Also published on The Huffington Post.
I never knew when Mama Lee was born and I don’t remember the exact day in 1995 when she died, but I knew and loved Mama Lee during the ten years she was a homeless Vietnam veteran living on the streets of Santa Monica, California. Born in Texas, Mama Lee was a full-blooded Comanche Indian whose married name was Yvonne Starsky. Yvonne served as a military nurse in Vietnam during the 1960s when our government claimed that we had no women in combat’s way.
It was near the end of her second tour of duty in Vietnam when Yvonne stepped on a “bouncing Betty,” a small landmine that was meant to maim, not to kill. Indeed, the bomb destroyed the inside of both of Yvonne’s legs. Upon her return to the States, Yvonne took “Mama Lee” as her street name and used vodka as her pain medication.
Her use of vodka as a painkiller caused Mama Lee not to be acceptable as a resident of any homeless shelter. So, for ten years, Mama Lee spent many days sitting on a bench in front of Santa Monica City Hall and slept in the doorway of the Santa Monica Culinary Union, then at the corner of Fifth and Colorado, in Santa Monica, California. During the harshest weather, the police would occasionally take Mama Lee to jail for public drunkenness in an effort to protect her health.
It was only during the last two months of Mama Lee’s life that she was permitted to reside in a homeless shelter. After Mama Lee learned that she needed a heart operation and she was able to secure a doctor’s prescription for vodka as her pain medicine, the homeless shelter agreed to house her. Unfortunately, Mama Lee died in the homeless shelter before she was able to have her heart operation.
Mama Lee shared the little resources she had with the homeless people she knew. Recognizing the common bonds among all people, Mama Lee said that the worst treatment a homeless person could receive is to be ignored by people walking by. She spoke with love and about love to everyone who took the time to speak to her. Everyone, housed and unhoused, who knew Mama Lee, cared for her.
Well, perhaps not everyone loved her. One night as she slept in the doorway of the Culinary Union, Mama Lee was robbed. Upon learning the identity of the robber, Mama Lee said that he needn’t have robbed her because she would have given him the money if he had asked. I know that to be true.
Although her money was never returned, the robber did eventually apologize to Mama Lee. For her part, Mama Lee did not hold a grudge against her robber. The news of her robbery spread among homeless and housed people. Mama Lee was never robbed again.
Mama Lee, frail and short, appeared under 5 feet tall as she hunched over her ever-present walker. Because of her diminutive stature, she had to look up to most of the people to whom she spoke. To me, Mama Lee towered over all.
Despite the constant need and subsequent use of her pain killer, vodka, Mama Lee was acutely aware of her life as a homeless person. She knew that she was homeless and she never complained about being homeless. In fact, Mama Lee often consoled other homeless people when they were sad and depressed about their condition.
This was the life of a woman I respected and loved. My homeless friend, Vietnam veteran, Mama Lee.
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