Friday, January 4, 2008

Voices of the Street

At Christmas, my church choir sang an anthem about Mary and Joseph looking for room- paraphrasing:

They walk the city streets at night, in pockets of the poor

Will there be room for them tonite?
Will we find space to spare?
Will there be room for them tonite?
Will we find space to share?

This week I began my work with the Water Street Rescue Mission in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as a part of my fulfilling of a multicultural experience requirement for seminary. You can learn more about the extensive programming they offer at WSRM. Over the month I will volunteer about 18-20 hours broken up into three hour shifts. I am a spare pair of hands for the counselor on duty in the Womens Ministry Shelter, and most of my shifts are from 7-10 pm.

On Thursday night I began my first shift. It was getting down into the teens and breezy outside as I came in. I thought about how I take for granted that I can come in to a warm shelter every day. And that if I could not come to my home, that I am blessed with family and friends in many places.

There are about 30 women and children on our floor. The women are a diverse lot in terms of ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds. The children are both pre-school and school aged. I wonder what it is like to go to school from the shelter. I wonder what it is like to be in multiple schools in a year as the adults are trying to hold it all together.

At 8:30, everyone must be in the shelter and check in, unless they are working. The women line up, and one by one take a breathalyzer, receive any medications they are taking, a pass for the following day, any mail for them, vitamins for the children. Most of the women are on many medications for a variety of ailments.

As they come in, we also hear their concerns about job searches, relationship issues, health concerns, and the stresses of life. This is a lot of people in a relatively small space, so tension can erupt.

One woman is saddened because she did not pass a certification test for employment, and she is starting from scratch again. She has been here three months and she wants to be able to move on. One woman has learned that he significant other is not taking her calls, and has sent her no money- it has settled in that it is over. One woman has severe chronic health issues that affect her thinking but has been unable to qualify for the Social Security disability that would give her a chance to be elsewhere. A phone call comes from a woman who has just been discharged from the prison. She needed an address for parole and they sent her here. But she really needs to get to where her family is. We have no room, but we check the bus schedule, and confirm there is one yet tonite. We calculate the busfare, and give it to her, with directions to the stop, and a hat and gloves. She has walked three miles to get here, now she must walk half a mile to catch the bus.

The stories go on. Many of these women do not want to be here, like the one who has just gotten a job at a nearby college in maintenance. But how far can $6.50 an hour go when you need to live and eat, and get to work, and you are a single woman in your late 50's? What about the woman with four kids who, until the new family shelter opened where they would not be split up, they were sleeping in her car the week before Christmas? Or the veteran with PTSD whose wife told him to leave, and then quit paying the VA mortgage on their home where she was living, causing him to lose not only the house when she left it, but all of his VA benefits? Default on a VA mortgage rescinds all other benefits including health. The default notices came to her and she threw them away because it was not important to her.

I am thankful for this opportunity, not because it shows me a multicultural environment ( I already have worked with Legal Services and have seen people from all walks of life for years). I am thankful for the chance to see more clearly the real nature of homelessness, and also the role faith plays in the lives of these women. As with most of my experiences, I think others give much more to me than I give to them. There are plenty who have made mistakes, the difference is that when some of us mess up, we have a safety net. Others do not. "As you do to the least of these, you do to me."

To learn more about homelessness, visit National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Lord, you bless so many of us with an abundance. May we always be aware that we are blessed to be a blessing to others, that all that you provide is for this purpose. Open our eyes and our hearts to those in need that we may be your hands that share and care. Amen


DogBlogger said...

Thanks for these thoughts and sharing your experience.

Mother Laura said...

Yes, thank you so much. I was stunned to hear last Sunday from the deacon at church that there are 23 thousand homeless people in our California county, and a third of them are children.