People often ask me why do I volunteer? What do I get out of working with people who have been described as “bums”, “drunks”, “druggies looking for a fix”, and the list goes on and on.
My answer is – peace of mind.
Each day I begin my 3 hour commute to work. In the first 10 minutes of my drive through my neighborhood and the surrounding area I drive by 3-5 men and women who are walking the streets at 6am. These individuals, viewed at 40 mph in the twilight of dawn, are noticeably dirty, disheveled, and their lost look is penetrable. They are not walking to flag down anyone for donations at that hour. No at at that hour they are walking to avoid getting arrested, getting mugged, or just to stay warm and safe. They are the nomads of Cecil County. More and more are to be found as I arrive in Washington, DC. You can’t miss them, but often they seem invisible to everyone.
When I first moved to Cecil from Montgomery County, one of the first events I went to was a local town meeting. There was a hearing taking place that was quite the controversy. So much so that someone spent money to print off flyers and have them delivered to every house. These flyers were demanding that the Executive Council not grant a church the right to offer one of its properties up as a shelter. When the church amended its request to have it as a shower and meal location only with beds during the coldest nights – the town still said no.
The town businesses, not necessarily the residents, were up-in-arms that their businesses would be negatively effected. This shelter would act as a beacon to those drifters who travel I-95, as a stopping ground. They may even take up residents! This would surely bring the value of businesses down, increase crime and sully the town’s reputation!
As a person who has volunteered at local soup kitchens, safe houses, nursing homes, and such, I found their argument – well – juvenile.
Organizations like So Others Might Eat, House of Ruth, Wayfarers’ House, CCNV, and so many local parishes, help men, women, teens, elderly and families feel human again. When I first volunteered at a soup kitchen, I was 8 or 9 years old. My aunt was a Sister at a parish in Philadelphia which had seen better times. It wasn’t Easter or Thanksgiving, just your average Saturday. And instead of running around in a park or playing records with my friends, I was found busing long, long tables in a cold, dark church basement. These tables were stretched the full length of the floor, similar to a German beer hall. But instead of the noise of talk and laughter, there was silence. All heads were uncovered of the multiple layers to keep warmth in and lice out. All heads were bowed as the fork or spoon rose slowly, almost reverently.
At first, I was shy to speak to anyone. Heck, I could barely even look at them! They were homeless! They were bums – right? It wasn’t until I met Anna. Anna was a wizened old woman, whose face was so aged by the sun that she was the color of a bruised apple. She was to become one of my “regulars” at the shelter.
Upon first meeting Anna, all I could see was filth. Her nails were long, broken in jagged edges with dirt so crammed under her nails, I could only imagine it painful. She wore a mountain of nondescript objects one would believe were once clothing articles. The method of dressing was not for modesty, was not for fashion, it was for survival. Layers of pants and pantyhose to keep bugs from invading her body. Sometimes tape was used around her legs – this to keep the rats from breaking the skin when they nipped at her legs when she slept under the bridge, by the river. Her only piece of jewelry was a very tarnished and finger worn Blessed Virgin medallion.
Our first meeting was filled with my childish questions and her very patient and honest answers. Anna was homeless because of her generous spirit. Her son, after returning from serving in the Army, had moved into her tiny apartment with her. The arrangement was for him to do so until he found work and then a place of his own.
Her son found drugs and alcohol instead. Anna for years continued to support him using her small pension and what she received from Social Security to pay the bills, the rent and groceries. As her son’s habit grew, so did his temper. He began getting violent with Anna. This continued until the police were called and he was taken away. Her landlord however tossed them both out. At 78 she was put out into the streets. With no savings and no friends any more who would take her in, she found herself sleeping for the first time under the cold September sky.
During her years on the street, she has seen violent crimes, petty thefts between homeless; gangs and grown men coming out to the “villages” where the homeless set up tents or crude shelters and setting fire to them and then beating up the homeless as they ran out. Sometimes lead pipes and hammers were used. Anna had a broken bone in her arm from one of these “raids”. Without health insurance the hospital splinted her arm and released her.
Talking with Anna and hearing her stories, you would expect anger and bitterness. There as only her flat words to be found. She had given up being emotional about these things. She removed herself from living energy so she would go unnoticed.
Sitting there in that town meeting, Anna’s plight came back to me. What happens to the families that are displaced because of a corrupt landlord or a downsizing of a company? What happens to the children of these families when many shelters are segregated by sex and age to ensure the safety of the tenants? What happens to the elderly like Anna?
I, a new resident of this town, stood up and spoke. I did not mention Anna by name, but I mentioned her and others like her that I have met as the decades passed. People who live in tents are still residents of our town. Instead of closing doors to them, we need to open more and more and more. Our beloved elders should not be huddling on a steam vent — they should be in a nice warm home. Our children should not be roaming the streets, weaving in and out of cars and witnessing this degradation — they should be in schools and playgrounds. And though the Chamber of Commerce was well represented that day, the “invisible people” had scores of residents willing to be their voice, willing to speak up and loudly if needed for them.
Proudly, the shelter won, though it took several more hearings to accomplish this. And I have met a new group of “Anna” women, each with their own story to tell.
Volunteering as an art instructor and office aide, when I myself was between jobs, gave me a deeper appreciation for the things that I have and the lessons I have learned in life. I would sit at the shelter’s kitchen table and listen to these brave women and their children tell me their tale with a fierceness of fortitude that would make a five-star general quake. These lion-hearted women were seeking to do the best they could for themselves and/or their families. Some had to send their older sons to live at another shelter, but they would take meals together when they could.
I did not pity these women, if anything I felt a rising awe in their capacity to keep going. To rise up each morning, run through their house-shared chores while supervising the shelter children’s breakfast; hit the computers or work centers and the pavements looking for work – work of any kind.
My favorite day was when one tenant came running in to share her good news with me – that she was able to get a job at the local pet shelter washing out the cages. This woman only wanted to be useful. She wanted to be a part of the bigger picture. She wanted to be someone that I was proud of. What she has since come to understand is that I am forever proud of the men and women I have met in the shelters and on the streets. They keep trying, long after our own government and local populace has given up on them.
Bad days are quickly remedied when I chat with the shelter tenants and the volunteers. They remind me why I work the extended hours that I do; their enthusiasm is always contagious. We all need to be seen. We all need to be heard.
My Wish List: People – get some perspective and give. Those who could feed a village with their dividends alone – DO IT! Those who could feed a homeless man on the street one morning a week – DO IT! Those who could send shoes/books/blankets to another country – DO IT! And those who want to change the entire world – volunteer and be the doers of this world. Get some perspective and change the world.
And to you – the person reading this right now. Often there is a moment where you need to know that someone …somewhere on this rock filled with perpetual strangers – someone noticed and is listening. You acknowledge these moments in my personal life with your comments, your sharing and even when you “like” something. So – for “hearing” and “seeing” me, allowing me to be visible….bless you.