Friday, October 24, 2014

Homeless Shelter Volunteer

While I'm involved in a variety of charities, the work I've been doing the longest has been volunteering overnight at a homeless shelter here in New York City, and I get questions about it all the time. The main question I get is, "why do you volunteer?" and honestly, I just don't know. It just feels important to me. So, I thought I'd share a little bit about it.

Even though I have been doing this routine consistently for a long time, I didn't tell my mother for almost five years. I thought she would worry, and I was right. Then I brought her with me to drop off some food on Thanksgiving one year, and she saw that everyone is very polite and helpful, and it feels safe, which helped her to stop worrying. I was glad I told her -- not only because I didn't want to hide something, but also because when I did tell her, my mother told me she wasn't surprised that I was volunteering. I learned that as a small child I had saved my allowance to give to the homeless people I saw sleeping on the sidewalks of New York. I don't remember this, but I do remember feeling very sad that they were all alone and noticing all the people walking by who ignored them. I remember thinking that they must be lonely.

I first heard about the shelter within months of moving to New York. I felt an immediate calling, but didn't feel fully comfortable with staying the night, so I met with one of the founders of the shelter to find out more. Sylvia was an older woman who no longer stayed overnight but continued to run the logistics of the shelter and kept involved in the politics that affected its function and funding. In fact, she was so passionate about protecting New Yorkers that she eventually ran for and won a seat in local politics while in her late 60's. She was a tiny woman who spoke with a kind voice that could also be quite stern if necessary, and while she looked like a cute grandmother, she was a force that was not to be crossed. I respected and liked her from our first meeting.

Still, I had my reservations. But I attended the group training session anyway, and started what would become a near-decade of volunteering.

The shelter I volunteer for is a faith-based shelter, meaning that a house of worship runs it. In the 1980's a bunch of faith-based shelters opened their doors to help the overwhelming number of people sleeping on the city streets. My understanding is that this was partly in response to reports of the city-run shelters being so unsafe that many people preferred the cold sidewalk to a city cot. The churches, meeting houses and synagogues of the city opened their basements and gyms to provide a safe place for the city's homeless to stay.

Because the volunteers at these shelters are not trained in social work, every guest that comes to a faith-based shelter must first go through
a screening process at one of the city-run drop-in centers. The drop-in centers are located throughout the boroughs of New York, and they are open 24 hours a day so that anyone in crisis can enter and be safe and warm for the night. After being screened for each person's specific needs, and if there are enough beds at the faith-based shelters, a person can be assigned for the night. If there are not enough volunteers to run these shelters, then there are only chairs to sleep in at the drop-in center. I know our shelter struggles sometimes to find two volunteers each night, and I believe we're one of the luckier shelters with a great network of volunteers, so it's easy to see why there are rarely enough beds. During the Bloomberg administration, funding was cut to the shelter system drastically enough to cause several to close, so there are even fewer beds available now, which makes keeping our shelters staffed extra important.

Our shelter requires two volunteers, and hosts up to fourteen guests a night. When we arrive in the evening, we pull all the fold up cots out of our closet-turned-kitchen and set them up around the gym. We put out folding tables and a "light supper" consisting mainly of food donations from the school or nearby family-run restaurants. It's a wonderful community effort that the shelter coordinators do a great job with -- even the Starbucks on the corner tried to donate their leftovers to us for a while. The government provides us with boxes of milk and a few other staples, and some volunteers also bring pizza or soda as a treat.

Once the always interesting assortment of food is out and a pot of coffee is on, it isn't long until the guests arrive. After dropping their bags at a cot, guests start to set up their beds. If they have stayed with us earlier in the week they retrieve their plastic bag filled with the linens they used. If it's their first time, we outfit them with sheets and a blanket. We pass out pillows and hand towels. In the morning, everyone will re-bag their linens to save on how much we have to wash each week when the laundry is picked up to be cleaned.

Guests make food and settle in for the night. Sometimes there is a board game to be played or a radio to listen to, but far more often than not the guests are exhausted from difficult days and are more reserved. Some guests iron their clothing for the next day, and others just get in bed and try to doze or read the paper before lights out at ten. In the morning, we make coffee and put out cereal, and everyone packs up for the day ahead, ready to leave on the morning bus at 6:30am. Using excellent Tetris skills, the volunteers put everything away into the small kitchen, and head out the door.

It's nice to meet the other volunteers. There is a wide range of people from undergrads, to playwrights, to retired folk, so it's always interesting to find out how they learned of the shelter. I've even made buddies with some of the volunteers over the years.

It's also nice to meet the guests. Many guests are in the shelter because they have fallen on hard times financially and are now struggling every day to get back on their feet. Something I think many people don't know is that several of our guests have part-time or full-time jobs as they save up money and wait for their name to hit the top of the waiting list for housing. When I first started volunteering I met a teacher who had lost everything after being hit by a bus. She told me she had been walking home from a lecture Hillary Clinton had given, and out of the blue her whole life turned upside down. A long hospital stay eventually resulted in her ending up in the shelter. She, like many others through the years, was finally placed in housing. I later heard from another volunteer that he had run into her and she had moved out of assisted housing to a place of her own. Those are the best stories -- hearing that someone is doing well. We know they happen over and over, but we don't always get to hear about it so it's nice when we do.

One of the things I remember thinking on the first night I volunteered was how much closer to the edge we all are than we might realize. Recently, when I met a guest who knew the volunteer I was working with because they had gone to Harvard together, this became even more apparent -- seemingly similar lives can take very different paths, and stable lives can become unstable in an instant. I think if I were to try to find just one reason that I volunteer, it would be that I am grateful for where I am, and that I hope if our places were switched, someone else would choose to help keep me from sleeping on a sidewalk.

And if I'm lucky, then maybe by volunteering I can even help keep someone from being lonely while they go through a hard time.

Find a place to volunteer (it doesn't have to be overnight!) to help the homeless here, here, or here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-Kurt Vonnegut