Castillo’s ‘teacher,’ sitting peacefully on an Oakland bench. (Janny Castillo)

This photo is of an elder who lives outside on a bench in front of a senior affordable housing building. She’s been known to sit on this bench all day, curling up in her blankets at night to sleep. She speaks to passersby and when her disease gets the best of her, she shouts out in anguish and pain, especially at night. She leaves for short periods of time. But most of the time, she is quietly living and watching the world from her bench. 

During the October storm when it rained for two straight days, my daughter became extra worried about her so she called the police in hopes that someone would come with an offer of shelter. The police came in the pouring rain, tapped her on the head and left. Days later, someone brought an umbrella, a tarp and a tent. The tent and the umbrella were stolen quickly, but last time I saw her, she had draped the tarp over the bench for protection. 

This beautiful elder is my teacher. 

In other parts of the world, she may be considered holy because of her ability to sit in the same place for so long. In other parts of the world, she may attract visitors who would sit at her feet, asking her to share the secrets of the universe like how should we treat each other. 

“This beautiful elder is my teacher. In other parts of the world, she may be considered holy because of her ability to sit in the same place for so long”

But in this part of the world, she is labeled a poor homeless woman, resistant to services because her illness and her experience won’t let her trust the system or trust the people the system sends to help her. In this part of the world, there is a good chance she may die where she lives; outside alone. 

In the age of cell phones, Netflix, and social media I am bombarded with brain noise. I can’t sit still for several minutes without pulling out my phone, jumping on email, checking text messages, and Facebook. I can be in the most beautiful of places and around those I love dearly, but instead, like many of us, I choose to be absorbed in a screen. 

My teacher makes me put my phone down, and take in the world around me, the trees, the butterfly, the bird in flight, and to consider the value of engaging with people: those I love, and those I have yet to meet. 

I may not be able to help my teacher out of homelessness, but I know that through my work at St. Mary’s Center she motivates me to help those I can.