Serving The Homeless: A Lesson In Dignity

At the end of December 2017 and beginning of January 2018, some of the coldest temperatures on record in my hometown threatened the lives of the homeless. The thought of anyone suffering through dangerous weather breaks my heart. Perhaps my ego crafts a flawed story of unfortunate souls who may not ask for, but are in need of, help. Perhaps the plight of winter homelessness clouds my judgement as someone shuffles by me on the sidewalk on his way to God knows where in ruthless winter weather. My pity, it seems, is not in short supply. Knowing that I cannot turn my head away from someone else suffering, I joined local efforts to support the homeless during that deathly cold weather, and in those volunteer experiences learned that of the things the homeless need, pity isn’t one. Rather, I learned if there’s something homeless men and women need, other than support to survive, it’s to be treated with dignity.

During this deadly winter streak, several local organizations banded together and worked with city officials to open a 24-hour warming shelter for the homeless in the city community center. The warming shelter, the first of its kind in our city, provided cots and bedding, showers, hygienic supplies, and food to anyone who needed the help. Articles ran daily in the local paper, updating readers to the goings-on at the center and gently reminding them that help in any form would be appreciated. With each article I read in the paper, my sense of pity was poked and prodded –– enough that I got online to volunteer my time to help at the warming center.

A week after opening in the community center, the warming center was relocated across town in the National Guard armory. Dozens of people living without heat or shelter were again provided a warm, 24-hour facility to survive. Guardsmen volunteered to man the armory while community volunteers rotated in and out, every four hours, to keep the space operational. The display of community support for people of lesser means, some of who have little more than their addictions, filled me with equal parts sadness and faith in the human spirit.

I’ve made the same choices that some of the shelter residents have made, and have been fortunate to avoid the outcomes those residents have experienced. Because of that personal history, time spent volunteering at the shelter was initially spent feeling sorry for the residents. Of the roughly 40 people that filled the armory, there were several that struggled with addiction and substance abuse as I once have. While speaking to a few residents during my quiet four-to-eight a.m. shifts, I met people actively suffering from withdrawals while staying clean in the shelter. Shortly after a conversation with one man battling his addiction, I watched him fall to the floor in a withdrawal-induced seizure. As the man dropped, so did my heart. The shelter was not without its dose of reality. Reality is not, however, always so salty.

Among the residents was a young family of four struck homeless due to no fault of their own. There was a woman who happily gave freely of herself by cutting many other residents’ hair, and a man who rose from his cot several times a day to contribute the way he knew how by cleaning the facility. There were others with untreated mental illness and no one to care for their well-being. Some residents had a tale to spin, and just needed an audience to listen. Some residents needed help putting together a plate of food. With all the good that was happening around me, I still couldn’t help but think of the residents’ circumstances once the temporary shelter closed. So, it’s with a heavy heart weighted with pity for each of those people that I lent as much of myself as I could.

On a couple occasions, my offer to help someone was met with a resident’s wary look, unsure as they were of how to take me. However, most people were happy to have a little assistance with the coffee, or locating a warm pair of gloves from among the long table of anonymously donated goods, or simply procuring hygienic products to feel a little more “normal”. It was during my second, and last, shift at the shelter that a fellow volunteer framed the entire volunteer experience for me, and in so doing reminded me how normal the residents really are.

This woman spent shift after shift volunteering at the armory, showing the sort of kindness that melts a frozen heart. Upon walking out of the frighteningly cold air and into the shelter on both my morning shifts, she took my hands in hers, looked me straight in the eyes, and exclaimed, “Get in here, you poor soul, and warm up!” Like a grandmother pulling me in from a snowstorm, brushing the cold off my shoulders and filling my hands with a steaming mug of cocoa, this woman made me, and everyone with whom she engaged, feel at home. And it’s this woman, upon being asked why she was volunteering, that told me in a whispered, five a.m. conversation, “I’ve needed help before and received it. Now I want to give back, and treat these people in need with the dignity they deserve.”

As if the freezing winter night gave way to a warm dawn of enlightenment, the power of this kind woman’s message opened my eyes. What the residents of that warming shelter needed wasn’t someone to hold their hands or coddle them. Me feeling sorry the residents wasn’t doing them any service. Aside from the physical support services that every volunteer provided, what the residents needed was to be validated as a human worthy of self-respect and respect from others; to be empowered with the knowledge that there are people who consider them equals; to be treated with dignity.

That’s the clincher. At the shelter, I spent time with people in need, some of them in need of more than shelter, food, or bedding. It took displays of vulnerability for many of the residents to seek help at the warming center. My pity wasn’t what the residents needed in return. Due to the virtue of being human, we all want to be treated with respect, and yet any one of us are only a few poor decisions away from suffering out of doors in the winter. In that lies a nugget of truth exhibited by volunteers who gave their time to help the homeless, and by the shelter residents themselves: the homeless are human beings worthy of being treated as such, and to be treated with dignity, at that.