I have written before about how my mom had my sister and I volunteering at very young ages. At 3 and 5 years old, my sister and I were riding along with my mom as she delivered meals to shut-ins. (I have very faint memories of old people smiling at me as I stood next to my mom while she handed them a covered plate. Looking back, I imagine the mere presence of two small children at their door was as valuable to their life as the food they were receiving; nourishing the spirit is as important as feeding the body.) During my elementary, middle, and high school years I completed a variety of short-term service projects and long-term volunteer commitments, and these actions carried into my college experience (I spent all eight semesters of my undergraduate tenure involved with a fraternal service organization) and through my adulthood from then to now. Some of the volunteer assignments I have held over the recent years have been multi-month (or multi-year) commitments, while others are “one-and-done” tasks – events where I simply show up, do whatever is asked of me, then leave (usually happier than when I arrived).
Last month I had the opportunity to participate a single-day volunteer event: Project Homeless Connect. PHC is basically an ‘expo’ of sorts for homeless (or near homeless) individuals. But while many expos try to get the attendees to buy something, PHC tries to get people to take something. Services, to be precise. For one day, PHC occupies the city’s convention center (yes, the actual convention center – nearly 200,000 square feet of it), and fills the space with over 150 (!) agencies, associations, and/or resources that attendees can take advantage of. Both the quantity and variety of services offered is impressive; main focus categories include:
- Health care: From basics like dental, preventative screenings, and mammograms to acupuncture and chiropractic services;
- Personal care: On-site haircuts, information on clothing closets and shoe distribution, free reading and eye glasses;
- Legal services: Consults with attorneys, information on disability and veteran’s benefits, a variety of social security services;
- Life services: State identification cards, copies of one’s birth certificate, on-site resume building, job leads, education support, housing resources;
- Youth services: Shelters, schooling, employment, therapy, and support for the unique needs of teens and young adults;
- Parent resources: A crisis nursery, information public school readiness, a variety of parent education opportunities and services.
And everything – EVERYTHING – is offered 100% free of charge to attendees. This in and of itself would be impressive, but there’s more: While attendees can choose to walk around the convention center on their own and find what they need by themselves, each person who comes to the expo can also choose to be paired with a guide to walk them to the specific services they want or need. This is where I come into the scene.
I know a few people who have served in this guide/host capacity at previous PHC events; indeed, it’s how I first learned of this offering. And while those individuals told me enough about PHC to get me interested about it (to the point where I was willing to take action and experience it for myself), I had no idea the magnitude of the event. At a typical event, 1000-1500 homeless/near homeless citizens walk through the convention center’s front doors and take advantage of this incredible opportunity. And nearly every attendee chooses to walk the expo with a host – which means that one thousand volunteers are needed for this task alone! (Never mind all of the volunteers required to do the upfront planning, organizing, coordinating, and staffing of the booths themselves.) INCREDIBLE. Wowzers.
While the overall task of being a host is simple enough, it does require some basic “training”. Two weeks before the expo, I (and all other new volunteers) were required to attend an orientation session where we were:
- briefed on the quick history/mission of PHC,
- given the stats on why these labors of love even exist (i.e., how many people are genuinely helped in very real, life-changing ways), and
- told about our day-of tasks and responsibilities.
The orientation session was 90 minutes long. I’ll admit that when I learned I would have to attend a training session for what seemed to be a pretty straight-forward volunteer assignment, I groaned internally. Though I was a corporate trainer for over a decade, I am not a fan of training-type events at all. (Ironic, I know…) However, this orientation session (like the expo itself) was a tightly-run ship that was professional and genuinely helpful to the task at hand. I now admit that had I not attended the session, I would have been lost on the day of the actual event. Of all the things I learned at the orientation, what impressed me the most was the repeated focus on the attendees: that while these individuals may be poor (or downright destitute), they are our guests. They are not children; they are not stupid; they are not “less-than”. While the people who come to PHC may not be overly clean or even healthy, while they may not be very book-smart or while they may even arrive to the event drunk, we are to treat every individual as a guest – as if they were a friend we were inviting over to our home for a visit and a meal. Each attendee can participate in as much or as little of the expo as they want; our job is to serve them.
The stats, the numbers, the impact PHC has had on both individuals and on the community as a whole are very impressive on their own; but the focus on treating every visitor with respect and dignity, and making the experience a genuine delight for every ‘guest’ - that is what impressed me most of all.
A week after the orientation session, I arrived at the convention center at 8 am, ready to participate in the day-long event. As I located the main expo hall, I walked past this monitor within the center, and shuddered slightly:I found the volunteer registration table, signed in, received the materials I would need for my first guest, and familiarized myself with the documentation and the primary expo space:
By 8:30 am, I was ready to go. Unfortunately, the event didn’t start until 9:45 am. :( Had I known this, I would not have arrived at the convention center quite so early. (The PHC staff had asked all volunteers to arrive between 8-8:30 am – I suppose so that if people ran late, the event could still start on time. Yet this approach punishes us responsible folks who do show up on time. Grr. Noted for next time.)
At 9:45 am, a series of community leaders (two politicians, a priest, a rabbi, and two advocates for the homeless) stood on the convention center’s main stage and addressed all one thousand volunteers. Each leader re-iterated the need for this event, listed a few of the critical services it provides to the homeless, and stated how all of this would simply not be possible to do without the support of volunteers.
At 10 am, the doors to the center opened, and 900 homeless individuals, couples, and families flooded into the space. It was all very orderly, but still a bit surreal. Ten seconds after the doors opened, a Native American woman in her late 30s sat down in the chair across from me. She was talking on a cell phone, and it sounded like she was trying to give directions to the person on the other end of the line. After a minute of talking, the woman hung up her phone, and explained that a friend would be joining her in a few minutes – and could I help both of them at the same time? Um, sure. I began the intake process with the woman, asking her questions about her current employment status, income streams (from any government assistance programs, benefit programs, ‘contributions from other people’ [i.e., panhandling or begging]), her housing status (i.e., ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ – an apartment, hotel/motel, with friends/family, at a shelter, hospital, rehab, jail/prison, in a car, or literally outside on the street), and services she would like to receive today. I was surprised by how unphased she was by the incredibly personal questions I asked, and how quickly she provided very honest answers. At the end of our brief interview, I learned that all this woman really wanted today was a copy of her birth certificate, and a state ID. Oh, sure. Easy.
At this point in our conversation, the woman’s friend arrived. He was an African American man in his early 50s, and I performed the same intake process with him that I had just completed with the woman. I learned that he wanted to check out a variety of services; so I told the woman how to get the documents she wanted, then proceeded to spend the rest of the day with her friend, R.
R was a very personable fellow, and while he wasn’t overly chatty, he was very willing to engage in any topic of conversation I initiated. As I navigated us from one station to another, I quickly learned that being homeless involves spending a LOT of time waiting for things. I’m used to being able to go to any area of business (from getting groceries or a cup of coffee to seeing the dentist or doctor) and spending no more than literally 2-3 minutes waiting to be served/seen. Not so when a person is homeless – those levels of service appear to not apply to people who are poor. Indeed, there were more than a few instances during the day where I saw a provider either talk down to my guest and treat him like he was a teenager, or treat him rudely. At each of these occasions I stepped in and firmly re-directed the individual to behave more appropriately – which surprised (and kind of stunned) all parties in the exchange, including R. Anyway, over the course of the morning R and I spent a lot of time waiting in line to receive something, so during these periods I asked him a variety of questions, and just inquired about him as a person. My first few questions were very ‘safe’ (i.e., “Did you grow up in the city?” No. “Oh, so where were you born?” Detroit. ”Hey, I’m from Indiana. How did you get from Michigan to here?”…), and as R felt more comfortable with me, he shared more of his story with me. I learned that his path to homelessness included dropping out of high school, marriage, divorce, depression, drug dealing, arrest, a bad plea bargain, and time in prison. After prison, R simply couldn’t seem to get his feet under him again, and has been working various part-time jobs and experiencing near-homeless ever since. He seemed like a kind man who had a difficult childhood and made some poor decisions early in his life, and has been suffering the consequences ever since. His story reminded me that so much of ‘success’ in life has as much to do with luck as it does with skill. (“But for the grace of God go I.” Indeed.)
At the end of our four hours together, I was able to help R get:
- an appointment for a free dental exam (and transportation to get there and back),
- an eye exam,
- a copy of his birth certificate,
- a state ID card,
- two job leads,
- a hot lunch, and
- a long-term place to stay.
As R and I wrapped up, he thanked me for being a great hostess to him. He said that he appreciated my “gentle directness” both with him and with the people who interacted with him at the expo. (Around 11:30 am R was starting to get tired and hungry, and wanted to leave the expo before getting his birth certificate, state ID, or longer-term residence option. I gently-yet-strongly suggested that perhaps he and I take a break, eat some lunch, and then re-group after our meal. That did the trick, and by 12:30 pm he was willing to stand in the line for the remaining services he needed.) I felt great that this man (and so many other people who attended the expo) left with at least a few more critical services than what they had when they arrived. R and I shook hands, then went our separate ways.
Interestingly, my positive feelings lasted less than five minutes. To get from the convention center to the garage where I parked my car, I had to walk through the office building where I work. As I moved through the main corridor of the skyscraper, past my peers who were dressed in business suits and fancy skirts, I felt very out of place – downright uncomfortable – wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt that affiliated me with the homeless. The transition from spending my day with people who were living in abject poverty, who were genuinely concerned about where they were going to sleep later in the evening, and who were openly grateful to receive a free hot lunch, to now seeing people whose most pressing issues were waiting a full three-minutes for their $4 latte to be served, was incredibly jarring. But there was something more going on inside myself. As I processed the unexpected (and intense) emotions, I realized that ultimately I didn’t want to be judged in the ways that so many people (including myself from time to time) judge the homeless. I perceived that these corporate people were looking down on me, thinking I was somehow less than they were because I wasn’t wearing or carrying the signs of wealth that they currently displayed – and I felt my confidence and self-esteem literally slipping away from me, even though I had just spent half of my day volunteering my time to help other people. (And, P.S., note that I WORK IN THIS OFFICE.) Wow. All of this emotion, simply from wearing a t-shirt that hinted at the notion of homelessness; I can’t begin to imagine how people who are homeless feel each day. Wow. Intense.
Later in the afternoon I got to go to my warm, safe home and removed the PHC shirt that had ‘branded’ me as being associated with the homeless. Yet all of the people I just spent the day interacting with don’t get to stop being homeless when the clock strikes 5 pm; abject poverty is a state they have to endure for weeks, months, even years. No wonder so many people who experience homelessness (or even near-homelessness, or other states of poverty) engage in behaviors that seem unhealthy to those of us who are lucky enough to be free from grave financial worries. Wow. My eyes were definitely opened as a result of participating in this experience – and in more ways than I ever would have (or could have) guessed. As is so often the case when I volunteer, I learned much more than I expected to, and received much more than I gave. In exchange for a few hours of my time, I got to receive lessons that I simply could not have learned anywhere else, as well as experience a renewed sense of deep and genuine gratitude for the myriad of gifts and blessings I have in my life. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like this from offering one day of altruism. Participating in PHC proved to be a deeply valuable day for me – and it makes a strong case for my need to continue to engage in volunteer efforts and opportunities. Which I suspect my mom knew all along.
[Follow-up: Three weeks after the PHC expo, I received a letter from the organizers thanking me for volunteering, and sharing data about the day. By the time the expo doors closed:
- 1119 people received a free ID or birth certificate,
- 89 people applied for jobs,
- Nearly 800 people received assistance in finding housing,
- 446 people saw a dentist,
- 353 people received a free pair of glasses,
- Over 500 people got a haircut,
- 208 people saw a lawyer,
- 110 veterans got connected to veteran-specific services,
- And many, many more.
“Project Homeless Connect: Ending homeless, one person at a time.” It IS possible.