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.


  1. As usual, you lead by example. This is the kind of thing I should be focusing on (instead of myself).

    Thank you (for, like, the millionth time) for being an inspiration.

  2. The thing about being mentally ill that I find so hard to explain to people is how trapped in your brain you get. It's almost like there is an invisible wall between you and the world.
    I am very aware that the only thing that separates me from most homeless people is a fistful of psychiatric medication. It makes it easy for me to maintain an attitude of gratitude, because Bipolar 1 is almost always so debilitating that people lose everything. That I can function is a tremendous gift.

  3. I think often about all of the many, many sorts of places just like you've described. They continue to operate -- hour by hour, night by night, year by year -- no matter the season, temperature, etc. And my little life just continues right on......weird.

  4. Thank you for sharing. Would love to read any stories you get from these people. (Would like to hear more about the guys with the PhD's actually). Reminds me to be thankful every day.

  5. I would have like to have talked physics with that gentleman.

    It's a good thing that you did there. I think you are pretty rad, so's you know.

  6. The line between the sane and comfortably-housed, and the mentally ill and homeless, is thin.

    How many times have I, personally, begun a lucid conversation with a fellow human being, only to find the loose thoughts in my head distracting me? How much worse would it be if war, abuse, neglect, anger, oppression or fear fuelled my waking memories? If I had scarce moments of love to recall, in order to give me strength?

    LSL, I heartily recommend Nick Flynn's memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City", where the author worked in a homeless shelter and had to check in his own father, and then watch him be thrown out for bad behaviour.


    My Al-Anon meeting in Munich is held in a church cafeteria. After we're through, the church opens the cafeteria for the homeless to eat and shelter for the night. Occasionally, we carry on our meeting with a gentleman or two asleep in the corner.

    One evening, I arrived to find us clustered around a different table from the usual. At our usual table, somone had placed a candle, a bunch of flowers, and a note. The note told us that one of the regulars had died on this spot, seated, no doubt clutching the cup of instant coffee that the church provided. Rather like the little roadside memorials that folk use to commemorate where their loved ones suffered their last moments.

    At first, this seemed desperately sad. Then, I read the note. It spoke of the deceased, his educational achievements (which were formidable), his family and the friends who would miss him. He wasn't a nobody, a piece of human detritus, a large scrap of DNA left like a stain on a hotel-room blanket. Thanks to this shelter, he was a human being, connected to others, part of a community.

    No, this scene wasn't a sad one. It was a warm, dignified and noble remembrance of a human who touched others, and was touched by them.

    How many homeless are deprived of the fellowship that nourishes and enriches them, and supplants the memories of horror and abuse with memories of love?

    There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.

  7. Every time I see a homeless person I wonder what their story is. Because we all have a story, don't we? And some of us just skate past that place of breaking that could lead us to where the homeless are now. The guy in the cube next to us is one bottle away from losing it all. The bank teller is about to lose the fight in her own mind. We can't know what a person is going through by looking at them and personalizing/humanizing our fellow "man" is the first step. I think we like to make the homeless "wrong" so they can feel separate and different than us when really, we're all more alike than we are different (thank you Maya Angelou for that sentiment).

    It's good to step out our comfort zones and push our own boundaries because if we don't? How will anything ever change?

    I'm glad you did this and I am glad you shared your experience.

  8. So glad you did this and that you shared your story with us. It's easy to be freaked out by the homeless and unsure of what their lives look like, but I think opportunities like this help show people that the homeless aren't these horrible, disgusting people - they're just people.

  9. Yanno I have spent most of my NPO life working with the homeless and those is unsafe housing, etc. The single most significant factor in whether you'll end up homeless or not is family/friends. So, this little drop-in spot you've found is truly something special. More than likely, those folks don't really have anyone to rely on.

    Anyhoo, it's hard not to have your heart break in the face of all that humanity. Thank you for helping the discarded feel a little normalcy. xoxo