I will admit that I felt guilty.
As I stood in the cafeteria of the women’s homeless shelter where I started to volunteer, I watched and felt guilty.
Guilty that they were hungry.
Guilty that they could not take their time.
Guilty that I was not one of them.
I started to volunteer in a women’s shelter several months ago. The shelter, a private one that’s more secure than most, is in New York City. In the afternoon, both men and women gather there to get a meal and a bed for the night, most carrying all their belongs with them.
Sadness, defeat, hopelessness, and anger surround them.
As a Social Worker, I have always stood for social justice but truth be told, other than my paying jobs and perhaps a few rallies, I had never involved myself in the real day to day advocacy and dealings of the disenfranchised.
I get there at 5:00 p.m. and find the women sitting in a room described as the chapel. It is the holding station where they wait to go to dinner and then to the dormitory for the night. The routine goes something like this: check in 4:00 p.m., dinner from 5:30 to 6:00 p.m., then they reconvene in the chapel, where the Social Worker in charge, reviews the names on the clip board. If there happens to be an overage of more than 30 women, a lottery is drawn and some will not get a bed.
This is a heart-wrenching task that never feels right. For those that don’t get a bed, a referral is given to a city shelter where they only get a chair for the night—not as great as a bed, but at least it means that they will not be out in the cold. Some choose instead to stay on the street, since the city shelters are reportedly “scary” for some women.
After this task is over, we all go up to the dorm room which consists of 30 bunk beds, three showers and bathrooms.
The ladies don’t know anything about me, I am just one of many volunteers that comes to help out and maybe lend a listening ear and a comforting word. My job, most times, is to man the showers, which means I call three ladies at a time for showers and I clock their 10 minute shower. This process can sometimes take up to two to three hours. I hand out sample-size toiletries and try in my most kindest voice to let them know when their time is almost up, then alert the next three ladies of their upcoming turn.
Everyone has a story, and I don’t know all of them, but this is something I can tell you: no one is choosing this life out of laziness or because they are just trying to scam the system.
This is a hard life that takes a lot of negotiation. It leaves them frustrated, tired, hungry, cranky, ornery and often hopeless. Many of the women have been there for long periods—some up to a year— while they try to find housing and jobs.
I have come to know them by name. I have come to share their humor, their stories, their joys and their fears. I have shared moments of faith, as they sing and praise God, even at the hardest of times. I have also cried at their frustrations over the lack of answers and sometimes, I share their frustration with God, for not answering their prayers.
Mostly though, I listen, hug them, and pray for them. I go home at the end of the night filled with gratitude for my basic needs being met and at times with shame for complaining about the most mundane things, like traffic in the morning because, after all, I do have a car that transports me with ease to the job that provides me with income that allows me to have a home, food and the ease to take care of those I love. I am grateful for a hot shower where no one is standing outside counting the minutes and that I am able to have the dignity of privacy.
All life is precious and we all deserve to have our basic needs met in a dignified, safe and affordable environment. Over time, my ladies have come to open up to me and even tell me they miss me during the week. They ask why I can’t be there every night, and tell me stories about what is going on in their day when not at the shelter.
We all celebrate when someone leaves because it means they have found housing. Then everyone goes back to praying that soon it will be one of them.
My greatest pride when I leave is when they yell out, “Maria, thank you, you did such a good job with showers tonight!” Meaning, I was kind to them, did not yell or rush and was understanding when they needed a few more minutes. As I turn off the lights on my way out the door, I say a prayer for them and think to myself “how is this ever okay?”
But I know that at least, for tonight, some have a warm bed and are safe from the cold and violent streets.
Here are ways that anyone can help without even stepping into a shelter:
- When on vacation and staying in hotel, gather up those tiny soaps and shampoos, and collect extras that your family and friends might have, then drop them off to a local shelter.
- They always need socks, coats and clothing. Instead of putting them in those clothing bins, you can drop them off at a local shelter.
- In the winter, blankets and gloves are welcomed by those on the streets. I did a collection at work and every time I had things to do in the city, I would grab a bunch and hand them out on the streets.
The greatest gift we have as humans is our ability to feel compassion. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ““The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
There is no greater truth.
Author: Maria Arroyo-Fazio
Volunteer Editor: Tess Estandarte / Editor: Renée Picard
Image by: Franco Folini at Flickr