Monday, April 16, 2007

chicken soup for the busy bee's soul

I've never worked in a soup kitchen or done any sort of work with the homeless. Living in DC, it's definitely something you see on a daily basis... it was something I saw in Miami as well, but it's not as ever-present in the way that you see it just walking through the streets downtown on a daily basis. So when EB asked if I would join her at her church with others in making sandwiches and then in riding on the van to distribute the food to the homeless, I welcomed the opportunity.

I'll admit to dragging my feet as I left home to head over. With the lingering cold weather and the continual rain yesterday, I was not wanting to leave the warm confines of home - but I finally made it out the door. We began by making lunch bags with a sandwich, mozarella string cheese, granola bar, and pudding. We would serve this along with soup and hot chocolate. Pretty nice meal.

Our route included a lot of the downtown area close to where I work. It's an area I don't typically see on the weekend, so it was sort of eerie to stop at these different points in the vicinity. It was haunting as one man walked up to get his soup and I found myself staring eye-to-eye with a gentleman I pass several times a week on the street. Typically I find him screaming obscenities or doing strange gestures, with a cup in front of him. Yesterday he calmly walked up and thanked me for the soup. It gave me goosebumps to come face-to-face with a familiar face like that.

One interaction really stuck with me. One man had come up, gotten his lunch bag, soup, and hot chocolate and returned back to his blankets on the sidewalk when the winds picked up. EB and I were still inside the van, waiting for the other volunteers to return from taking food over to those who weren't able to get up and come over on their own. The wind had picked up tremendously and, while the rain was not in full force, it was still sprinkling enough to make for a cold combination. He stood back up and walked over and began to shut our van doors. "It's getting cold out here," he said. "You should stay warm in there."

How could he look on from his place there on the pavement and perceive that as being significant? As we sat in the van, heat blasting, I felt really touched by the kindness in his heart, and a little guilty as I burrowed in my pea coat, sitting on a padded seat, indoors.

Homelessness is something I just don't know how to feel about. Last night, I was reminded that it's not always as black and white as people want to think it is. I still don't think the solution is to give money to every outstretched hand. We just can't. It's not realistic. Perhaps that's why I'm not always so vocal to take a stance on one side of the issue or another. I don't know it all, that's for sure, but I know enough to know it's one of those problems for which I just don't know the answer.

But I saw first-hand last night that there are some people who aren't choosing not to work... some of the people we served sell papers, help vendors set-up, etc. - and it's just not enough to afford a roof over their heads.

In discussions with our driver from the Salvation Army, I learned that many of those who are older are not willing to part with what little possessions they have in order to go into a shelter. To them, those bags are their home. Their most prized items. My heart broke as we had to look back at those hungry eyes at the end of our round at the long, snaking line at our last stop and tell them that we were sorry after their having waited, but that we had run out of all of the food for the day.

I saw kind eyes, thankful for every item we handed over. I saw cold eyes, harsh and chilling as the pavement on which they were huddled. I saw hopeful eyes, complemented in one case by a man repeating over and over that he was hanging on "by His grace".

I realized and acknowledged that I was lucky to be going home. To be able to snuggle up under my covers and stay warm and dry. To be able to crank up our radiators. As the wind picked up and I tossed and turned, I couldn't help but think of the man who'd helped close our van doors.

I wish I could return the favor.

[cross posted at]



  • Very touching blog entry. Isn't it funny how minimal our issues seem after we help people who's magnitude of problems we will probably never encounter? Perspective is amazing.

    By Blogger GreenEggsSamDC, At April 16, 2007  

  • Love your point of view here. I cringe when I hear the poor and homeless being blamed for their circumstances. There are so many factors involved, many of them societal and economical and totally unrelated to the individual person's choices and motivation. Thanks for sharing this.

    By Anonymous m, At April 18, 2007  

  • You're right - we can't give to every outstretched hand. If people were honest and we could be comfortable with the knowledge that when we're giving, we're giving to someone who needs it, I think we'd all feel better about it. I honestly think that being so intimately involved in shooting urban photography has changed my opinion on the homeless. They don't choose this. There's rampant mental incapacity that is devastating. Most of these people need to be in an institution. Seeing it up close - and not even as close as I could have been unlucky enough to see it - made me see that nobody could choose this lifestyle. It doesn't make sense. I think some are more inclined than others to get out of the situation but the deck is completely stacked against them. It's really easy for me to say that they could just up and get a job, but I don't believe anymore that it's reasonable to assume that they can.

    Whoa. Sorry for the tangent. I really enjoyed your perspective on this, that you chose to go further into the homeless issue to focus on their possessions and what they must feel about them, the significance they hold. This was brilliantly conveyed, District Belle.

    By Anonymous Stacy, At April 18, 2007  

  • These sorts of realizations make my heart ache a little. Just as your post did. This was a really nice reflection; I have felt these sorts of emotions before myself but know I could not have captured them so beautifully.

    By Anonymous Kris, At April 18, 2007  

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