Portraits, Porridge and Lessons from a Homeless Shelter

A guy I recently met, Pedro, sketched this too kind portrait of me.   With sculpted eyebrows and visible cheek bones, the portrait is a more complimentary take on what I look like in person.   It also makes me look way more serious than I really am (I thought for sure I was smiling most of the time!) and curiously like I’m wearing overalls.

Likewise, this post has the potential to be self-congratulatory and overly serious without a bit of context.  So … in keeping it real:  1)  I am wearing a blue disposable apron.  2) I know many people for whom service and volunteering is as natural as breathing.  I’m not one of them.  I’m one of those people in a new city with disposable time on their hands.  3) Pedro is an artist and also homeless.

Every Wednesday I volunteer along with about a dozen other regular volunteers in a day center shelter for the homeless which serves anywhere between 75 and 100 guests.   The shelter is in a beautiful old church with high ceilings and stained glasses windows, an equal to the opulence of the neighborhood it resides in.  On Wednesdays and Fridays, the pews are moved round to make room for tables, seating areas with couches, a coffee bar, a ping pong table, an art corner.  It's a place to hang out, charge phones, borrow a computer, read the newspaper, sleep and eat a big breakfast.  Twice a week the church becomes a big, aromatic, very much lived-in living room without another analog in the neighborhood.

Wednesdays have become one of the highlights of my week.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  The first week was magical.  It was as if I walked into a place where I knew I was supposed to be.  I fit right in with the other volunteers, got the easy job of serving sausages, and felt welcomed by the guests I was supposed to be serving.  The first week one of the more sociable guests asked me: “So what skill do you bring?  Do you cut hair?  Or help people find jobs?” to which, because I was buzzing with delight in having found my place, answered, “Nothing really --- except maybe my smile.”  It seemed enough of an answer for him and a good enough reason to come back the second week.

The second week was all topsy turvy.  I realized that some people who I thought were guests were actually volunteers and vice versa.  I was doing that thing we do where we assess people based on appearance and other external factors and came to discover I had gotten several people wrong.   In a way though, that discovery was like a whack-a-mole reminding me that the line between who is giving and who is receiving is a thin one.  We all are on different sides of that line at different times. 

The third week security had to ask a few guests who smuggled alcohol in to leave.  In truth, that probably happened my first week too but I hadn’t noticed it then.  I was so mesmerized by the light shining in through the windows, my being “of service” that I missed the messiness of sharing a big, aromatic lived-in living room with people who don’t have a living room every day of the week. I didn’t see how even among the homeless, people cluster with their own kind and how there are cliques.

Homelessness is a complex issue without easy fixes.  Of course, I knew that the first week but as the weeks wear on, the knowing moves from your head to your heart.  The more you learn about the guests, the more you start to understand the host of reasons people get stuck.  Other weeks I’ve had the hard job of serving the scrambled eggs, the most popular item that always runs out first.  I’m easily persuaded to serve too generous a portion on the first helping to those who ask, as if scrambled eggs served with a smile will somehow tidy over the despair in their eyes.  But then I remember that I told James the first week that I’ve brought my smile, my contribution, and I can’t let up even when my heart is weighted down by what I see.  I’m getting better at telling the few pushy ones to wait for seconds.

The shelter is a messy place where sadness doesn't have a lot of places to hide.   I’ve had meaningful conversations with people, bizarre conversations with people, funny conversations with people.  I’ve had a heated conversation with someone where a young woman volunteer with Down’s Syndrome hugged both of us and told us she loved us with every volley of the conversation.  I’ve witnessed outright, hurtful racism.  I’ve witnessed simple acts of friendship. 

I’ve seen one of the guests in a completely different part of town on a park bench, who I warmly greeted, only to be shaken awake realizing that might be his living room for the night.  But then I saw him again the following Wednesday and we didn’t talk about where he slept that night.  We talked about Seattle; a place he once visited, and had he possible met me there in 1993? I told him it was unlikely.  What I didn’t tell him is my 1993 eyes didn’t have the same focus to see people like him.

Every Wednesday after breakfast it looks as if the crusted over porridge pot will never get clean.  Even after a hot soak, the layers of burned on porridge seem too much for the best elbow grease.  But every week the impossible happens.   A volunteer, of various strengths and sizes, muscles their way through the sticky porridge pot and it comes out looking shiny and new.  A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son who was visiting from college and came to the shelter with me, got his turn with the porridge pot. 

Last week I offered to do the washing up but another volunteer said he would wash if I dried.  Different than me, this volunteer was once a guest, obviously in a very sticky life situation I only know vague details about.   Watching him wash up as we talked, making it look more effortless than I’ve experienced it to be, I was reminded that people are like pots.   We all have layers of burned on crust but with the right mix of desperation, determination, and daring – the impossible can and does happen.  None of us are too far gone to be returned into something shiny and new.