A Meaner, more Selfish Nation

Third in a Series

When the children were young, we decided, as a family, to volunteer at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving. The shelter was located in a former mental health institution (many of these institutions sat empty after we unilaterally decided that mentally ill people would be better off living on the streets or in prison than being “locked up” in a secure facility–I’ll write more about the consequences of that decision in another post) and was, therefore, a rather depressing, run-down edifice that was trying to stay afloat on donations. The building was located out on an island connected by a large bridge over the water–out of sight, out of mind–and as we drove up, the yellow brick building looked neglected and forlorn in the gray light of an overcast day. Entering the building, we walked down a long hallway, the doors of abandoned rooms closed and locked, denying any light from entering. At the end of this long hall was a large room with high windows which let in very little light on this overcast day. The same yellow color covered the walls and the floors, broken only by the gray of tables and chairs.

When we first arrived, there were no residents in the cafeteria. We had arrived early to prepare the meal. People were assigned to cook, make salads, set out desserts or set tables. The children and I joined the group that was setting the tables while my husband joined the group that was cooking. As the meal was being set up on the serving table, the residents began to arrive for dinner. Our next assignment was to serve the guests, to make the occasion more formal than the normal cafeteria-style meal of every day. As I watched the residents arrive I was surprised that most were dressed for a special occasion in clothing that looked appropriate for working in an office downtown. Once we had served everyone and had asked people if they wanted seconds, we sat down to visit with them. That’s when I discovered what the word “homeless” really meant.

The people in this room were all working adults. Every morning a bus would roll up to the front door to take them to the nearest subway station so they could get to their jobs. That same bus would pick them up in the evening and bring them back to the shelter. So, if they were working, why were they living in a homeless shelter? To begin with, the rents for even a studio in the Greater Boston area are ridiculously high. Add to that the necessity of coming up with first and last month’s rent and a security deposit (in 2013 that could mean $4,000 or more) and you can see how someone In a low-wage job would have trouble finding housing. One young woman had been living with a roommate and when her roommate left. She could no longer afford the rent and didn’t have enough money to rent a new apartment. She was living in the shelter trying to save up enough money to pay that first installment on a new apartment. Another gentleman was divorced and most of his paycheck went to support his former wife and his children. He wasn’t sure if he would ever make enough money in his minimum-wage job to ever afford to live anywhere but a homeless shelter. Someone else had just lost a job that had kept him in the middle class and was working in a low-wage job. He was so embarrassed that he had cut himself off from all of his acquaintances, and thus had no support system, other than the staff and the other residents of the homeless shelter, to help him rebuild his self esteem.

I walked away from this experience feeling like this last man: embarrassed. Embarrassed about my own ignorance of what homelessness is and who the people are behind that catch-all word. Yes, some of them may have substance-abuse problems, some of them may have mental health issues, but many of them are just down on their luck–those for whom we say “There, but for the grace of God…”. Whoever they are, what ever their need, those of us who have not yet experienced these hardships must not only have compassion but must work to provide the services and help that others need to enable them to join and to contribute to a society that realizes that we are all in this together.

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