Friday, August 11, 2006

Do I look taller?

Our mayor, Gavin Newsom, made it to yesterday's Project Homeless Connect event. When he addressed the group of volunteers before the event, he said that the tallest people he knows are the ones who kneel to lift someone up. I'd probably heard that before but it was nice to hear again and good to feel like I was one of the people he was directing it towards. He also joked about how "damn happy" people who volunteer are and how while we were going to bring dignity to people, we would receive much in return. He was right.

I don't see the final statistics posted on the website yet, but at the end of the day, they said 2508 people were served by about 1200 volunteers. Several people who needed urgent medical attention were taken to the hospital. Many were given medical, dental and/or vision exams. Most received giveaways of clothes, food, hygiene items, etc. I think everyone was fed.

People who attended the event could apply for food stamps, Social Security, General Aid and get a DMV ID. Someone was available to talk with them about money management (although most people either thought they knew how to manage their money or wondered what the point was since they didn't have any). There was information about childcare, housing and shelter options.

If they wanted to talk to a lawyer, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor or sign into detox, they could. Wheelchair repair and employment referrals were available.

Sprint provided free phone calls to anywhere in the US. A storytelling area was set up where people could share their experiences and have them documented. A photographer was taking portraits of people too.

I was personally able to meet over 20 homeless people and treat them like people. I would introduce myself, ask their name, look them in the eye, shake their hand and tell them I was glad they were there. I collected some basic information then asked them what they needed and we talked about what was offered. Then, it was someone else's turn to escort them into the service area. I told them it had been nice to meet them and wished them well.

I met 25-year-old Kurt who told me how he had been run over by a truck when he was 16 and lost teeth playing roller hockey. When I asked if he wanted to call anyone, he said he didn't have a phone number for his grandparents, parents or sister. He said he hadn't met his nephew yet.

Larry, a very distinguished gentleman, joked that it would be easy to remember my name since our names rhymed. I laughed back about how I had once been married to Gary and about how people used to ask if we were going to name our kids Sherry or Barry. Then Larry told me about a band he had been in where they had two Garys and three Larrys. When I asked what they called that band, he said it had been John Lee Hooker's Band.

At home, I did a web search and found Larry's name on several of John's websites. Looks like he definately played bass for him in the 80s. John was proud of his back-up band, "Don't forget to mention my young musicians," he says. Larry told me he has been a musician for over 30 years. I told him about my friend, Melissa who is a musician in Chicago. These days, Larry is hoping to see a doctor because he is having a lot of problems with his feet but he still plays at a church on Sundays.

I met Michelle, who is also 25. She used to work in a homeless shelter until she was laid off. While I was helping Michelle, I started coughing. I'd forgotten to bring a water bottle and my throat was dry. A handsome young man standing nearby asked if I needed water. I said, yes, thanks and took the bottle of water he extended eagerly to me, opened it and drank, feeling much better. When Michelle left, I realized that the person who had given me the water wasn't a volunteer as I'd thought but one of the homeless people we were supposed to be helping. He had been happy to willingly hand his water over to me. I found two bottles of water to repay him before he went on his way.

One man who was over 70 seemed to practically pass out while we were talking. He would fade in and out. I don't know if he was drunk, exhausted or what.

Because we couldn't communicate using words, I held hands and exchanged smiles with a sweet, tiny, ancient-looking woman while she waited patiently for an interpreter. She was from Malaysian. The woman volunteering next to me was trying to help her. Marian spoke Cambodian but not Malaysian. The woman waited a long time hoping for a volunteer who spoke Malaysian to materialize. Finally, a man from the crowd recognized the situation and offered himself up as an interpreter for her. We hugged before she left.

One man was a big fan of the mayor. He said he had shelter now because of what we were doing. He talked about an initiative called, "Care not cash."

Another man in a wheelchair was very upset when I told him the vision screening area was full. He said he, "needed an eye exam real bad." I tried to get one of the volunteers to take him over to the area to see if they might fit him in anyway. When she told him he could come back in two months he almost started to cry. Two months is a long time if you can't walk, can't see and live on the streets.

Ann said she had a bone fracture in her eye when I explained that they were no longer offering vision care. Hopefully, the medical unit was able to help them.

Willie came with Ann. Ann was probably in her 30s, Willie was in his 70s. He was soft-spoken, physically small with a very kind demeanor. They appear to have become friends. They both had shelter so maybe that is where they met.

Lisa wanted to talk with a mental health counselor. She has feeling depressed, anxious and like everyone was out to get her. She and her boyfriend have been pan-handling for money for awhile but people are getting mad at them for doing it. She doesn't understand why people have to be so mean.

Gayle told me about her two young kids. They are a boy and a girl, ages 9 and 12. I saw her leave with some clothing.

Matthew told me how his mom died two weeks ago. She was his best friend. He misses her very much. He told me about how he had been in prison for doing heroin and how hard he was working to try to clean up his act. Despite his best efforts, he said he struggles to find work. He thinks people discriminate against him because of his tattoos.

Steve appeared to be in his 40s and seemed to appreciate just being treated decently.

I met Shellie, a transgender individual in awkward, dark glasses. She didn't want to use her legal male name anymore. She was trying to get an ID with her female identity. She wouldn't shake my hand because she said she had body lice.

I met a couple. Kenyata, the man (who said he was in the process of becoming a woman) had a place where he could sleep indoors every night but said he wasn't going to sleep indoors without his fiance, Shirley. He said they were getting married but weren't sure when. He said it cost $86 to get married and that $86 was a lot of money to them. He said a dollar was a lot of money to them. However, when I asked if he wanted to talk to someone about employment he declined and said he was retired. So they sleep outdoors together until they can find a way to raise enough money to get married.

One young guy who was 20 was very interested in help finding a job. Another guy was hoping to find out how to become a citizen so he could work legally.

I don't remember everyone. I was only supposed to spend about 10 minutes with each person. At the Runaway Switchboard, sometimes I spent my entire 2-hour shift talking with and trying to come up with solutions for someone. My level of involvement was different than I am used to but this was probably an ideal setting for me to be able to help homeless people. The time flew by. There were lots of people around for support which offered relative safety and boundaries.

Someone kissed my hand. More than one person said I was beautiful. I was thanked profusely for listening, caring and offering kindness. I had the easy job. I didn't have to try to meet their needs or explain to them why we sometimes couldn't provide what they wanted and thought they should receive.

Today, I wrote a letter to the mayor thanking him for what he is doing. I also told him about the National Runaway Switchboard and their model, thinking while these Project Homeless Connect events they are now holding every two months are wonderful; it would be great if there were a number like 1-800-CONNECT people in crisis could call to find out where to go for help in the meantime.

I know we didn't meet everyone's needs yesterday but we did extend a hand to people who need one and that is something.


Carma said...

You make me glad that I know you.
I know I that it makes a difference when you treat people with a little kindness. I am sure that the people you touched were happy to have your smiling face there. Like the story of the little boy who throws starfish back into the ocean after a high tide. He is mocked by a man who says "What difference can you make. There are thousands of starfish on the beach you can't save them all." The boy looks at the man and picks up a starfish, throwing it back, he says "no, I can't save them all, but I just made a difference to that one." I like that I know someone who makes a real difference.

Pickled Eel said...

Hi Mary, Volunteering is a great way to put our own lives in perspective. But even more amazing is just how easy it is - to give just a little of yourself only to discover it is so deeply appreciated by those with whom you deal. Making a difference to those we meet just by being who we are - a simple but powerful formula. And in so doing you discover, as you note, that the joy is in the giving, not the receiving. Fanstastic. Good work.