December 22, 2015 by poverty2professional
I double-clutched posting this piece so close to the Christmas holiday given the general weightiness of the blog. Then one of my friends observed, “It’s not like you stopped being homeless for Christmas. It’s important for people to hear the story at this time of year, too.”
My friend had a point. And not just because of the obvious. This is also the time of year that people struggling with homelessness or who are low-income and just struggling to get by gain some visibility. Donations are in demand – whether it’s stuffing a bus with toys or giving to a favorite non-profit. (Here’s mine.)
Volunteer opportunities also spike. Caught up in the spirit of the season, one-time volunteers come out serve, give, and connect with others. To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ floral speech, it’s this time of year when people look across class lines and actually look at each other.
I’ll leave the creepy reference to mortality out.
And you know what? Volunteering and donations are amazing! Especially, when they are done with care. I own one Apple product. It’s the iPod Shuffle I received as a Christmas donation. A very generous donor, gave one to each kid between the ages of 10-17 at the shelter. The donor chose to remain anonymous, but they nonetheless took to the time to ask for preferred color and delivered on that, too. My little silver Shuffle still works and I still use it.
Other donors had similar personalized philosophies. Through a separate organization, a kind case manager connected me to an outside donor beyond the shelter. Again, this person was anonymous so I still don’t know who made the donation. I remember feeling my request was a long-shot: I asked for a beginner’s animation program. At fifty dollars, it was a fairly affordable gift, but definitely out of my family’s price range. And this exceptionally generous donor went beyond my request and included a sketchbook and drawing pencils. Someone cared about my interests! If you’re thinking about giving thoughtfully, ask a local shelter what the greatest needs are of their residents. Getting to know people – albeit distantly, in this case – establishes basic empathy, that little grain of human connection.
Hard to say it, but folks can forget that individuals struggling through homelessness are people, too. We don’t stop being homeless on Christmas anymore than we stop being people when we’re homeless. Sometimes, it takes a special time of year to remember that.
Christmas was also the day that the stringent shelter staff let the residents hang out in the dormitory. We busted out that old board game no one ever really had time to play: Monopoly. No, the irony of a bunch of homeless kids playing a game about real estate wasn’t lost on me or my little thimble token. My dad half-jokingly pointed out that that’s what Depression-Era games were for. “Fantasizing about what you don’t have.”
At the end of the day, we were still kids. We wanted to play games and laugh and have fun on Christmas just like everyone else. For one day, we really weren’t thinking too hard about what it meant to be homeless. To a volunteer, I can’t stress this point enough. As easy as it seems to remember this, it’s also really, really easy to get caught up in the moment and forget.
At the shelter, we had a Yamaha piano. No one knew how to play it and, to keep the younger kids from just banging on the keys, we were strongly discouraged (read: pending write up) from learning how. I can say the latter because I had checked out a copy of Piano for Dummies from my school library. I still know “Chop Sticks.”
The folks completely exempt from the don’t-touch-the-piano rule were volunteers.
A word for volunteers who may be reading this: the residents love you. You are GOLD at a shelter. Heck, you’re gold to any non-profit. Volunteers are the life blood of an organization looking to make a difference. What makes you so spectacular at a shelter is that you’re from the outside. You’re here and, if you’re cool, you’re talking to us like we’re people. That’s a breath of fresh air in a place where you’re constantly reminded that you’re on society’s lowest rung. The best experiences I’ve had at my shelter involved volunteers – from the folks who served dinner to my calculus tutor. When any of these people sat down at the same table as us – to share a story, a joke, their time – that was restoring moment. Being treated like another person.
Anyway, that’s a different entry.
The volunteers who visited us on Christmas Eve had a piano player in their squad. And, oh boy, this was a gift all its own. By December 2008, my father and I had been at the family center for ten months. Like everyone else living there, we were needy for some good cheer. Nothing brings that on like live music. After dinner that evening, the volunteers took to the dusty Yamaha.
Song after song, we were having a good time. The kids – the ones under twelve who didn’t have teenage inhibitions in place – jumped up to dance. The three people in my age-group – teenagers with inhibitions – nodded and kinda-sorta sang along (don’t make us admit it!). The adults clapped along and smiled approvingly. A couple even proved to be excellent singers! Folks who usually had short tempers from the daily stress of homelessness actually relaxed and cracked a grin. It was pure, one-hundred-percent joy.
Then the carolers faltered after “Sleigh Ride.” I tried to think of a tune we hadn’t sung, checking off “Deck the Halls,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Then I immediately thought of the songs I didn’t want to hear. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “So This is Christmas,” are both awfully depressing tunes. And, of course, “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” is just not something you sing given our situation. No one would be so insensitive to pick that one at a homeless shelter.
And that’s why this memory sticks. I still thought, please don’t sing it. Someone must’ve picked up my brainwave and unfortunately misinterpreted it.
The gentle drone of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” took up the group. One of the adult residents next to me muttered, “This is bullshit,” under her breath then got up and walked out.
Now, the backstory of this 1940s seasonal song is that it was originally intended for armed forces serving overseas in World War II. At seventeen, I knew this. I had the privilege of growing up with both the music and history. Remember my dad’s by-gone record collection? “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” technically, has nothing to do with homelessness. But you can’t explain that so easily to a six-year-old kid. Or the knee-jerk reaction their parents are going to have to the somber lyrics. For many of us in that kitchen hall, “if only in my dreams” really was the only threshold we had back to our homes.
I exchanged glances with my friend next to me before she just stood up and left. Most of the residents did. My dad had gone out on his smoke break earlier. I sat through the song. I thanked the volunteers for their time and, even now in retrospect, I don’t think I would have told them about how deeply their carol selection cut. Should I have educated them? Maybe. But at the same time, when you’re homeless, the last thing you want to come off as is ungrateful.
The words “poor” and “entitled” are almost inextricable in some conversations. In general, Americans are more likely to disagree that “hard work offers little guarantee of success” and a sizeable 38% opined that poverty is brought on by “lack of effort” rather than circumstances beyond one’s control. Essentially, a homeless youth had better pull up them bootstraps and fast. Never mind that when you’re under eighteen most of your choices and options are offered and executed by adults.
So, here I am trying to see myself as others perceive me in my current socioeconomic classification in relation to theirs and what expectations of me are probably already in place. Running these two dialogues in your head, especially where you’re on the disadvantaged end of the situation, is referred to as double consciousness. Coined by sociologist and activist W.E.B. DuBois, it’s the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” At the time, DuBois was referring to racism, functioning as an African American in a white society. In this context, I was a homeless person suddenly in the social space of housed people.
And they were well-intended. These kind people had given up their holiday time to be here for us. I was angry, I was hurt, but I wasn’t going to take it out on anyone. Like I said, I thanked our volunteers – we were, after all, having a pretty good time up ’til then. Privately, I had something to reflect on.
Excerpt from journal notes Dec. 2008.
Here at the family center, the songs remind me of what I’m missing; home, family, warmth, freedom to come and go as I please. All of which the carolers themselves have. Maybe it is bitterness, but it’s true. I don’t know what else to do with this emotion. I wish my dad and I had extended family we could run to on Christmas. Or any day for that matter. It’s during this time of year that you can really taste loneliness.
End journal notes.
Years later, this is an example I shared with some of the volunteer tutors I worked with. No one thinks they’d ever make a social gaffe like that, but it happens. For some college students, it’s as simple as complaining about waking up early for a 9 a.m. class. For me, it’s remembering that not everyone had the same opportunities (frequent library visits, being read to, telling time on an analog clock at an early age) that my dad provided me. The point is to be aware of it. The go-to phrase in many advocacy groups is, “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself.” Be aware of your privilege; not all of us have homes, even if you get to retire to one every night. We get that. Being present for this one moment is the only request.
So, for all volunteers, please be conscientious in your good works this holiday season. It’s so welcome. We want to laugh with you and sing with you. To share a little humanity and break down that isolation. We appreciate you! And we love it most when you take that empathy to heart.