Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How I Got Started

Last winter I dropped off a bag of clothes at a downtown women's shelter. When I walked away I thought there must be something more that I could do. I love to write, everyone has a story, and their story deserves to be heard, so I began facilitating a writing workshop at the shelter. At first I was somewhat uncomfortable, having no idea what I had gotten myself into. Although I've worked in social services, this was my first time getting to know women living in a shelter. But we have more in common than I would have thought, and I've learned to be at ease.

I am a Quaker and we are exhorted to live by the testimonies of our faith: simplicity, equality, community, integrity and peace. George Fox told his followers to "Walk cheerfully over the earth, seeking that of God in everyone." There is that seed of God, or goodness, in all, though it may be deeply buried, hard to see. I try to look for that in others.

Sometimes it's hard to tell by appearances who is homeless. The women at the shelter have access to showers and laundry facilities. (One inventive woman laid a towel on the floor to create a makeshift ironing board.) Some are dressed as well as I am, if not better, in my Goodwill jeans & sweaters.) A small segment do look like "street people" and seem too depressed to do much of anything.

One woman told me, "We are the invisible people." Is it fear that causes people to look away? Or the belief that it could never happen to them? The condition of not having a home is not a moral failure, and the homeless are not simply lazy, irresponsible reprobates. They are as individual as you and me. It all begins with housing first. There are simply not enough affordable homes.

In 2002 I had just finished a school program, and hoped to get a job at a conference, but didn't.
I had no home or family to return to. Fortunately, I have friends, and can't imagine what I would have done without them, because they provided a safety net until I got housing. There but for the grace of God go I. Knowing that keeps me humble, and grateful for all I do have.

In these challenging economic times, many are only one or two paychecks away from loosing their homes. Renters with leases can find themselves homeless if their landlord goes into foreclosure. The poor do not have the same safety nets that others take for granted. Many are doubling and tripling up with friends or families, a tenuous safety net that can, and does break.

A few months ago I was at the shelter when an elderly woman walked in. I invited her to join the writing workshop; she told me she was waiting for her daughter to drop off her things at the shelter. Hearing that was heartbreaking, and I didn't know what to say to her. So I just smiled, and said, "Okay, maybe next week."

The women often find it painful to write their stories. Many have faced challenges from an early age. Others, surprisingly, led middle class lives. Virtually all are coping with some level of depression. Many are mothers who no longer have custody, but ache with longing for their children. Several were subject to sexual abuse. For females of any age, it is particularly dangerous to be homeless. (It is one of many reasons that a woman may be reluctant to leave a male abuser; she may have no where to go since there are so few shelter beds.)

So what can one person do? I do a lot of research and reading, and look for ways to be of service. I listen to people's stories. Recognize their strengths. Encourage, and show empathy. Try not to judge. I give out protein bars, bananas (many street people don't have the teeth to eat hard fruit), tubes of hand sanitizer from the Dollar Store (the kind with moisturizer). On cold days I buy hot drinks to give out. I buy Street Roots, and read it.

Sometimes I give a dollar, or two. Today I gave $5 to man I've talked with before; we know each other by name. His life hit the skids after his wife died; he's had a bunch of bad breaks and he's now trying to get back on his feet, earning a little money some days. It's hard to think of him huddled under a blanket outdoors.

Some people will think I'm foolish to give money. Do I have the right to judge what it takes for a person to simply get through another day? We can't really know whether we would have the courage to do it differently, unless we were to walk in their shoes.

The homeless are the poorest of the poor. I'd rather assume that most are deserving, and keep my heart open. So I usually smile and say "hi" as I pass by. They are not invisible. They have names, stories, hopes and fears. They were once little children. They also have inherent value and worth, just like you and me.

(Recommended documentary: Children Underground (lives of homeless children living in a subway tunnel in Bucharest, Romania.) It took two sittings to watch this all the way through. But that doesn't mean we should avert our eyes.)

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