Most Thursday mornings you can find me at a local shelter for homeless families, working as a volunteer chaplain. I’m not as useful as I’d like to be, since I am male – and many of those needing the services of this facility (and similar shelters) are there because of domestic abuse – meaning that men are to be feared and avoided, not trusted. So, it can take a great deal of time to get past that hurdle before communication (and trust) can grow. And, many of the residents move on to other shelters, or (hopefully) a home, before such a bond can develop.
As a result, I spend a great deal of my time observing those who are there in the shelter, mostly Moms (and some Dads) getting their kids to the school bus, preparing to go to work. Often they are also preparing for a new round in the endless struggle with the Social Services bureaucracy and various other agencies and organizations: a struggle dedicated to providing enough food for their family, finding a new home, a new job, and perhaps medical or other care.
It’s an interesting place. I usually see kids reading schoolbooks, watching TV, talking with their parents and playing with friends. Both parents and kids will be eating from the continental breakfast buffet that the hotel puts out for them. (The State of Massachusetts contracts with a number of hotels around the state, such as the one I work at, to provide shelter for the several thousand homeless families that cannot be housed within state-owned and run homes.)
The kids are dressed just like any kid would be on a school morning – jeans or (for the younger set) some sort of themed clothing – (perhaps a superhero, Barbie, Hello Kitty, and so on…) Backpacks full, sometimes with Mom (as all Mom’s do) doing her best to make their hair and outfits presentable before they have to run out to the school bus.
When I drive up on those mornings, I sometimes see parents running from the hotel to the commuter bus stop nearby with plates of food – perhaps two or three bagels or toast, and (usually) coffee. Moms might be pushing a stroller, or shepherding a young child or two, while the dads might have a backpack or briefcase.
These are people, people like you and me.
True, English might not be their first language. I’ve met many people there who were born in places like Jamaica, Algeria, Brazil, France, Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and so on. So, it is not uncommon to overhear multiple conversations at the same time in two or three languages, sometimes even one conversation in two or three languages! But, I’ve met just as many folks who hail from places like Georgia or Texas, or are Massachusetts natives.
Many of these folks have family in the area, who are usually trying to help them get out of the bind that they are in, but don’t have the resources, or time, or health, to do much for them.
Most of them are hard-working people, and many of the foreign-born came to this country as a result of marriage, and/or came quite young to escape oppression or hopelessness at home. Of them, most are already have, or are working to attain, citizenship or a green card.
Finally, I have yet to meet anyone who is willingly in such a shelter. They are there because they had to flee an abusive situation at home and had nowhere else to go; or their job did not pay well enough to afford an apartment; or some crisis destroyed their finances and so they lost their home.
There is no stereotype that fits these folks, they are just as diverse and interesting a group of people as I’ve met anywhere, and in fact the crisis they face often makes them even more determined to do what it takes to find or build a stable home for themselves and their children. All the while, they struggle to keep life as normal as possible for their kids. It’s not easy.
And yes, there is dysfunction in many of these families. But, blaming them for the dysfunction is often unjustified. A mother, for instance, fleeing with her kids from an abusive husband, or escaping from a drug ridden neighborhood or family, is launching into an uncertain and precarious future. True, she may exhibit dysfunctional behavior herself, as may her kids – but as we know all too well from those returning from war suffering from PTSD, is it right to entirely blame them for the symptoms brought about by the trauma they’ve been through? I think not. So, whether they’ll have the resources and time they need to build a new life is our collective responsibility. We are their neighbors, and, as Christ calls us to do, we are called to help them find healing and restoration.
At times, I’ve brought my son to play with the other kids, and they have a good time together. These visits help him learn that no matter how different a person may be from him, they are still people – even if they dress differently, speak a different language, or have a different skin color. They like to play, like he does. They laugh, like he does. They cry, like he does. They grow, like he does. They teach him new things (like how to shoot a basketball) and they become friends.
I make friends, too. The relationships are necessarily limited, as once these people leave the shelter, it is unlikely I’ll ever see them again. But, I respect them. It is a blessing to get to know them, even though they are going through some difficult times.
And no matter what else, these are people we’re talking about. They have the same worries for their kids that I have for mine. They are just as concerned with helping their children succeed and helping them live a good and productive life as I am for my own children. And most work hard to try and make ends meet and be good parents at the same time.
Certainly, there are some “freeloaders.” But folks who operate in that way usually don’t last long in “the system” – they tend to get booted out, or drop out on their own, because staying within the social services system takes a great deal of effort: it is a complex and byzantine maze, often staffed by caseworkers who are overloaded, underpaid, often under trained, and who have to try and make sense of an often obtuse and poorly thought-through legal and regulatory maze if they are to be of any help to their clients at all.
Working under such conditions is, I imagine, dispiriting. And this probably why so many of the people I meet in the shelter are constantly having to deal with new caseworkers, or are constantly being handed off or referred from one agency or office to another – the lack of funding, lack of continuity, overlapping areas of responsibility (in some cases) and the gaps between these bureaucratic domains (in many other cases) only multiplies the misery of all involved. And yet, Massachusetts seems to have one of the more enlightened and effective social service infrastructures in the nation.
All I ask, the next time you here someone ranting about how people need to work for a living and stop freeloading at the taxpayer’s expense, is to remember that you cannot attack or solve the problem of homelessness by slashing social services budgets. Cutting the safety net out from under these people means condemning them, and their children, to even more miserable conditions and usually much more prolonged episodes of homelessness (and its many related sources of trauma) than they would otherwise have had. “Stopping Freeloading” may be a worthwhile goal, but not when used as an excuse to take a meat axe to the programs that are the only support many of these people have.
I agree that most social services bureaucracies in this country are inefficient, bloated and wasteful. But, that problem is not the fault of those who are homeless and have no power to change the situation. The fault lies with us (and especially those who represent us at the State and federal levels). It is those of us with power and influence (and money), and those of us who make the laws and create these bureaucracies, that are to blame. Therefore, we must bear the responsibility of fixing the system. Abolishing the safety net, such as it is, that these people rely on for their survival (and that of their kids), or seeking to slash that safety net into insignificance (even more than it is already) is an egregious evasion of responsibility, an attempt to avoid the blame we so richly deserve. It obscures the real issues by using the label of “fiscal responsibility” to hide the fact that we are claiming that our own power and position is inviolate, and is not to be impinged-upon by the plight of those who do not have adequate finances, do not have a home to call their own. and often need our support if they are to have a reasonable hope of changing the situation they find themselves in.
And yet, despite all the frustration and challenges of such a place, what makes my work at this shelter worthwhile is days like this past Thursday, when a woman who has been there with her child for many months finally was able to get into an apartment. She was all smiles, and her child was equally excited and happy. They are wonderful people, and I count them as friends. I will miss seeing them, even though I am very glad they have begun a new chapter in their journey towards healing and restoration.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).