Serendipity

It was a chilly Sunday in December, just a few days before Christmas. I spent the day in Denver attending an event in which my good friend was performing. It was a fundraiser, and it was dragging on. I considered leaving at the halfway point, but ultimately decided to stay until the end.

(It may seem like there are an annoying amount of trivial details here at the beginning, but hang in there – they are actually relevant at the end!)

After the show, I drove to Longmont where I was starting a house sitting job, and decided to stop by Safeway to pick up a few groceries.

As I was walking in the door, I saw two of our homeless clients. They were standing under the hot air in the doorway, trying to get warm. I chatted with them for a little bit, offered to drive them to the shelter or buy them something from the store but they declined.

I knew they slept out a lot of the time due to his severe anxiety issues, so I wasn’t surprised. Still, it was cold that night and I worried about them. They turned to leave and the guy took my hand, looked in my eyes with his dark brown ones shining, and said, “thank you.”

As I grabbed a few things in the grocery store, I realized how cold the man’s hands were when he held mine and I thought that I could easily pop over to my office, just a couple blocks from there, and get them some gloves and hand warmers to keep the frostbite away. I decided to do it and looked around to see in which direction they were walking as I left the store.

First I had to stop by the house to check on the cat I was watching, as I was already quite late to feed him dinner. He was fine and as I put the groceries away, I debated whether to bother going back out in the cold to track down the couple and get them some gloves. It was late, I had already taken off my wet shoes and coat, and it was nice and warm inside the house.

Logic and past experience told me that it would probably be hard to find the couple again; I thought about just sitting down with a glass of wine to watch TV.

Something was telling me to try anyway and so I got back in my car and drove to my office in search of gloves.

When I pulled up next to the door, it was close to 11pm. My headlights shined onto some donations sitting out front (pretty typical sight). But then a tarp that was covering them started moving as if blowing in the wind (there was no wind that night).

Suddenly, the tarp popped up and I could see a person frantically waving at me from underneath.

A little startled, I got out of my car and started talking to the person from a distance.

“Hi, this is Christina, I work here. What are you doing?”

I found out his name was Tom, he was a client of ours who I had only met a couple of times. He told me that he usually sleeps out, even in the winter.

But his sleeping bag had been stolen earlier that evening and he wasn’t equipped for the weather. He wanted to get in touch with our outreach team but didn’t have a phone and didn’t know where the shelter was, so he plopped himself on the pavement in front of the office under that tarp and hoped someone would show up.

I don’t know how long he was under that tarp before I got there. What I do know is that when I pulled out my phone to check the temperature, it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

We loaded his bags in my back seat and I drove him to the shelter while he warmed his stiff hands in front of the heating vents.

“Well, I’m sure glad you came along,” he said.

It kept me up that night – thinking about how many things had to happen for me to be there to find him. Even our latest-working volunteers and staff had left for the night at that point and no one casually driving by would have likely noticed the man under the tarp, camouflaged next to the bags of donations.

He might have been OK there overnight. He said he had slept out in worse conditions.

“Yes ma’am, I’m 58 years old and this is not my first rodeo.”

He said that your breath eventually warms up the inside of a tarp if you keep the edges sealed.

But then again, 0 degrees is pretty darn cold to sleep outside without a sleeping bag, no matter what.

I never did end up finding the couple to give them the gloves, but it turned out they weren’t the ones who needed help that night.

Street outreach

I first got started working with folks experiencing homelessness while I was in college. My classes were teaching me all about poverty, inequality, and privilege. At the same time, my extracurricular education was teaching me about activism and how to make change in the world as one person.

Home on break, I was itching to do something more meaningful than working retail to pay the bills. I learned about an amazing organization in my community and signed up to volunteer.

At the orientation, I realized that these people were putting into action so many of the things I was learning about in school.

My favorite community health professor said, “The key to making change is to meet people where they are.”

This organization was literally doing that – meeting people out on the streets of the community to provide them with food, water, blankets and clothing to ensure they made it through the night.

My professor said, “If you want to help people, you have to build trust and wait until they are ready for help. And then you need to be there.”

I saw that in action night after night after night as volunteers provided necessary items and words of encouragement to people who were having some of the worst days of their lives.

After my return from the Peace Corps, I landed back in this community and immediately wanted to start volunteering again. I was even lucky enough to be hired very part-time, which eventually evolved into a full-time position.

My job was to coordinate volunteers to make and deliver 60-80 meals every single night, 365 nights of the year, to folks on the streets. As a small agency with a shoestring budget, we also had to get donations of all the items we needed to preserve life on the streets – sleeping bags, blankets, coats, gloves, water, etc.

It was a fun challenge, kind of like putting together an elaborate puzzle.

I also personally hit the streets a few evenings a month to work with our clients and deliver food, gear, etc., which was an amazing experience. I learned so much and had so many interesting encounters.

Some things that happened during street outreach shifts:

  • We helped a gentleman jump the battery on the car that he was living in on a sub-zero night in the Walmart parking lot (pictured above);
  • I drove a full SUV of people to the emergency shelter one day just before Christmas while everyone sang along to Christmas music on the radio;
  • We encountered families with children who had just lost their housing and helped get them into temporary shelter for the night;
  • I drained the battery on our own vehicle one frigid night by leaving the lights on while trying to convince a woman living in a tent in an alley to come to the shelter because it was going to be below zero that evening. We had to rely on the kindness of a neighbor to jump our vehicle when we finally left the woman with her tent in the alley;
  • I met a lot of very interesting people and was honored to be let into their lives as we encountered each other month after month for several years.

The stories that follow are written in their honor and are testaments to the human spirit and to the importance of human kindness, which can mean so much.

Ed Sheeran

Last winter, I spent my Tuesday and Friday evenings working at the emergency shelter that our organization hosted for individuals experiencing homelessness.

It was our first year of staffing a shelter and I was surprised by how intimate the experience was.

The shift began at 5:30pm when we arrived at the shelter site (a church that generously lent us their space) and unloaded the food and supplies that we needed for that night. It ended after 10pm when the lights went out and our overnight staff took over.

We usually encountered a line of folks at the door when we first arrived – people who were cold, wet, and exhausted after a long day out in the cold and wanted to make sure they were the first in the door.

The first hour was pretty busy as we checked in each guest and got everyone situated with a mat, a blanket, and a meal. The process included a search of coat pockets.

You learn a lot about people by seeing what they keep in their pockets day in and day out. I found rosary beads, loose tobacco for rolling cigarettes, letters from loved ones, soaking wet clothing, bits of food for later, tools for work, and so much more.

During the next few hours, our guests were able to take showers, get their laundry done, charge their phones, watch TV… all the things one usually does at home.

As we entered those later hours in the evening, people would settle in, each claiming their own small space in the shelter. As folks walked around in the clothes they would be sleeping in, on their way to brush their teeth or shave, I sometimes was struck by the feeling that I was the guest, not them.

One night, I was sitting at the check-in table when a gentleman, we’ll call him Bryan, walked by on his way to the shower. He was playing music from his phone, and suddenly I recognized the song as one of my favorites.

I knew Bryan, had seen him around, but had never really talked to him at length. There had always been a barrier there – not exactly hostility, but something close to that. He was very independent and wanted to keep me at arm’s length, a boundary which I respected.

But when I heard that Ed Sheeran music coming from his phone, I had to reach out.

(Ed Sheeran just happens to be my very favorite artist. The picture attached to this post is from his concert at Red Rocks that my brother and I attended in 2015.)

“Hey, is that Castle on the Hill?” I asked as he passed the table.

“Well, yes it is,” he replied, turning towards me.”You know your Ed Sheeran music.”

“I love Ed Sheeran!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

And in that moment, we connected.

We could have been two people anywhere.

Each of us weighed in on our favorite songs and we discussed the merits of Ed Sheeran’s new album compared to his old stuff.

All the boundaries of the shelter and where we were fell away; all the other guests faded into the background, the idea that I was a staff person and he was a client totally dissolved; any animosity I had previously felt from him was gone. We were just two people sharing a connection through music.

I admit that I was surprised to hear music I liked being played in the shelter that night. Even after years of working with people experiencing homelessness every day, I am still guilty of making subconscious prejudgements which are often wrong. That night,

I was reminded that there isn’t music for housed people and other music for un-housed people…

There is just music and there are people and it connects us all.

Upcoming

In the following weeks, I will be sharing stories from my last few years of work with people experiencing homelessness.

Before I start on this project, I want to be clear. All I am able to provide is my own perspective. Each person has their own way of telling their story and my narrative does not in any way replace the narrative that could be told by each of these people individually.

I can offer my perspective and tell the story through my lens. That is all I aim to do, and in so doing, I hope to shed some light on an issue that a lot of Americans want to understand better.

These are not stories about “homeless people.” They are stories about people.

That’s what will strike you if you start talking to folks who are unhoused. You’ll find that they are not as different from you as you think.

You’ll meet people who listen to the same music you do, share your hobbies, share your background.

You’ll talk with people who go to a job each day, take pride in their work and people who complain about their bosses and office politics, just like you do.

I’ve even encountered people who share my exact birthday and people who went to high school with me.

Truthfully, it is a bit disconcerting sometimes to look in this strange mirror which shows how different my circumstances could have been had I been dealt a different hand in life in one way or another. We Americans want to believe that we are in good positions because of our hard work and virtuous natures. We want to think that ‘we’ are ultimately different from ‘them,’ but I am continually reminded that this is not the case.

I have changed names and identifying details in these stories for the privacy of each individual that is mentioned in the following stories.

Please let me know what you think of this project as it evolves. Thanks for reading!