Sue Graf tells us about the work her heart desires.
Sue pours her heart and soul into everyone she meets and we were lucky enough to be two of those people. She led us on a telling journey of her own works and kindness. “I ran the Hospitality House for two years and then in March 2020, it was closed down, but I couldn't stop seeing everyone. When you see people everyday for years, you can't just say ‘it’s not my job, see you later.’ Everything had shut down, all community meals, the daytime center, New Beginnings, and Sacred Grounds. All these places that served the homeless and their needs were closed.”
From that pivotal moment Sue started loading up her car. “I bought a ton of nonperishable food items and I said ‘I’m not going to let you go.’ We’re going to figure this out. Right now, I go out almost daily to different parks. I bring things like food, socks, and hygiene items. I walk through and check on everybody. I look to see if someone’s having a problem whether it's missing family members, a lost job, or a cold night. You have to take time to listen to people.”
Recently Sue took a woman to treatment. Sue recalled, “She's interested in the inpatient treatment for Teen Challenge, but she is afraid to go by herself. I don’t only serve the homeless. Some people that used to be homeless are currently struggling, especially those without work. They can go to Wafer to get their food, but it’s really hard to take two weeks worth of food on the bus. I am just helping individuals that need help. Some days it's really hard, but most days there’s joy, there's joy everyday. I just have to remember to focus on the positive side of things.”
Sue took time to remind us that at the end of the day we are all human and we all have our struggles: “I have to remember, every day, people will always disappoint you. I disappoint people and people disappoint me. Watching people fail with addiction is hard, especially now because resources are more limited. I talked to a guy the other day that overdosed and we had to bring him back with narcan. I asked him how someone could use something they say they don’t want to use. He says he doesn't want to die, but how can he use that again knowing that he did die? He said ‘It's not like I want to do it, I don’t want to get high. I get so sick and so depressed I just want to take the pain away.’ People are really struggling. I know that I do everything I can, but it doesn’t make it less hard. I just have to constantly remind myself that I can't fix everybody and I can't change anybody. I'm just there to love them and care for them as they are, just like Jesus does with us.”
Stories from Sue continued to draw us in close to her work. “There are very few choices for people who want to be treated for their addiction. Treatment facilities will say, ‘come back next Tuesday at 10 o’clock and we’ll look at some of the options and go over insurance.’ They don’t know if they have insurance or not and we begin to set up these hurdles. They get more despondent and they tend to give up. The other thing about appointments for people is that a lot of people that live on the street don’t know what day it is. One young lady, her daughter is in foster care, I told her: ‘I saw your sweet little girl turned five today.’ She said ‘No, no, her birthday isn't until August.’ I said, ‘It is August. It’s August 10th today, it's your daughter’s birthday.’ I always tell this young lady that she is the best mom in the whole world. Sometimes she starts crying and says ‘I suck as a mom, I don't even have my kids.’ I said ‘That’s why you're the best mom in the world. You aren't able to take care of yourself right now, but you want your kids taken care of… You have to plant that seed.”
Sue shared some of her hardest days with us and how her joys come in simple ways. “There was a guy that used to come to the hospitality house. He was a quiet guy and never caused any trouble. I would always go around and call everybody by name because that’s really important. When we ask how are you, some people say fine because they think that’s the answer you want to hear, but some people will pour their heart out. That takes time. That guy ended up committing suicide. I had seen him in the last days and didn't have a clue. It made me more aware of asking different questions and reaching out to the quiet people.”
When wondering her purpose in this life, it appears clear that Sue knows her calling on this earth. “I never expect thank you. I'm not doing this so someone says good job. I'm doing it because people need each other. I have my own childhood trauma. I was homeless as a kid for a while, living with my mentally ill mother, in the car with my brother. Everyday, I look into the face of the human beings that I’ve grown to love and say by the grace of God I’m serving and not on the needing end of this friendship. I’ll never forget that. It could be me, except that people poured into my life. We all come into the world the same and we all leave the same, it's the in between that we need to help each other. It’s what we are called to do.”
Sue knows the hardships that life on the street brings, the realities of how close we all are to the streets, and she reminded us that people need to be loved and kept warm in this looming winter season. “We have to build people up. You can go down to the park and say if you didn’t drink every day, you could do this or if you didn’t use drugs, you could do this, if you didn’t have six felonies, on your record, you could get housing. That’s all true and they know that they can’t change that. None of us can change anything we did before this moment. I think everybody deserves a second chance and a third and a fourth. No one should be punished for the rest of their life for one thing they did. I’m not talking about heinous crimes, but a series of little things. Give a person treatment, don't put them in jail. You have to learn to forgive each other. Give people more chances. Give people a place. That’s a huge pressing need right now.”
A long pause entered our interview and Sue grew rather quiet. When she spoke again, her voice was melancholy. “Winter is coming. There are no hot meals in the churches, the shelters have extreme limits, and Catholic Charities can only allow 15 people at night. I fear people are going to freeze outside. There's not enough space in the overnight shelter and there's no place to go during the day. That's going to take a huge toll on people. The number of overdoses are sky high right now in La Crosse and what I struggle with is that there are so many empty storefronts...there are so many options. I don't know what all the answers are, but there’s a lot of empty spaces downtown, just open the doors, clear the floor, serve coffee, they're not asking for a lot.”
Sue’s ultimate message was one that we all need to hear and possibly now more than ever. “Care about each other, reach out, and get to know somebody. People are neither good nor bad. Homeless people are not bad people. They are not bad, they are just doing what they think they need to do to survive. People don’t choose that, it's not what they choose. The longer they are homeless, the less they have the skills, if they even had them to begin with. If you grew up in an addictive chaotic home with a ton of trauma you have no idea how to even put your life on track. We can't just throw people into housing without assistance, We find out that doesn’t work, so we have to teach people.”
Artist’s Note: We need to take time to show love and listen to each other. We need to remember that winter is coming and the number of people who do not have a home becomes that much scarier. We need to plant a seed and foster that growth. Take time. Be present. Love.