I love to volunteer; it is the most fulfilling way to spend time and it is the grace that brings my soul joy. In recent months, I have started volunteering at the homeless shelter. In the past, I have been apprehensive toward the homeless, I was one of those people who wondered if they are really just feeding an addict who doesn’t care to get clean, or someone who has accepted this life and doesn’t actively seek employment or change.
Then one cold winter day, at a stop light, a homeless man was asking for money and my boyfriend rolled down his window and gave the guy $5, as he does every single time he sees someone in need. This time I asked, “Why do you always give them money? They are probably just going to use it for drugs or alcohol, he probably really isn’t even a veteran like his cardboard sign says.” My boyfriend looked at me and said simply, “There by the grace of God go I.” He explained his point of view by continuing, “It is not my place to judge, it is by the grace of God that I have a roof over my head and a warm place to sleep at night. You never know what that man’s story is and I choose to help others because I am able.” The next week I found a homeless shelter and signed up because his words hit home for me—I had to find out for myself. Since then, some of the most important people skills and lessons in humanity have been taught to me by those in need.
1. Look everyone in the eye: The first time I served breakfast to the homeless in my town I strategically, methodically and blandly avoided eye contact with each and every person I put food on a plate for. I was the type of woman who had mastered the “look at your feet and walk as fast as humanly possible” skill whenever walking near or in the vicinity of a homeless person. I was always nervous they would whip out a knife, beg me for something or start yelling profanity at me. What I learned is that the most humane thing taken away from the homeless is everyone’s inability to look them in the eye. I learned that a lot of times, all they want is to be treated like a normal person, and what is not normal is to have someone say, “Thank you” after you make a plate of food for them, while you stare at the serving spoon and respond, “You’re welcome.” I have learned that they know you pity them, that they make you uncomfortable and that you are sometimes scared, and they hate that and want to show you they are just people in a rut with kind hearts and a need to be treated the same as everyone else. Don’t dehumanize the homeless. Look at them, talk to them and listen to them.
2. Don’t judge people: You have no idea what any one of those souls is going through that got them to that cafeteria. If you make the decision to help, you make the decision to do so with an open heart. Most people who have never fed the homeless believe they are all drug addicts who refuse to get clean and take advantage of the giving nature of these ministries. Well I am here to tell you: Yes, that is true—sometimes! Some of the homeless people there are addicts, but a lot of them are suffering from mental disease and it is the only way they know to subdue their symptoms. Others are women leaving an abusive husband, people who can’t afford rent, people who can’t find work, people who have no families or place to go when they hit hard times, and disabled people. You just never know the trials of someone’s life, so smile, ask them how their day is and help them.
3. Appreciate what you have: Someone at the ministry told me once, “These people are just like us, the only difference is, when you are at your lowest moments, you go home, shut your front door and crumble in privacy. These people suffer their lowest moments out in the open for everyone to watch.” That resonated with me, because it is true. I know that no matter what happens in my life, mental illness, addiction, joblessness or abuse (God forbid…) that one phone call to my parents, friends, or even distant family and I would be taken care of. I was born into this loving, supportive family and as long as any one of them has food and a home, I do as well. Sadly, so many people are born into a different type of life, one without love, support, food or shelter. I sometimes feel because I have such love surrounding me that it is only right that I try to help those who weren’t as fortunate as I was.
If you have never volunteered with the homeless, I strongly urge you to give it a try. We are all human, we all get in ruts in life and it is our fellow man (or woman) who puts out a hand and helps us up. I promise you, darlings, those few hours you spend serving others will be some of the most rewarding you’ve experienced. Your sweet face, smiling eyes and listening heart just might change someone’s whole day.
Find a homeless shelter in your area by clicking here.