Your perspective on the meaning of life is reshaped dramatically when you join with others in offering the basic necessities of life to those struggling to survive, living on the streets in our inner cities. Many of these vulnerable souls are struggling with mental illness. Most are fearful of the shelter you are offering them. So you tread softly, returning each evening to their chosen place on the street, until (hopefully) they accept your invitation to “come inside” where they will be safe and cared for. Their acceptance begins their journey and yours as you help them navigate the slippery slope that is their life.
Homeless shelters can look pretty bleak to outsiders. That is those of us who are very used to creature comforts. Most are located in very poor neighborhoods with a sea of beds in an assortment of rooms that are relatively bare, with shelves housing each residents limited belongings
I can tell you from past experience, that some days the sights and sounds of human suffering in a shelter are hard to bear. This was not necessarily what I signed up for when I agreed to help. However I was not the victim! Those we are called to care for are, and they need our support each day to help them get to a place where they just might be able to start over. It is our presence and the presence of other caring workers at the shelter that serve as the only constant in the lives of those who have suffered so deeply.
Fortunately, as a staff member of a residential program you have access to medical teams, psychiatric clinics, social workers and councilors to help each of the residents, but for a homeless person to agree to go to a doctor’s appointment or to sit with a therapist or go to the dentist is to put their lives in the hands of others. A very scary prospect for powerless people, many of whom have spent years on the street ignored or maligned by others.
As you continue to gently journey with those in the shelter, you get a chance to watch as each resident gets in touch with their inner self. You watch them gain confidence and begin to take better care of themselves. They bring little treasures back to their room. They show up promptly at noon for that “home cooked” meal every day. Slowly they begin to accept help from doctors, nurses and social workers. There are remarkable encounters when you are able to catch a glimpse of the wonderful soul living inside their suffering body. Those are holy moments!
As I reflect on my first venture in helping the homeless, I would like to share just a tiny glimpse into some remarkable encounters with God’s chosen ones:
First there was Ruth, a tall woman with elegant features who opted to stay at the shelter but lived in her own head, avoiding both verbal and eye contact. When you caught a glimpse of her hurrying by, you couldn’t help but wonder what her life was like before she gave up. Her demeanor carried a certain dignity with it. You suspected she was a woman who contributed a great deal to society in a secure environment once.
One day, we reached a tremendous breakthrough with Ruth when we offered residents a chance to go food shopping with us each week. To our amazement Ruth signed up and for many months she and Joe, another very special but shy resident, joined me at the produce stand at the open air market in South Philadelphia selecting the best vegetables and fruits. Each week, when we returned to the shelter, Joe would run inside to tell the residents the food had arrived. Upon hearing this, several residents would come out to the van to carry the groceries into the kitchen, looking into the bags as they carried them in. Meanwhile Ruth was making sure nothing dropped out of the bags!
Then there was Sam, a gentle giant, with timber in his voice and kindness in his heart. Sam had diabetes and a doctor talked him into going on a very restrictive diet so Sam would feel better and be able to continue taking his daily walks. I elected to be the chef for Sam’s midday meal. In the beginning he was not happy being singled out to eat something different from the other residents but he got to like the food and I suspect the special attention! Sam ultimately lost weight on his diet and invited me to join him in a shopping trip to the local thrift shop where he proudly picked out his new wardrobe, displaying each piece as he placed it in his shopping cart.
A final memory from that time was taking a group of the residents to see the evening performance of a family friendly play in the theatre district in downtown Philadelphia. So many signed up to go that I secured a van and invited a dear friend, a Franciscan Sister, to join me on this very special occasion. When we came by to pick everyone up, they were all outside the shelter checking each other’s outfits out and looking great. The play was wonderful and the residents were completely engaged in watching and enjoying the performance. They were so remarkable and so dear that night. The next day you could hear them sharing their experience with the staff. Yet another treasured memory from my time with those gentle and loving children of our loving God.
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