Posing as a Bag Lady, Housewife Beulah Lund Finds Fear and Love in the Homeless Netherworld

updated 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Beulah Lund was sightseeing in the nation's capital on a hot day last summer, when she witnessed a fragmentary scene that profoundly changed her life. A tourist from Deer Park, Wash., she was standing outside the National Air and Space Museum when she saw a bedraggled bag lady being hustled away by a security guard. "She looked like she was having heatstroke," Lund recalls. Beulah Lund, a cheerful housewife, could not know that an extraordinary passage of her own life lay ahead; she was to come to know the bag lady as a friend and share for seven grim weeks her life as a homeless urban castaway.

Until that moment in Washington, Lund, 50, admits she always thought that most of the homeless "wanted to be where they were. I wanted to believe that." For several months after returning to her spacious farmhouse, set on 171 acres 22 miles north of Spokane, Lund was haunted by the image of hundreds of blank-eyed figures shuffling through dreary city streets or huddled in doorways, trying to sleep. She finally told David, her husband of 32 years, and their four grown daughters that she had decided to join the homeless "to see for myself" who they really were. "I just wanted to tiptoe into this type of life," she explains. "It was just to quench this horrible need in myself."

David, 51, a successful building contractor, balked, but his wife was adamant. "I was really naive," Beulah Lund now says. "I had gone from Mom's arms to his arms. I can rattle off the recipe for whole wheat bread, but out in the real world I'm really stupid." In a journal she kept of her odyssey—"just my letters to me, my heartbeat"—she muses: "Am I a Menopause Minnie operating with a brick short of a load, or out of an empty nest syndrome?"

After agreeing to call David every day, Beulah packed some thrift-shop clothes and left Seattle Sept. 21 on a plane bound for Washington, D.C. "That's where the homeless situation is the worst I've seen," she notes, "and that's where our human rights are upheld." A newspaper had carried a story on Lund's plan, and when she checked into a Washington hotel she was contacted by Mitch Snyder, who works in a shelter for the homeless near the Capitol. (Snyder was played by Martin Sheen in Samaritan, a recent TV film about the homeless.) Next day, one of Snyder's associates, Carol Fennelly, gave Lund a "crash course in street survival," pointing out shelters and soup kitchens, cautioning her on the dangers of high-crime areas.

Early the following morning, Lund—now transformed by stringy, uncombed hair, layers of shabby clothes and a pair of high-top sneakers—was ready to go out on her own. "Carol told me to go for it and pulled away," recalls Lund. "As I stood and watched the car go out of sight, I suddenly felt very alone." Having severed that last link to a normal life, Beulah's ordeal set in with strange immediacy. It was a hot, humid day, and she was unable to find the shelter where she planned to stay for the next few nights. She trudged through the streets for six hours, becoming so tired and thirsty that "I almost punched out a service station attendant for not telling me where I could get a drink of water." As the sky grew dark, she became scared. "I haven't felt like that," she says, "since I was a kid shopping with my mom and she went around the dress rack and I thought was gone forever."

Stumbling, close to tears, Lund heard a voice saying, "Come on, honey, just come on up." She had reached the shelter, and for the next nine nights it would be a refuge of sorts.

Nothing had prepared her for the shelter's assault on her senses. "People soiled themselves a lot and smelled real bad," she explains. "I tried to breathe through my mouth but I could taste it." During the first few days she was appalled by what she saw—"the yelling, the vulgarities, the fighting. It was right after the first of the month and some of them had gotten checks and spent them on drugs. I was thinking, 'I pay my taxes, but not for this.' One of them was shooting up and these drunks were coming in and getting into knife fights, and I couldn't handle it. I felt they deserved this atmosphere and I didn't."

For years Lund and her husband had opened their home to all types of foster kids, but her attitudes about accepting others, she discovered, were about to change. "I found out I really didn't have a principle," she says. "It was easy to love in the confines of my own snuggly home. But in a shelter the veneer is off. I did a 180 on it." After she decided to accept her shelter mates as they were, without questioning their circumstances or their past, she found a kind of relief. "I had to just relieve myself of being God and their judge," says Lund. "They were sick mentally, spiritually, physically or all three, and it wasn't up to me to figure that one out."

At first, Lund—who went by her nickname Boo on the streets—was a target for racist jeers, being the only white among 16 black women in her "dorm," a converted classroom with cots. In the women's shower room, she was propositioned and as a defense began acting crazy—"turning in circles, talking to myself." But one night Alice, a shelter bully who was rumored to be on probation after a manslaughter conviction, held a pair of scissors to the newcomer's throat. "If you shut your eyes one time, white trash, you're going to be dead," Alice said, her breath reeking of whiskey. Lund sat up, thinking, "You're not going to kill me lying down," then started crying. The other women mocked her by shouting, "Boo hoo-hoo, Boo hoo-hoo." Suddenly Alice put down the scissors, embraced Lund and began rocking her. "You're okay, white trash," she whispered. "You just go ahead and cry. That's all right." From then on, Alice—"rougher than a cob but a neat lady"—became Lund's protector.

Lund found that hope had died in most of her companions. Their conversation followed the themes of failure—fruitless job searches, broken relationships, lost children. "Not one of them wanted anything material, when we talked about what we'd want if we had one wish—no sports car, no boat. They wished their family really loved them—if they could have one thing in the whole world, they wished they had the love of their family and a 9 to 5."

After nine days of roaming the city and returning at night to the dorm, Lund decided to leave, trading the shelter's lack of privacy for the fear and loneliness of street life. Gradually she was accepted as "one of them," foraging for food in garbage cans where secretaries on lunch breaks would toss half-eaten sandwiches or pasta salad. Her only emergency fund was the $1 bill in her sock. The soup kitchens and sidewalk sleeping spots were free. To relieve herself she would slink into the Union Station or Library of Congress restrooms or hide behind Dumpsters or in alleys—"anyplace you didn't think a rat was going to bite you." Certain hotels were favorite spots to filch toilet paper and—for her shelter buddies—cigarette butts.

She panhandled only once. Instead of begging, she asked two well-dressed men going to lunch if they would mind bringing her a doggie bag. One of the men gave her $2, but she said she wouldn't be allowed in a restaurant. Giving her another $20, the man said, "Lady, I don't know what your problem is or how you got where you are, but get yourself a good meal." Lund also had luck doing her laundry, usually in public fountains, away from cops and guards. The best place for drying her clothes, she says, was around the Washington Monument "because they have those big reflecting lights with the screens over them. I would string my underpants on those. Just sit there and watch my bloomers dry."

While she was waiting in long, jostling soup lines, men often would grab her. She learned to fend them off by saying her "man" was a convicted killer who would be out on parole in a few days. Lund was often too tired to walk the dozen or so blocks to the soup kitchens—located mostly in the poorer, rougher neighborhoods—and spent most of the day looking for good spots to sleep. "You do your best sleeping in the daytime," she explains. "At night it's dark, cold and you're more vulnerable. The cement is so hard and you're so afraid. Some people drink to take the edge off their fear. And everything hurts—your head, your back, your feet, even lying down because you're on them all the time."

One night she was attacked by a man and beaten until she broke free and ran. Street life, especially for women, is a terrifying, continually on-edge experience, Lund explains. Assault is a constant threat—thus, many so-called bag ladies are loners who are deliberately filthy or act deranged solely to protect themselves.

Lund soon began to sound incoherent in her daily check-in calls to David. Beset by a high fever and strep throat, she retrieved a bag containing her Visa card, which she had stashed with an acquaintance, cleaned herself up and took a plane home. Four days later, she was back in D.C. "I had to get back," she says. "I had to finish it."

After a couple of weeks Lund left the streets to rejoin her much relieved family. She understands the plight of the homeless too well to remain silent, she says, and now lectures publicly as an advocate for awareness. "My dream," she says, "is to have low-cost housing for them in studio apartments, which could be manned by interns from colleges and universities, who would get credit and financial aid for their schooling."

Of all her street experiences, Lund cherishes most of all the "gift" from Nancy, one of her shelter friends. In a drunken stupor, Nancy had burned her foot badly when she allowed her blanket to catch fire. Lund cleaned and bandaged the foot. Then, she says, "as I got up, she put her hand over mine and just patted it. I looked up at her and the love just poured from her eyes. I was spellbound. I've never felt so close to God in my life." After that, Beulah Lund knew her quest to help the homeless would never end.

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