Friday, November 18, 2011

A Holiday, the Homeless, & Hope

Friday, November 11 - Veteran's Day and a day off from work...a great day. I woke at 4:00am to go five blocks from home. I'd volunteered with a city project to identify the homeless for possibly later accessing services and housing for the more vulnerable. It was part of a nationwide effort taking place in cities throughout the United States. One of our leaders mentioned how impressed he was with the diversity of our group: church groups, college students, high school students, social workers, business people, and neighbors. I felt glad to be part of that.

We went in teams of five, into the pre-dawn darkness, searched quietly through alleys and a park, in little coves tucked into buildings, and on benches, looking for our homeless neighbors. I was nervous at first, concerned about what I might encounter, both the heartache and the question of safety. We learned to spot earthly belongings hidden in bushes nearby, and find human-shaped lumps under blankets. We practiced a deeper dimension of respect for the least of these in our town.

We obeyed our training to never touch anyone to wake them, to never shine our flashlights in their faces, and to squat down to their level for conversation. We used our lights to illuminate our path, read our paperwork, and identify our faces to others. We would call out to the person to gently wake them, and ask if we could have their permission to take a survey and take their photo.

We sat on the cement together in several situations. We interviewed six people -- two couples and two singles, three women and three men. One refused to let us take her photo. That was OK. At times we laughed together because some had such humor in their circumstances. It was an odd, yet powerful moment to hear the laughter of a group of people newly connected and from such diverse circumstances. I felt happy. I learned about these people in my community.

We asked all the questions on this survey: social security number, height, weight, victim of violence on the streets, health condition and details, been to jail and/or prison, pets, how long they'd been homeless, how they make money, etc. It was very interesting. The data we collect will be dded to a national study and used to access services and possibly housing for the most vulnerable. The people we visited were articulate, sober, and engaging. Some of my stereotypes were shattered that day. We were back to volunteer central in two hours.

I felt connected to these six folks, though we'd just met. It was strange yet so humane. I walked away wishing I could come visit again from time to time and bring breakfast or pizza or wash their blankets, but I felt that ambition would probably fade once I returned to my routine. But I now drive through my city with different eyes and a bigger heart. I look carefully for the unseen living just beyond my view in this area. It felt like a dream to have time to hear a little of the stories of these fellow human beings.

That morning, it was my priority to shake the hand of each person we'd interviewed, look them in the eyes, and say their name as I said, "Nice to meet you." And I meant it. It was important to me because I think appropriate human touch is healing, no matter how insignificant. It was healing to me. I can't speak for the others. It was healing because I overcame my fear of these strangers, one at a time, after listening to their stories, and crafting some time in my life to care for them, even for just a moment. I will remember them. God bless you, Shawn & Tricia, Manual & Corrine, Bonnie, and Ector, a Vietnam vet.

On Veteran's Day, I served with others in my community to reach out to hidden people. In our current economic crisis, anyone can be homeless with a change in events and circumstances. I did not need to figure out if these folks were trouble to society, or evaluate if they deserved a break or not. I needed to figure out that they are human, too. I was moved. I am changed. These efforts in my life keep me aware of what really matters and keep my heart tender. These efforts keep the gospel fresh in my faith. All this, and it was barely 8:00am. Time for a nap and time to pause to reflect on the meaningful experience.

1 comment:

Amy Gunther said...

Love this. Thanks for sharing Cindi. I'm proud to consider you a friend. The world needs more like you.