It’s a regular weekly gig, my Wednesday volunteer stint at a San Francisco homeless shelter. And after months of this, somehow I am ready to throw in the towel. What I actually do as a volunteer is minimal, e.g., passing out toothbrushes and disposable razors. What I gain is a close-up perspective on life in this town. Simply put, there are lots of poor people around. And even more simple – I am glad to not be one of them.
As for turning up at the shelter and dispensing bits and pieces, someone else can do that. The person who probably benefits most from my volunteering is me. I keep in touch with urban reality. I learn that poor people on the streets are generally not to be feared. And this is not a small consideration in my case, being a highly vulnerable rolling target.
Above all, I have learned that people on the streets need a rest. That’s the whole idea behind the shelter where I volunteer. It’s a church that slides its pews out of the way and provides mats for people who literally need a nap. And that’s what happens. A big room full of people sleeping, trying to sleep, or just resting. Being on the streets is like being goaded constantly. People might sleep here and there, now and then at night, but it’s never enough. And with dawn, there’s another struggle to find food, toilet, clothing, maybe even a shower…not to mention, work. And that’s the other thing. This shelter does collaborate with another program that offers street cleaning jobs. There are many takers for this.
And who are “the homeless?” Almost anyone. I see people who are day laborers, Hispanic, sometimes with limited English, immigration status uncertain. And this category includes a certain amount of middle-aged men who are probably not as employable as they once were. In other words, these people are working. They are also living in a city where Craigslist advertises couches to sleep on for $100 a night.
There is also a large group of psychologically addled people. This is my description, hardly an accurate sociological or psychological descriptor. But one can imagine them not fitting in at hiring time, easily getting fired. One woman I often see there came up to me this very day and asked if a staff member in the shelter was talking about her. No, I told her, quite truthfully. A few weeks ago another man took a plastic razor and toothbrush, thanked me. Then as he walked away, he asked if I was looking at him. Not really, I told him. He did not sound convinced. There are several transsexuals, recently minted women who, if one can generalize, tend to have very good senses of humor. But their job market may be limited. And actually even in San Francisco, their lives on the streets are often cut short.
In this town, it’s not a good idea to run out of money. It’s very easy to run out of options. It is not at all difficult to wind up without a roof over one’s head.
Still, with so many people in the shelter sleeping around me, I tend to do the same myself. It doesn’t help that I turn up there fresh from a couple of hours of morning exercise. So I’m thinking of what I do, and that might involve PR and fundraising. They don’t need me to hand out toothbrushes. They do need money. And I need social involvement and a reminder of what life is like for many people.