These are the people I've met while
volunteering three winters at warming shelters
By Lynelle Wilcox
For the last 3 years, I volunteered at warming shelters.
Who else stays at shelters?
When people asked me who stays at the shelters, I tried to answer. Some guests fit negative clichés, yet those are the minority, and context matters to show "why" some people reflect those negative clichés.
A very put-together woman who lives in her car. She gets up daily at 4 a.m. to go to her caregiving job.
A woman who lost her nursing job and used savings to live on when unemployment ran out.
A kid who never knew his dad, and his mom and grandmother died. He aged out of foster care. He works two jobs, sleeps by an office building, and keeps the storefront tidy.
A Vietnam veteran who shared what "we leave no man behind" can mean. And how no kid can do what was required unless you had an escape. He conquered his heroin addiction 30 years later, yet images visit him every night, so he lives trying to sleep, and trying not to sleep, forevermore.
Many women and some men who are homeless as a result of domestic violence.
Many veterans whose PTSD is a barrier to employment. Veteran services don't provide levels of care and housing that many people misbelieve exists.
Highly-paid professionals who experienced a disability, so they can’t do work they used to do, and they couldn’t make ends meet.
People with a criminal history who served their full sentence, yet their history is a barrier to employment and to the very moving-forward-ness we want people to do. And “criminal” history includes many things that do not reflect being a danger to others.
Women and men who lost everything from divorce.
Gay kids whose families disowned them because they love people with the same body parts.
People who were dealt terrible hands of nature and nurture. If who we are is hugely determined by some blend of nature and nurture, could I do any better if I had terrible hands of both?
The man who had a house, savings, a car, a good job. And cancer happened, health declined, and medical bills cost more than he had. So he traded his home and security for his life.
A woman whose rent increased beyond what she could afford.
Kids who aged out of foster care, who struggle with mental health.
A trans kid who just needed someone to sit with her as she cried.
People in an alternate reality. Even though I cannot fix that, we can leave space for that reality to co-exist with our own. People who experienced trauma and coped via escape. Yet so many try again to be clean for longer than the last time. Many make it, and many others keep trying.
People living on streets, cars, or tents, washing up in the bathroom, leaving early for jobs.
People who aren’t yet able to work, struggling daily with basic survival. Warriors
People who are starved to be seen as an equitable human being, where a smile and hello is a treasure worth almost everything.
Who might become homeless?
My own mom if she was alone when her dementia happened.
My neighbor, who lives alone in poverty and sometimes lives in an alternate reality.
My own kid, if schizophrenia happened, and I’m dead and he used his inheritance for food, shelter, and to deal with or escape his mental illness, and the money ran out.
My own dad, if he opted to trade his savings for his life, by trying harder to beat cancer, and if he didn’t have kids who would take him in.
Me, if I developed a brain injury and didn't realize I was making poor financial decisions and I had no family to take over if necessary.
Anyone who does all the right things, saves money for emergencies, yet life hands them more emergencies than their resources can support.
You, if physical and/or mental disabilities happened, if you didn't have family, friends, or fiscal assets to meet the health costs and support that might be needed.
When I believe homelessness can only happen to "other" people, I delude myself.
There but for the grace of the universe go I.
Lynelle Wilcox is a Salem resident.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
HHV News Articles
“What if it was you?”
Meet “Joe.” Story by Bob Francis
Cindy and I volunteer to serve coffee to the homeless early in the mornings where we live in Salem, Oregon. We enjoy doing this because we meet so many people who greet us with a smile and a great big “thank you.” We often find them curled up in the alcoves of businesses, under the bridges, on the sidewalks or sitting outside the local transient shelter. We are amazed at their kindness, their genuine thankfulness that somebody cares enough to give them a cup of coffee and warm words.
Some that we meet are veterans who are experiencing PTSD and have difficulties adjusting to society, some have lost their homes and just do not have the money to afford a place to live, some have mental problems ranging from depression to full out schizophrenia. Regardless of what brought them to this place, they all share the same thing: they are extremely vulnerable and life on the streets is a daily struggle for survival. They constantly worry about being robbed, mugged, and even physically assaulted by some who spit on them or kick them as they pass them by on the street. They are often harassed by the police and treated by the general populace as if they are invisible.
We have come to know some of these folks. One such person is “Joe.” When we meet him on the mornings we serve coffee, Joe is sleeping soundly in an alcove of a business in downtown Salem. A very neat and orderly man by nature, Joe always has his few possessions carefully packed on his bike, which sits in front of the alcove. We greet him with our usual “good morning, Joe, would you like a cup of coffee?” After some stretching and yawning, he looks up at us with that most beautiful warm and gentle smile of his and says, “yes, thank you very much!” We ask him how things are going and he usually just smiles and tells us everything’s fine.
Sometimes, we catch Joe down at Riverfront Park sitting on a bench feeding the ducks and whatever other creature that may pass his way. He greets them with his smile and a few words of encouragement. Joe is about 70 years old and has worked most of his life. He retired with no pension to speak of and now lives off of a very small Social Security stipend, certainly not enough to pay for a roof over the head and all the varied costs of living. So, Joe lives on the street. To me, what is remarkable about Joe is that he maintains his dignity and humanity amidst the most difficult of circumstances. He doesn’t complain about his lot in life while always having a gentle and kind demeanor.
So, remember Joe, will you, the next time you pass a homeless person on the street? There are thousands of Joes in our community who are no different than you or me but for whom life has dealt a difficult hand. Please see them and take the time to help them as you are able.
Bob Francis is a retired Military Minister and lives in Salem, Oregon, with wife Cindy.
Together they are helping our homeless people in Salem.