almost 80-years-old, Pat finds meaning in helping people who are experiencing homelessness. She and two other “Rose Ladies” use part of their Social Security income each month to make 30 one-gallon supply kits for people in need. On the last Thursday of every month, they set up a little “store” along West View Place in downtown Colorado Springs, between Marian House Soup Kitchen and Monument Creek. Within 30 minutes, the kits are gone. The demand and the need are that high.
Readers, please meet Pat Holley.
So, Pat, are you a native of Colorado?
No, I was born and raised in Oklahoma; I moved to Colorado Springs in 2012.
What brought you here?
My daughter. She was concerned about me living alone as I got older with my health problems; she is also a single mom. She had one boy who was already in college and her youngest one was getting ready to leave for college, so she would be an empty nester. It was good timing. I was ready to quit working and my only source of income would be Social Security which is hard to live on.
You mentioned working. What did you do in your professional life?
Oh gracious! So many things. I worked for a health food store, owned a catering business, and I was in the insurance business. I was also a customer service manager for a company that made implantable hearing devices. I did a lot of things. It was fun.
My understanding is that you advocate for people who are experiencing homelessness in Colorado Springs.
Not so much advocate; I’ve always had a concern for the homeless. Two years ago I read a Point in Time article talking about the different homeless. There had been so much talk about people coming here because of pot - that these weren't real Colorado people, but in that count they found that 61 percent of the homeless had at one time owned a home in Colorado Springs. So, not only were they not from other places, they were homeowners; and 75 percent of that 61 percent were veterans. That bothered me. These are people who sacrificed their lives for us and they're living on the streets. That's not right. Homelessness is a huge problem as you well know because there's no one reason that causes it. There are those who just don't want to work and there's not much you can do about that. There are those who have mental health problems. There are people who have had uninsured health expense bills and lost everything. There are people who are working and just not making enough to buy or rent; we don't have affordable housing around here. So it’s overwhelming to an individual who wants to help and wonders, “What can I do?”
There used to be a TV program called Hallmark Hall of Fame. One night they had a play that was all done in poetry form. A woman died and all the mourners were standing around her grave. Each one was taking a turn saying what they thought had caused her death. She had had a horrible life. But the last one to speak said, “I don’t think she died of thorns as everyone supposes. I think instead she must have died from a lack of roses.” I thought, “Okay. I can't fix the thorns as one person, but I can spread some roses.” So, I found some friends who were like-minded and wanted to help.
One day a month we go to the park by Marian House and give away goods that the homeless need. We have what we call a “kit”; it’s a gallon Ziploc bag. Every month it will have new socks and wet wipes because they don't have access to water. It will have a snack food pack with healthy snacks, and other products. It might be hygiene products. In November it will be warm caps and gloves.
We're doing this out of our own pockets. None of us is rich, so we can only do about 30 people at a time. We also hand out bottled water. Then, in the back of one of the cars, we have what's called ‘The Little Store’ and it'll have a mixture of things that have been donated or that we’ve bought. It might be hydrocortisone because a lot of them have eczema. It might be ACE bandages or foot powder. Anything people need who are living on the street. One thing we found there was a big need for was stamped envelopes. Their stuff gets thrown away, or torn up, or they need a new driver’s license or Social Security card… they have to write for those. Well, what do you do if you don't have money to buy a stamp or an envelope? So we always have stamped envelopes and they always go.
We always have nail polish. I mean you may be a woman living on the streets, but you still want to look good. That nail polish goes 90 to nothing! It just cracks me up.
Harbor Freight hates us. Oh my God, they hate us. They have all these coupons that are come-ons; they’re supposed to get you in to buy something big. We use the coupons to buy big packs of batteries for $1.99. There's like 40-some odd batteries in there. Then if you buy the batteries, you get a free flash light! I've got more coupons for tarps and people who are homeless love tarps because they build lean-tos and whatever else with them. We’ll get more free flashlights. We're not buying the big things Harbor Freight is hoping we will buy with the coupons; we're getting our stuff for the homeless.
We also always take women's hygiene products: Kotex and other things they don't have access to. We ask each month: “Is there anything you need?” I'm always surprised at what they say. One time they said, “Q-Tips. Could we get Q-Tips?” Sure, we can bring you Q-Tips. That's not a problem. “Kleenex. Can we get Kleenex?” Yes, just let us know what you need and next time we'll bring that. They know that we come the last Thursday of the month. We pick Thursday because that's when the free veterinarian comes. We also take pet food. People experiencing homelessness will feed their animals before they feed themselves.
We get a lot of hugs and a lot of “God bless yous.” I had cataract surgery, and I put gauze pads over my eyes because there was no way I would say, “Don't touch me you’re too dirty.” I didn’t want an eye infection either. [Laughter]
So let's talk about that. Have you ever feared catching a disease?
Catch a disease by touching a homeless person or giving them a hug? No, no, no, and I've been doing this for over a year. I've yet to catch anything from a homeless person other than goodwill.
Does your group have a name?
Yes, we call ourselves “The Rose Ladies” because of that play.
What time do The Rose Ladies set up on Thursdays?
At 11:00 a.m. We're cleaned out in 30 minutes.
Are you accepting donations from the community?
Yes, yes, yes.
How would they go about making a donation?
Logistically the best way would be to email me because we collect everything at my house.
Right now we have enough warm hats and gloves to do 30 kits. We also have enough scarves, but I will not put those in the kits. We will put them up on a table in a big box because the homeless never get to choose anything and I think it would be fun if they could choose their own color and style that appeals to them.
Have you ever had a problem with the police? How do they view your operation?
Not in this context, no.
Oh! I learned one thing. Often the homeless request hand sanitizer. The first time we took it it went like wildfire. One lady who had gotten it from the store was standing near me. I said, “Boy, that's a popular item,” and she said, “Oh yeah, you put a little in a can and light it and you can cook over it.” I thought, “God! You will burn down the woods somewhere.” I don't know that we want that liability.
I had no idea.
We always take pet bowls to our Thursday distribution because they need something to feed their pets from. We always take dry dog food and sometimes canned dog food, but if we take canned dog food, it has to be pull-top. We tape a plastic spoon to the can so they can get it out to feed the dog. We always take cat food. If it’s Meow Mix, you just lift the lid and they can eat out of the dish. We also take dry cat food, and little cat food bowls. The bowls always go. So, whether they're getting it for water or food for their pets, they need the bowls; they need the food; and they need the vet care. Most of them know that the free vet is there every Thursday.
As you were talking, the fact that before you gave away your $5.00, you asked the person you were giving it to if it would offend him, struck me.
We try to treat everybody with dignity because everybody deserves that. We've not had any problems. When I first started doing this my daughter was like, “You're gonna get killed or something terrible's gonna happen to you!” No, it's not. There’s police at the Marian House and I don’t think anyone would let anything happen to us. I've felt no sense of danger. We do sometimes get people you can tell have mental problems and we would never confront them. It’s common sense not to do that. But, as far as being frightened of being around homeless people, no, they're not at all menacing. They're not at all scary. They don't want to hurt anybody. They just want to live their lives.
Every month I handwrite a note on a 3x5 card--a different message every time--and put it in the kits. It's always something uplifting. I get hand cramps bad and 30 cards is a lot to write. Sometimes I think, “I wonder if they even read these? Do they just throw them away?” Two months ago a very young woman who'd taken a kit with socks in it came back and said, “Can I give you a hug?” I replied, “Well, of course, I would love to have a hug.” She said, “I just have to thank you for that note. I needed to hear that today.” So I write them! [Laughter] If it helps, I can do that. That’s not a problem.
I'm sure it's hard to get up every day when you’re homeless. One man came to us on a bicycle and he said, “Okay, I don't know how to do this. I just became homeless.” I said, “Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.” He said, “Well, I'm not used to it.” I said, “Well, maybe you'll get used to it.” He said, “I don't want to.” I replied, “Good for you.”
Homelessness is hard to get out of if you don’t have a place to live, a way to clean yourself up, somewhere to receive mail and to take a phone call. It makes it hard to get a job, and you can't get a place to live without income which means you gotta have a job. It’s just an endless vicious cycle.
Sometimes we will get someone who just got a job and they are so excited to shop at the little store. They’ll say, “I just got a job and I need to get this and this and this. I need toothpaste, a toothbrush.”
One day I didn't know whether to be excited or sad. A young man came up and said he'd been living in Denver and services there are so spread out he couldn’t access them. He said he couldn't find a job and everybody told him it was better in Colorado Springs. “So I walked down here,” he said, “and my first day here I find you guys!” I thought about the fact that we were the height of somebody's day. That’s heartbreaking.
When it comes to the homelessness crisis in our city, do you find that more people want to help or that more people are just bothered by it?
I don't go around asking people to help. I tell people about it and hope they'll offer to help. Every once in a while, and it's been rare, I get somebody who says, “You’re enabling the homeless. If you wouldn't do that they’d have to get a job, but as long as they can filter off of you they won't want to work.” I'm sure that's true of some of them and we don't stand there and say, “Prove to us you're needy.” My thought is that if you show up at a feeding place and you want handouts, you probably need them.
Lord have mercy, this is something I have got to do. I can't see this and say, “Oh well, not my problem. It IS my problem. It's everybody's problem.
I'm struck by your generosity. I can also see that you have a health condition that makes it difficult to get around. Would you talk about your sense of empathy and concern? How did it develop? What do you attribute it to?
Seeing the homeless on the street. Sometimes you see a homeless person with a walker. Sometimes you'll see them with legs so swollen it’s difficult to know how they're walking. You see people that look old--their skin and their hair-- but when you talk to them you realize they're not, it's just the life they’ve had to live.
I wake up every morning with a roof over my head and a soft bed; with clothes on my body and more in the closet; and food in my fridge; and people living with me who love me and care about me and friends who check on me all the time and are will help any time they need to. I am so far ahead of some people I meet that it's unbelievable. All my life I've volunteered. If you can help somebody who's not got it as good as you do, you do it. I'm not a rich person, but the homeless have less than I do. If you can help them, why not? Why should you not do it? It makes little sense not to. If we all helped one another, we would be in a lot better shape than we are. [Pat points to a large white button on her chest.] This is my button: Be Kind.
I love it.
I have to tell you about this. Three or four months ago there was a section on the news where three young black men were eating in a barbecue restaurant in Alabama. One of them noticed an elderly white woman eating by herself. He said it made him sad when he saw old people eating alone because it meant they had nobody. So he got up, left his friends, and asked if he could join her. She was an elderly woman in the South; she could have been very rude, but she said, “Sit down.” So, he sat down. They started talking and soon his friends joined them. And I think they found out they had more in common than they did differences. Now they've become great friends and whenever she wants to go out to dinner, she just calls them and they meet her wherever she wants to go so she doesn't have to eat alone. Well, they interviewed him and asked, “Why did you do this? You didn't know her. She could have been abusive.” He said, “The world is so full of hate and anger right now; to change it, you don't have to be rich and famous. You don’t have to be powerful. You just have to be kind.” I thought: I want a button that says that. So, I went on the internet and found the Speedy Button Company. I had a hundred of “Be Kind” buttons made and I hand them out to people. I’ll give you one before you go.
I would love one!
I wear mine every day, everywhere, just to remind people to be kind to one another.
Did you have an upbringing that also reinforced volunteerism?
Not really. I was an only child. My dad was a radio and television announcer; my mom stayed home up to a certain age and then she decided all she was doing was running carpool and all the other mothers weren’t so she got a job and went to work doing that. It was a nice family and a nice neighborhood, but I don't remember my parents ever volunteering anywhere. I just remember seeing people that needed help and having an urge to help.
This is a very personal question. When you are giving things to people in need, do you ever feel a sense of shame?
I know what you’re saying. No, I've never been ashamed or embarrassed by what I have because I've worked hard to be where I am. I may not have much but I worked hard to get it. All my life I’ve worked at least two jobs, sometimes three at a time because I divorced when I was young, I had to raise three kids, and I had one semester of college. I worked secretarial and low-paying jobs on the weekend and at night. I worked hard to get what I've got. No, I don't feel guilty about it.
How has helping people who are experiencing homelessness changed you, if at all?
I will have to say this: I look forward to shopping and getting things I think they want and need. I look forward to the day that we distribute the kits. That's a high point in my life for me. There's not a lot I can do anymore that I used to, but being able to go out and be with the homeless, treat them with dignity, visit with them, and pass out things is very meaningful for me. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I am contributing. I don't think anyone ever wants to be considered useless. We all want to have some value in the world.
Is there also an element of building a connection with another human being that comes into play?
We don't get to be with them that long. I wish we did. Occasionally we’ll hear stories from them. We had a guy we used to see often and you could identify him because he had one of those metal legs shaped like an “S”. The last time I saw him I said, “How are you doing?” He replied, “I'm dying.” That’s hard to respond to other than to say, “I'm so sorry.” I asked him what he was doing now, and he said, “I'm trying to get home to see my family before I die.” I haven’t seen him since so I don't know if he did or didn't die, but normally we don't get a lot of time to talk with them.
One day a lady came up to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you how happy I was that you guys were here today. I was in a dangerously abusive relationship and I had to leave in the middle of the night while I could get out. I left with nothing. I came here today with nothing. No toothbrush. No deodorant. You helped me get the things I needed, and I just want to thank you.”
I wish I had enough money or supplies to serve 50 or 60 people every month, but we don't have it. If we could get a lot of donations, then that would be wonderful because then we could increase the number of people we serve.
How would you talk to a child about homelessness?
It would depend a lot on the age of the child, but I wouldn't be afraid to talk to a child about homelessness. I would not put it in too graphic of terms for a young child because young children always have the fear that whatever you’re talking about will happen to them. You need to let them know there are some people in the world who have had bad luck and bad fortune, have lost what they had and must start over, and that they might have to live in a box or in their car, or they might have to sleep on a park bench for a while, but they will work at having their own place again, and if we can, we need to help them. I don't think I'd get too deep into it with a child.
Do you eat food that's past its expiration date if it smells and looks fine?
[Laughter.] Actually, from my volunteer time at Care and Share, I know how far past expiration dates you can go on most foods. You can't go past the date with acidic things like tomatoes, pineapple, and things like that that will eat the inside of the can, but with other things you can go six months to a year past the date.
So, is that a yes?
What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about the homeless?
That they're scary; that they're threatening. They may have had an experience with someone with mental health problems that yelled at them or did something frightening. I know they gripe about them sitting on the planters downtown, but where the hell are they supposed to sit? I mean everybody gets to sit down once in a while.
“Do they urinate in public?” Yeah, they do, because they don’t have a bathroom. Everybody's got to pee; give them some place to go and then they won't urinate in public. I think people are too quick to draw conclusions based on how inconvenient the homeless are to them.
What do you think about when you hear the word ‘neighbor’ or ‘friend?’
Our homeless neighbors are our friends.
So ‘neighbor’ and ‘friend’ are the same?
No, not the same, because ‘friend’ implies somebody that you know. But we still refer to the homeless as our homeless friends or our homeless neighbors. Never just “the homeless.”
Why is that?
That depersonalizes it to just say “the homeless.” It’s like saying “the wheelchair-bound” or “the Downs Syndrome people.” Those are individuals. Each one of these people is an individual. They're all different. They're not all the same. They all have different needs and different wants and we should treat them independently and respectfully.
What are you most proud of in life so far?
My three children.
What do you like to do? What are your interests? Do you have a special skill or talent?
Oh, no talent! I love Community Theatre. I enjoy supporting small community theater like the Springs Ensemble Theater and Funky Little Theatre. I used to usher at the Fine Arts Center and I enjoyed that a lot because I could stay and see the play, but those are a little out of my budget now. Now that I can't usher anymore I don't go there as much. The Millibo is another one. Those little intimate theaters are nice. I enjoy them.
What would the box with all your hopes and dreams inside look like?
Peace. Love. Hope. Smiles, lots of smiles.
If you could airdrop anything you want worth two million dollars or less anywhere you want, what would you airdrop and where would you drop it?
Now you're getting to my dream part! I enter the Publishers Clearing House regularly. Every time I enter that contest I re-do the list of how I will spend it when I win it.
Hmm, that’s a hard question. I would have to say I would airdrop cash to an attorney's office that could set up a foundation for me where people could go to apply for grants for whatever they needed.
I wish we had more affordable housing even if it's not free. I found out on my own just trying to look for senior housing that there is little affordable housing in this town! Some places will be listed as affordable and I’ll call and they’ll say, “Oh, we’re very reasonable. For a one-bedroom it starts at just $1,200 a month.” That's wonderful, but my check is only $1,300 a month. What does that leave me to live on? One bedroom and they consider that affordable. That's not affordable for most people.
Also, the homeless don't have a mailing address which makes it hard when they need to order a driver's license, birth certificates, register to vote, anything like that. You've got to have a mailing address. Westside Cares acts as a mailing address for 300 homeless people but we've got 1,500 homeless people in Colorado Springs. I don’t know if the City can set something up like that or not, but the homeless each need a mailing address.
Lately I've been talking to people experiencing homelessness and have found that quite a few of them are artistic. Have you noticed that as well?
Yes! This summer, when we got nice weather, we took a box of toys with us to our distribution--and I'm not talking dolls and airplanes. We took sidewalk chalk, bubbles, things you could throw for a dog to chase, stuff like that, because everybody ought to play and they've got that big park there. Anyway, that sidewalk chalk was a big seller!
Is there anything else we haven't talked about that you would like to discuss?
I just want to tell people not to be afraid of the homeless. When people won't look them in the eye when they walk past and, instead, look the other way, it’s demeaning.
What do you think that’s about?
I've no idea. I don't know. I think it's “If I look at you, you might ask me for something.”
I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s embarrassment, or they’re afraid of being asked for handout – I don’t know. But that makes people feel like less than a person. We need to build each other up, not tear each other down.
Do you distribute kits when the weather turns bad? Do you still go out?
Oh, yes. We just bundle up real good; we’re only out there 30 minutes. I mean, they're in the cold all the time; I can stand the cold for 30 minutes.
How many ladies make up your group?
Just four of us, but one doesn't go because she is in chemo. So it's the three of us that go.
Are you looking for specific donations or for additional volunteers?
Volunteers would be good. We’d have to show them what to do, but that can be done. It’s not that hard. And as far as specific things, we never give away anything they can ingest because we don't want that liability. But bandages, cream salves, foot powders, anything like that. I always tell people: “Imagine you just woke up. You've got nothing. What are you going to go for first? Is it your toothbrush?” We thought about taking coffee one winter but coffee is not cheap.
If you’d like to volunteer or make a kit donation, please contact Pat Holley at email@example.com.