My Experience Volunteering to Help the Homeless
I’m not very grateful for socks, sorting and matching them are the worst part about doing laundry, I often leave them unsorted at the bottom of the basket and match them as I go. I recently learned the value of nice clean fresh socks by volunteering for 1st Saturdays, an informal group of people who gather to help the homeless on, you guessed it, the first Saturday of every month. Their mission is to give, share and spend time with people who are living a majority of their time on the street.
I joined them on a Friday evening to help make care packages. Everyone was concerned by how few items they had to put in the Ziploc bags. Apparently, donations have dwindled a bit since the initial enthusiasm 8 months ago. Still, there were some goodies to put in the bags including new socks, breakfast bars, razors, band-aids, q-tips several small hygiene items the group ordered from an on-line hotel supplier. While we filled bags, we discussed the organization and the need to generate donations, then, we ran out of socks, short of the 150 goal.
It seems the volunteers have tapped out their friends and acquaintances and have been digging into their personal resources quite a lot lately; “I’m going to have to go buy some t-shirts since I’ve given most of mine away” jokes one man, the others smile in recognition. After a discussion about socks and idea on how to get more, the work finishes early because there just isn’t that much to organize..
The founders of 1st Saturday, John, Merek and Jason, hope to establish a non-profit organization so they can give out tax receipts but they are not in a hurry either. They seem to realize that many groups have burnt themselves out going this route, they’ve been warned that it is easy to lose the heart and energy of a good organization through the necessity of bureaucratizing. Doing all the paperwork and legal requirements of creating and maintaining a non-profit inevitably seems to distance some members from the work.
And this group embraces the principle that giving is fun. When we meet on Saturday morning, it is at the very civilized time of 11am. The time is important to me because I’m too selfish to drag my butt out of bed on a weekend in the wee hours of the morning. It turns out that this group may not have a problem with a little selfishness . Unlike other groups, they seem to think the giver is as important as the ‘givee’. John (Halcyon) Styn is the spokeman for the group (because, he jokes, “I’ll talk if someone wants to listen.”) and he tells us;
“I once thought doing good was something I owed the world, that giving was something I had to do and to be a good person I had to force myself through any resistance. Now, I understand that it isn’t about what I ‘must’ do or ‘should’ do but what do I want to do, what is it that I have to give. We all have something special to give and it doesn’t look the same for anyone. The thing that’ll tell you if you’re on the right path is whether you enjoy it. “
This approach seems to be working for him because he has a lot to give. John is an active person, doing things I was taught sensible people don’t do like trusting people, giving without getting anything in return, painting his RV pink and creating a podcast called something as sappy as HugNation dedicated to the practice of loving more and fearing less. His manner and content are so lacking in the kind of cynicism I’ve learned to associate with sanity, that I expect to feel the discomfort I get around religious converts and fanatical dieters. Instead, despite his dramatic hot-pink hair, John is decidedly un-theatrical and down-to-earth. I find him inspiring.
We roll up, our caravan of cars and the pink RV, and begin to unload. Merek must have pulled out his wallet again this morning because he produces more socks . He’s found a place where he can buy 12 pairs of socks for $5.99. Still, it adds up and somehow I suspect he isn’t rich.
The people at the 17th Street Day Center have spotted the pink RV and begin to politely form a line as we set up tables. I like the attitude of my fellow volunteers, they seem to respect the homeless and are willing to give without expectation. I like that no religion is involved in this. My peers don’t seem to feel superior or that they know what these people need more then they do. Plus, I like how the people who come to the tables take only what they need. As volunteers, we can help them search, if we want. I do and find it surprisingly pleasant, it’s fun helping them search for the right size, the perfect t-shirt or pants that are long enough . I’m impressed by the dignity with which people go through the items of clothing, I wish I shopped with such wisdom and respect for the goods I acquired.
A woman spots a sleeping bag in a box and claims it – she’s frail, bony and looks like she needs all the warmth she can get. Next, she struggles to try on a jean jacket. I help her, noticing how weak she seems. On the back of the jacket is a drawing of a scrawny big-eyed ethereal character from the movie, The Corpse Bride. The jacket looks great, I think, making an accidental association between emaciation and fashionability. Wisely, the woman rejects it; “Not warm enough.” She tells me. She likes a big red coat, and I help her try it on but it’s wool and she’s allergic. The long black sweater she tries next looks good but has no buttons. Finally she tries on a zippered bathrobe and announces; “This is what I’ve been looking for”. Another happy customer and it feels good.
I get a request for a bra, not too big, not a C, which is all we’ve got. Next, the first request for panties. Any kind of women’s underwear. It turns out that socks aren’t the only items in high demand. I get several more requests for bra’s and panties. I wonder why the group hasn’t tried to meet the need for women’s panties. I suspect it might be because some of the women are uncomfortable discussing a need for underwear with men. In fact, the woman who snagged the only panties we had, 2 lacy skimpy things, asked me for a bag, explaining; “Even though I’m 39, it still bothers me to let underwear be seen in public.”
Tampons are scooped up quickly, magazines are carefully considered, books chosen. I ask the woman with the red sleeping bag nearby if she likes to read.
“Oh Yes”, she says, “but I can’t read without reading glasses.” I promise to bring some to her next month, I can’t imagine life on the street without books.
Things are wrapping up, most of our toiletries are gone. Now we’re just talking with people. I sit down beside the woman with the red sleeping bag. Her name is Marty;
‘Farty Marty’ that’s what my Dad called me, or Sasquatch because my feet were so much bigger than the rest of me. I’ve always been small.
I ask Marty if she has a place to sleep at night and she says the street, “which is hard” she adds. She doesn’t mean difficult, she means hard, concrete hard.
“I have Lou Gehrigs disease, they say I have a few months. The sidewalk can be painful for sleeping.”
I’m glad she has a sleeping bag now. People often make fun of me for being gullible but I believe Marty is ill in some way and I like her, I like talking to her. I like her attitude, she doesn’t sound like she feels sorry for herself. I ask her how she gets medical care and she tells me that she goes to Scripps, that they take good care of her, “VERY good care of me” she emphasizes. She shows me some bruises from some blood tests, they couldn’t get blood out of her veins so they had to try a couple times. “They were testing for diabetes and stuff”, she tells me.
I tell her that being homeless is a fear of mine, I tell her I grew up with learning disabilities and other problems and that I felt the biggest thing that has kept me from the street (so far) is luck and people who helped me. Some people manage to rise above hardship but I don’t think I would have.
Marty tells me;
“Lots of young girls don’t know how to make it out here, they have trouble. They ask me for advice on how to make it on the street, since I’ve been here for more than 20 years. They call me a 3 time O.G.”
I ask her to explain the phrase and she pauses, perhaps not sure of the exact meaning but sure of the intent. The she says, in a different tone; “it means I’m a ghost.”
I looked it up later and O.G. seems to mean “Original Gangster” and is used to refer to a person with experience or a person who has remained “true to the game” and has never sold out.
I can’t imagine Marty on the street when she was younger, let alone an original gangster, with her cute nose and pretty face. She looks like a pixie peering at me from underneath her cap. I must look worried because she pats me on the knee, “I’ll be be okay,” she says, “as long as I have my family” her gesture includes the entire assorted crew across the street at the day station, “…and when there are people like you” she says smiling at me.
I tell her she is doing me a lot of good and that I bet she does that for a lot of people.
She sounds sad for the first time;
“I hope so, I hope so… I’m not always good. We can’t be all good I guess, but I think we all got good in us. Sometimes people are mean because people are mean to them. Instead of doing that, you got to try to be good anyway. I try but I don’t do it always.”
I think to myself how much I like this woman.
“I have a daughter in college. She’s studying to be a Vet.”
Marty’s pride in her daughter makes me happy.
It’s time to go.
John said that;
“the clothes, the food, the things are just props that help us break down the barriers between us and them.”
And I’ve learned he’s right. Still, I’ve got a long list of “props” I’d like to bring with me next time; reading glasses, bras, underwear, socks, etc., etc.
To donate money go the 1stSaturday.org.
Or, for clothes or items, email me and someone will pick up your donations or you can drop them off.