31 December 2009

So It Goes

Georgine cried for half an hour in my office after Patrick died, even though he had just gotten out of jail for beating her up. "I don't know why he wouldn't get out of the way of the train. Wonderful... bull-headed... idiot."


Gary was the second person to almost die from a heroine overdose in the left stall of the bathroom. But through the climbing under the stall to get him out, the 9-1-1 call, the CPR, the AED, and the EMS team, Pete just kept washing his hands in the sink.


(Pete has cancer, and has been dying for months. Dying with impeccable hygiene.)

29 December 2009


When George went to prison, Ford was president, 'Micro-soft' came up with a name, Bruce Springsteen came out with "Born to Run", and Tiger Woods was... born.

And now he's out.
He told me that his first week has been a continuous panic attack.
"It's like stepping onto another planet," he says.

When George was arrested in '75, he was one of the only people he knew with a car phone. He says he has yet to see someone who is not physically touching something technological that he doesn't recognize.

George is an engineering graduate from the east coast, and says that all of his academic training, all of his knowlege of the world is entirely useless. Back then, he said, he was ahead of the curve, deservedly cocky, "and", he says, "I had hair." And all of it has changed. Although, he comments on the irony of disappearing from a recession into a recession.

"I seriously think I need to collect government benefits for being emotionally handicapped. I've already begged them to take me back to prison. In this new world, all I know how to do is re-offend."

George is an eloquent, homeless, unemployed engineering graduate, paralyzed by time travel. At least, that's what he says he's putting on his application for government assistance.

21 December 2009

Anyone Can

My co-worker and I once watched Gerald walk down the street, bracing himself against the brick wall in between stumbles, hardly able to hold onto his bag-covered bottle... it took him five minutes to travel each shop-length... and we said "If Gerald can make it out of here alive, anyone can."

He asked me to help him fill out a medical examination with him once, since he couldn't see through his greasy, chin-length blonde bangs, and since he couldn't see anyway, or maneuver a writing utensil. We came to the question "How much alcohol do you drink each day?" and in between hysterical fits of laughter, he finally manages to tell me that seriously, it was usually more than 2 gallons, depending on how much he could pan-handle.

Even his drinking buddies tried to refuse him a drink sometimes: "Gerry, even though we have to watch you die, we're not going to help you."


We hadn't seen Gerald in a while, and we assumed the worst, but there was rumors going around that he went to rehab (which were usually met by sarcasm: "Like he could walk that far.") We still talked about him, thought about him, wondered about him, hoping the rumors were true.

Last week, a man walked through the door: clean shaven, hair cut, clean clothes, walking straight, and in clear, un-slurred speech said to us: "Merry Christmas. I love you." He gave us each a hug, gave us each a wrapped Christmas present with the strict instructions not to open it until Christmas morning, and left.

We looked at each other in disbelief and said, "Anyone can."

16 December 2009

It Must Be a Sign

Currently, I have two signs on the window of my office, right next to my sign-in sheet.
They read:
"We currently do not have any winter coats or boots at our facility at this time"
"ID appointments are full for the month of December. We will have walk-in hours on Mondays and Wednesdays beginning in January"

This morning, I have been asked 8 times if we have any coats or boots available, and 5 people have signed up to inquire about an ID appointment. I even had one woman point to the sign that said we had no winter gear available, and ask, "Do you still have these?" Not knowing how to reply to that question, I said "Yes, we still do not have any more coats or boots available." Wrong answer, probably.

We have signs saying what our hours are. We have signs stating the purpose of each office. We have signs advertising events. We put up signs to answer what we predict to be the most commonly asked questions, and yet they remain the most commonly asked questions.

This may be due to illiteracy, due to lack of attention, due to the fact that may of the minds are on other things, many of these eyes have been trained to skim over surroundings to find life, or to find other eyes.

But sometimes I know they have read the signs. Sometimes, I will tell the same person the same information every day, and then I begin to see that the information itself is less relevant, but the human connection is key. I am beginning to think that our signs serve less to avoid questions, but sometimes start them; act as conversation pieces.
When there's nothing to talk about, you talk about whatever is on the walls.
When you don't have a reason to meet with someone, you look for one... and find it right next to the sign-in sheet.

10 December 2009

Door, way

This morning I walked to work in the blizzard because I knew people were sleeping in it.

Yesterday, I tried to convince all of the regular campers, the die-hard-below-the-bridge-dwellers, to stay inside for the night. I told Gary and The Girl that they would only have to be apart for 10 hours, and they would be unconcious for most of them. I told Mr. Bentley he could make it a night without a drink. In insufficient Spanish, I argued with Guillermo that sleeping around a lot of other dudes wasn't so bad, and they would leave him alone. The funny thing was, they all seemed to be trying to talk each other into staying in as well--either caring more for each other than they did for themselves, or claiming that their reasons were better, that their addictions and phobias were stronger.
When I left, I hadn't pursuaded anyone.

So I walked to work this morning, with one specific detour in mind: Guillermo's doorway. I imagined finding him blue and cold and breathless, half-covered in snow. I imagined this so vividly and consistently that by the time I was on his block, in front of his hole, I just stood in the wind and the snow and stared at the mass of blue and white blankets, hardly believing he was there. Standing on the sidewalk, in the way of the relentless weather, I was so mad that he did this, that he insisted on staying here, that he was so stubborn and foolish. And then I stepped in his doorway, around the bottles and the box of doughnuts, and a shoe, and it was... warm. I turned my back to the door and looked out at the blowing snow and realized how safe a doorway could feel, especially when it was yours, and just yours. I bent down close enough to make sure Guillermo was snoring, and left him to sleep.

02 December 2009


We want to give what we think is important for us. This helps us to recieve the purest simplest feelings of productivity because we can imagine what it feels like to not have these things, in the situation that we are currently in. But how is it to not have these things when we've learned to live without them? When we are in a different culture?

We volunteer to serve ourselves. I mean this in two ways: we volunteer our time in order to fulfill a need we have--a need to feel like we are making a difference, serving God, bringing good into the world, changing lives... whatever you want to call it. Humans have this need to affect positive change (at least some of them do). In my opinion, this isn't a wrong or impure motive at all. In fact, I think God created us in His image, and God is love. We are made to want to serve.

But. What we do about it is another thing. We volunteer to serve ourselves--to provide things that we can imagine ourselves needing and appreciating (to assure ourselves that we are being needed and appreciated). But we are not serving people like 'us'... and somehow we can know that and be totally unaware of the reality of that at the same time. Or... maybe we just have a very hard time liking things we don't really like.

Today's example: a wonderful, sweet older woman spent all summer and fall knitting hats for those staying in the shelters down town. Most of the people staying in shelters are men. Most of the hats would be perfect for a wonderful, sweet older woman.

This is not an isolated or unique example. So often, I watch volunteers start facilitating activities that they enjoy, serving food that they love to make, and having conversations based on their own curiousity. These are such good things, but they so often miss the mark.

It is so possible to give people what they need, but it does require sometimes sacrificing what we want, and what feels the best for us to give. We can remedy this by educating ourselves, buiding relationships and knowing who we are serving. I have heard a lot of very valid arguments that have realized that the barrier between the donor and the recipient only grows when money is donated, but as long as that barrier exists in any degree, money donated to an organization that recognizes the needs and culture of the people it serves will always be used better than if it was used by those who don't.

Look at it this way: You have a Grandma that lives in Florida who you never get to see, but she loves you like crazy. Every Christmas and birthday, she sends you a porcelain figurine of a little boy fishing or playing baseball or petting his dog, along with a framed picture of a peaceful cottage in a forest. You would rather have the money. She doesn't know you very well anymore, but she loves you, and wants to show you that. Perhaps you still feel the love, but resource-wise, the situation would be much better if you just told her what you needed, and she listened.

This is to say that the love is there, and the intentions are good, but as much as the thought counts, there is an opportunity for more: helpful contributions, educated gifts, connection.

A friend of mine once told me that it is difficult to love someone if you are focused on what you can receive.
A science fiction novel once taught me that you cannot love someone well unless you can understand them enough to know why they love themself.

I am thankful for the both of them, and for an opportunity to witness why their wisdom is important, and the consequences of not following it.

As volunteerism evolves, so will we.