Monday, April 18, 2011
I worked at a homeless center on Saturday night for five hours for a class I absolutely hate. The center is unique in that it's not an overnight shelter, but a drop-in location whose only purpose is to try to address the social isolation that comes with homelessness. Folks come by to rest, get warm, have a little food, and get stocked up on essentials (if the donations have been received). And they come to talk.
I've been too busy lately to obsess over my concerns leading up to the first night, but when I got there I did start to wonder what the hell I was doing: What do I have in common with a homeless person? What am I going to say? What if I say something wrong? What about hygiene issues? (I'm not proud of it, but that came to mind.)
There was about 5 awkward minutes in the beginning, but the next 4 hours flew by in a mix of getting coffee, handing out sandwiches, playing Jenga, chess, and more, washing dishes, listening to the piano, and discussing the fundamental theorem of calculus.
You heard me.
Let's agree it was a night where my preconceptions were challenged. And my heart was broken. I spent most of the time with two older men playing a board game one of them had invented. It was so interesting! The object of the game was to get to know the other players better, and we did. One of the men had an advanced degree in physics and the other had an advanced degree in everything, I think. He was brilliant. He was the one explaining calculus to me -- trust me, it wasn't the other way around. Before we began the game he said he needed to know what my area of expertise was, and I said that I wasn't sure, but that I would go with psychology. His eyes lit up and he said, "Excellent! I don't know very much about psychology so you can teach me." (He was a quick study.)
I also spent time with an ex-soldier, 30-something, very handsome, who talked a lot about his time in the military. I think because he was closer to my age than many, and probably because he had served our country, it made me particularly sad to think about him living on the streets. We were having a pretty normal conversation and I was thinking, "This guy could be any one of my friends" and then at some point it took a turn and he went into a monologue about one of his tours of duty, and it kind of got more non-sequitur the longer he went on. That happened a few times: I'd be talking to someone, thinking, "This person is perfectly normal; he could be the guy in the cube next to me at work" and then the conversation would shift and I would realize there were other issues at play. Sigh.
It was sad to see the women. I guess because women are supposed to be soft and a little pampered, and these women were neither. It was sad to see the mentally ill. Mental illness is such a trigger for me. I don't understand why we can't do more. It seems like a prison cell without a key. I wish I had the time to write down every story, or at least the stories of the 5 or 6 guys I spent time with. I did write down their names and a few identifiers once I got in my car at the end of the night so I would remember them if I see them next time.
Honestly, if I stop and think about the evening, I start to cry a little. None of these people started out in life thinking, "I hope I end up begging for food or asking strangers for socks." It makes me wonder about our system, and it makes me wonder about my life -- not only, what can I do to be part of the solution?, but, if these folks didn't plan this, could it happen to me?
I don't want to say that it was all sad. I truly enjoyed the evening, and several of the interactions were only pleasant and positive. I admire the organization deeply for knowing their niche and doing their "one thing" very well. I think that by having a narrow mission, they're able to work toward their goal without distraction. And in the end, I would say the evening was a success - it definitely helped eliminate a bit of social isolation.
And hopefully it helped some of the homeless guests, too.