Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Way Things Are

Yesterday I attended a PTA meeting at a local coffee shop, where a few members gathered to hash out some details about an upcoming fundraiser for our high school. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the young woman working behind the counter, who happened to be the fifteen-year-old daughter of a good friend. We chatted for a minute about the long weekend we had just enjoyed and school in general.

When I took my place at the table that the early-arriving members had snagged, I ended up sitting in a seat facing the window of the coffee shop which just happened to face the driveway where deliveries for the stores in the strip mall are made. As we discussed a fundraiser that we’ll be sponsoring at the end of February, I noticed a young man walk over to a collection of bags, blankets, and other personal belongings, reach into one of the bags and take out a container of jam which he proceeded to eat with his fingers. I became completely preoccupied with the sight, missing most of the PTA discussion. I finally asked the other members of the board to look out the window and asked them if they, like I, thought he was homeless.

We all agreed that that was the case.

A few years back, while volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I had the occasion to try to help a young man who was completely without any sustenance or shelter. I spent a few minutes calling the local police department and then the Volunteers of America to find out where in our affluent community and county one could send someone who had no place to go. I was told that there was only one drop-in shelter in this county and that it was about twenty miles south of here in a very tough neighborhood in a pretty tough city. Our options limited, we opted instead to send the young man to a shelter north of here at a monastery, hoping that they would take him in even though the focus of the shelter was on rehab and recovery, not plain homelessness. We prayed that this would work out, because by the looks of him, he wouldn’t have lasted an hour in a rough shelter, besieged by mental illness and a host of problems we probably didn’t even know about.

Knowing that our options were limited, I approached my friend’s daughter at the counter and asked her and her coworker how long the man had been living outside; they thought it had been about twenty-four hours. They thought that the owner of the shop—who had gone home hours before and was not coming back—was aware of the situation as well. I asked them to give him a call to find out what, if anything, he wanted them to do upon closing. I was a little concerned about a fifteen-year-old and her not-much-older counterpart closing up shop and departing with someone living on the grounds in their path. I was jumping to conclusions, but my mind was racing at this point as to what to do or how to help this man. I didn’t want to call the police because truly, he wasn’t bothering anyone. I also knew that if the police got involved, he would end up in the rough shelter and that might not be the best thing for him. I wondered if I should talk to him to find out his story and help him find somewhere to stay. In the end, I decided to go home and get the wise counsel of Jim.

I left the coffee shop and noticed that the man was surrounded by a group of people, one of whom seemed to be sharing the food and shelter with him, bringing our current total of homeless up to at least two, if not more, judging from the group. They were young, happy, and seemingly having a great time; one of the group's members had a laptop, I noticed curiously. I got into the car and went home, my first phone call going to my friend, the one whose daughter worked in the coffee shop. She was alarmed and immediately called the coffee shop owner to find out what was going on and what we should do, if anything.

Turns out that the homeless men were part of a group a young woman who lives in our town had befriended overseas while visiting a youth hostel. The men were from Brazil and headed there; she planned on accompanying them. She brought them back to town without telling her parents, promising them a place to stay while they regrouped before the next leg of their trip. Her parents, none too pleased with this turn of events, denied her request to put them up and told her to find somewhere else for them to stay. They’ve been camping out as well as couch surfing, and the makeshift set-up they had next to the coffee shop was erected for them to air out their camping equipment.

Ah, youth.

I travel into New York City on a regular basis and see so many homeless people that it almost absolves me from doing something for each and every person I encounter. I also know that the infrastructure in the city for dealing with homelessness exists in a far more structured sense than it does here, as evidenced by my quest to find a bed for a homeless man at the soup kitchen. But to see someone in my own town who may be without a bed and food was a new sight as well as one that I didn’t know quite how to deal with. The average age of a homeless person in the United States today is NINE. And I think we’re going to see more people in the places we live struggling for survival. I feel like yesterday’s experience was a test and has allowed me to figure out exactly what I will do when confronted with homelessness again. Because with the economy, joblessness, and poverty becoming more common-place, it will not be IF the situation happens again, but WHEN.

Maggie Barbieri

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