“The Homeless” includes that guy on the intersection holding a cardboard sign saying, “Will work for food.” “The Homeless” are not children. “The Homeless” is Ted Williams with the Golden Voice, plucked off the street for instant stardom and certain, predestined failure. “The Homeless” do not have magnificently painted fingernails or wear designer jeans. “The Homeless” are lazy buggers who can’t be bothered to get up in the morning or manage their money properly. “The Homeless” do not have jobs or a need for an early start.
This week my wife, Patsy, and I have been working with CARITAS in Richmond, VA. CARITAS is the largest and most inclusive source of shelter and support in the area for “The Homeless,” and the reason why I have had to re-evaluate my own preconceived notions today. Staying a week at a time in church halls, 25 souls share one hall to live and sleep in, with no TV and two shower rooms. Two men, nine women and 14 children from four months to 13 years (most of the children are around five years old).
My first encounter with “The Homeless” was serving dinner on Saturday evening. I had not been looking forward to doing my Christian duty in this instance; I was deeply uncomfortable with the whole notion, which was partially the reason I felt I should get involved. The number of children hit me immediately; they give the hall a school classroom feeling with their incessant chatter and occasional crying (several of them are sick with the flu bug doing the rounds). My initial thought was we could not allow these innocents to go without shelter and the basics, no matter how much of a deadbeat the grown-ups are.
Doing the ‘Christian’ thing and biting my tongue, despite my initial assessment, I made an effort to ensure “The Homeless” had everything we could provide. “Would you like another helping of the chicken, Ma’am?” I asked, only to be mightily ticked off when she imperatively stated, “Get me some bread!”
“Get off your fat lazy arse and get it yourself!” was the instant retort unspoken, as I dutifully got her ladyship a couple of rolls.
Last night, Patsy and I performed the overwatch, sleeping at the church so Barb, the CARITAS onsite worker, has help if she needs it.
Starting at 8pm, we went through the basic instructions on our duties. Lights out between 9.30pm and 10pm, lock the emergency exit with a special key which will still allow it to be opened from the inside, get up at 4.30am to start breakfast. Patsy looks crestfallen; there is only one 4.30 in any 24 hour period. Valerie takes a vacation week off from her regular job to help run the Providence United Methodist Church’s one week contribution to the CARITAS program. She explains I must remember to plug in the slow cooker so there is oatmeal in the morning. Patsy explains I have a track record for forgetting to plug in slow cookers, which is true, but some of “The Homeless” will go hungry if I don’t.
The initial 25 souls expanded to 27 as a pregnant, tattooed mother with an 18 month old son joined the fray. Two more didn’t matter much in the logistical scheme of things.
I decided to make my initial round at 8.30pm and went down to the hall (as overwatch, Patsy and I slept in our ensuite Sunday school classroom, where the toilet was for toddlers and no more than a foot off the ground – I leave the rest to your imagination). I was perturbed to find children already tucked up in bed and their parents dutifully reading to them. There is a strict regime at work here: children are in bed by 7.30pm, lying down by 8.00pm and their parents must read books to them.
Just after 9.30pm, I decided to go down to the hall again to make my presence felt, so the smokers would be forewarned I would be locking the door shortly. No-one was outside; most were in bed with a couple in one corner of the dining area, engaged in quiet, earnest conversation. Another was furiously ironing a stack of clothes and I thought, “Why is she ironing clothes?” I locked up and raided the kitchen for cookies and juice for Patsy and I, and returned to our makeshift bedroom. I was sound asleep before 10pm after a heavy day at work and the following one beckoning with more of the same.
Thanks to HM The Queen and my stint in the British Army, I have an inbuilt mechanism which wakes me 30 seconds before the alarm goes off, no matter what time it is set for. As usual, I am awake when the alarm signals 4.30am and I leave my drowsy wife to snooze and make my way to the kitchen with day old coffee in hand. Two volunteers, Sue and Valerie, are already busy preparing breakfast as I start pitching in. Some of “The Homeless” are stirring and getting ready; several have jobs to go to and the rest are to be bused to the CARITAS day center. The children have school; the non-working adults have parenting and personal development classes to attend (which means working on getting work).
By 5.45am, breakfast is served to “The Homeless” who have all showered, made their makeshift beds and tidied up their individual bunk space in the communal hall. There is no privacy unless they are in the shower rooms. Men, women and children all live and sleep in the open-spaced hall for this one week before being shipped off to another church.
I snag a dozen cartons of apple sauce off the table containing the trays of hot food just cooked; I don’t want this treat being grabbed by the grown-ups and start distributing it to the various kids. A little girl already dressed and eyes wide open, screams in delight, “Apple sauce, apple sauce! Thank you, Mister!” I hand her the precious carton. I feel her shining gratitude is thank you enough for every single one of “The Homeless” under this roof for the week. I specifically seek her out later as she sits at the dining table to see if she wants pancakes, but her mother explains she can’t eat solid food in the morning as she isn’t used to it and it makes her sick. Moments later she is trying not to be sick because she ate some bacon. I am not happy, but there are things to get on with as more volunteers, Anne and Maurice join the fray.
6.30am arrives and “The Homeless” are gone, on their way to jobs or the day center. Patsy and I head for our home a mile away, to get ready for our commute to our respective jobs. Over breakfast we chuckle at what we have experienced; we tend to get ourselves into these mini-adventures and camping out in the church certainly counts as one.
I am left to reconsider my preconceptions on “The Homeless”.
“The Homeless” have jobs in many instances. “The Homeless” have children, and many children are without the most basic necessities of modern life, having only those toys they can carry with them. “The Homeless” do care about their appearance, not least because if you don’t have a home you pay extra attention to your clothes because they may be all you have. “The Homeless” care about being clean, not least because not having a home does not mean you have lost all sense of self-respect. “The Homeless” are grateful for help, even when they don’t show it because they have been so beaten down by life that a small act of human kindness surprises them so much to respond. “The Homeless” are not lazy; they get up before most of us, they go to bed before most of us, they read bedtime stories to their children unlike most of us and they hold down jobs in circumstances many would consider unworkable.
Most of all, “The Homeless” have names like Tyler, Brooks, Hunt, Hall and Brown, because I saw their names stenciled on lunch bags neatly lined up in the kitchen adjunct.
Homelessness is non-discriminatory. It strikes at anyone unfortunate enough not to have family willing to lend a hand, or unable to rent a home because their credit is not so good and they need four months deposit (first, last and two months). Homelessness strikes at people involved in the breakdown of a marriage or relationship. Homelessness affects babies, children and adults, married and single mothers, men and women, black and white, working and unemployed.
The problem I had was not with homelessness, but my own preconceptions. The previously amorphous, nondescript group is in fact, a collection of individuals with goals, desires and needs barely met.
The appropriate label to be applied was not for them, but for me, “The Prejudiced Idiot”.