Journalism Next from Southeast High School: Working with the homeless is an eye-opening experience

Special to the HeraldMarch 25, 2013 

One of the many facets that schools, scholarships and employers look for in a student is involvement in the community. They want a well-rounded student who shows responsibility, passion, and has a great deal to offer that will set them above their competition. There are many opportunities to earn these service hours, but the most impactful ways are those that affect those in need directly.

As I looked for opportunities for community service, I chose to volunteer with a group from Bayside Community Church who gather on Saturday mornings in the parking lot of Harvest Chapel Church and set up a feeding line for the homeless and those in need. While rolling plastic utensils in paper napkins and handing them out in the line, I began to converse with the many individuals and regulars that come out every Saturday for hotcakes or other breakfast items cooked on site.

I learned their stories, each different from the next, and while listening to them, I saw that none of them were angry with their lives, as some might think they would be. They were all just grateful to be alive, living each day

as best they could, with the hope of a better tomorrow. As my eyes were opened to their situations, their goals, and their ambitions, I came to a better understanding of their plight, their struggle to overcome their situation, and the stigma that goes with it.

Bill is a tall man in his late 50s who looks every bit of 70. He is slim, as most homeless are, and he looks weathered and weary, with a growth of stubble for a beard that comes from only an occasional shave. Hot water and a razor are in short supply on the street. Bill lost everything when his mother became ill with Alzheimer's. A dutiful son, he took her in, spending every ounce of energy he had on providing her care. In doing so, he lost his job, and went into debt from all of the medical bills. Soon after his mother died, he lost everything he had left, including his house. Having nowhere to turn, he became homeless, searching for a new job as best he could. As a man of pride and dignity, he wants to work, but as Bill put it, "It's difficult to apply for jobs because they want an address and you can't give them one. Most of the time, they will just throw the applications away."

Each individual I spoke with had had other plans for their lives. Some had steady jobs and were laid off because of the economy. Some went to college, but had to quit because paying for school became very difficult as the competition for scholarships increased. One woman explained that she is just 60 credits shy of earning her bachelor's degree in early childhood development, but the state of the economy forced her to drop out of school and start working. She lost her job, ultimately leading her to homelessness. Recently, however, she has found housing, but still struggles each day to pay rent, utilities, and provide for her family.

The general population views the homeless as a nuisance and believes that there are enough resources for them to rebuild their lives and become working members of society very quickly. Dan describes why this is not always the case. Dan is an older, stocky individual, who at one point in his life could have been attractive, but the harsh nature of living on the street has taken a toll on him. He lost his construction job in the downfall of the economy and explains why there is not always a place to stay warm and eat.

"There are a lot of resources in the community, but there are so many people that abuse these resources and really don't need it, that those of us who do need it can't get it," he said.

One of the most well-used facilities in the area is One Stop, a place where the needy can do laundry, eat, take showers, and use the rest room during certain times of the day. However, this facility is not open on the weekends, leaving its frequent visitors to find other means of surviving over those two days.

Jackie and Ben, a couple in their late 40s, arrive on a three-wheeled bike. They take turns on which one rides while the other walks. They look very tired, and it's barely 7 a.m. Their hair is graying, unkempt and thinning, perhaps from stress. For nine years, they lived in the woods, living day to day, applying for jobs and trying to get back on their feet. Though most days were difficult and challenging, they were content with their lives because they had each other and for them, that was enough. For Jackie, the start of a normal day is difficult to fathom. "One Stop isn't open on the weekends, and so to take a shower, I would have to shower with a freezing cold hose and then go to work. To use the bathroom, sometimes it was necessary to just dig a hole." When the couple became pregnant, they did everything they could to get back on their feet in order to move out of their tent in the woods. Jackie found two jobs, and saved enough money to get a place of their own, with the help of One Stop, which paid their rent for two months.

As students, we center our whole lives around one thing: money. We go to school in the hopes that we will be accepted into college to further our education for a high-paying job. The idea of money is at the base of everything we do in life. Far too many people believe it determines the level of happiness in a person's life. But, what if we lost everything because of one mistake or life-changing incident? In this economy and the American way of over-extending financially, many of the families in this, the richest country in the world, are three to six months away from finding themselves homeless.

The people I met are homeless, on the streets, with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. Society turns their face from them because they are considered dirty, criminals, or somehow less than human. However, most are just trying to make it through each day as law-abiding citizens. All of the individuals I met expressed a desire to work, but due to the many misconceptions of the homeless, it is very hard for them to find a job. One man explained, "Most employers are going to hire the young people with a car and a house instead of the homeless." Employers say they are equal opportunity; however, most don't hire the homeless because of the stereotypes associated with them. He explained further, "It's hard to overcome the negative images that the drug addicts, alcoholics, and thieves give the homeless population because they are the ones that get noticed."

In my brief time with these individuals, it became obvious that they were not looking for handouts or sympathy. All were people of dignity and honor who were playing the hand they were dealt. They simply want the community not to shut the doors on them. Yes, there are those who play the system and try to get something for nothing, but I didn't meet any of those in my time there. The ones I met were living day to day, trying to be in the right place at the right time when opportunities arise.

For some, that may be a hot meal served in a church parking lot.

For many, it's a job. For those, all they're asking for is the same opportunity given to those who do have an address to write on job applications.

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