Thursday, May 17, 2007

You Don’t Have to Go to New Orleans to Help

Our Town downtown
October 2, 2006

This may mean something, if you’re looking for something.

A couple evenings a month I go to the basement of the Jesuit church on West 16th Street and spend the night as a volunteer at the homeless shelter there. The rough picture that just entered your mind of that duty is, I’m going to say, rougher than it really is, or I wouldn’t be doing it. The shelter is a spotless vast cafeteria that the boys’ school connected to the church uses. Chrome-and-plastic lunch chairs are stacked in twos on long-table tops. The floor shines.

Sometime after 8:00 a dozen or so men are dropped off by bus from a downtown center where many men and women gather nightly waiting to be shuttled to one of the shelters around the city. I used to volunteer at a Quaker Meeting House in the same system. That was spotless too, smaller and cozy. When the men file into the shelter, they head right to the two storage rooms where metal, folded cots are waiting. Most of the men have been recent regulars at the church shelter and know which bed is theirs. They grab fresh linen from the shelves. There are soft stacks of gym-white towels.

Near one of the front tables is a TV that I take out of storage and have plugged in for them. I grab bread and lunch meat and juice and milk from the fridge and spread that out for them. They find the same welcome there every night. They look grateful—and very hungry.

And they look tired. Most, after they’ve washed up and made their beds, are down for the count within an hour. They seldom say much to each other. Maybe bum a smoke and go outside. One, maybe two, guys watch television till 9:30 or 10. It’s quiet then and I flip all the switches that turn out the big lights on the high ceiling above them. I read by the lights of the vending machines for another hour or so and then sleep on a cot like theirs.

Morning comes quickly and the men board a bus again around 6:00 to head back to the center to start another day. There’ll they’ll get medication that most of them appear to be on. How they’ll spend their day varies; one guy sells books on 6th Avenue. Another guy does house repairs. Many watch TV all day at the center or hang out in libraries and bookstores. I’ve never seen any of them around. I look for them though.

Sometimes I wonder why I wouldn’t do this once a week, or more even. I miss nothing socially on the two nights I do volunteer. There I am in a setting stimulatingly different from my small apartment. There are a dozen guys grateful to have someone helping them and liking them. It uses some part of you that doesn’t normally get used.

That’s the point of this. There are ways you can use those parts of yourself all around the city. While I sit by the vending machines at the shelter and read till I’m ready for sleep, I sometimes look over the church bulletin that I may have taken on my way downstairs. I’m always impressed by what they do. Just at this one church there is the homeless shelter that runs every night of the year. There’s a ‘Welcome Table’ that serves 700 meals to hungry people on Sundays in the big cafeteria. They give out donated clothing to anyone that needs it then too. When I say ‘they’, I mean volunteers.

There’s a ‘Food Pantry’ at the church a couple Saturdays a month that dispenses groceries. They serve 100 families. They, again, are volunteers. Spanish speakers are especially needed.

There’s an ‘Education Outreach Program’ that lasts 12 weeks and meets twice a week to help people who are trying to recover from their homeless situation. Volunteers become mentors. There are also adult education programs and GED and ESL programs. All needing you and me to help with them. They don’t beg for your help or your
vote or slide fliers under your door. They mention it in the bulletin that they do these things and are in need of volunteers.

And this is just in one church, on one cross street in town. Imagine all the places in this city that do the same kinds of things and are looking for someone to help them do it.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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