I’ll never forget that frigid evening in February, walking down the creaky wooden steps that lead to the underground men’s homeless shelter in the northern part of Chicago.
Never had I been truly exposed to a vulnerable population, being that I grew up in a small, privileged, suburban neighborhood that shrouded me from the difficulties pervading all facets of society. As a second year college student, I was volunteering there to fulfill a course requirement, but little did I know that this experience was also going to fill a void in me.
As I descended the staircase to the men’s center, I was struck by the overwhelming warmth followed by a stench. It was this rusty, old smell that indicated the building was well into its aging phase. As I walked through the heavy metal doors that separated a world of privilege from a world of discomfort, I was surprised by how unbecoming the center was. I envisioned homeless shelters as clean safe havens that provided real beds and fluffy blankets. My assumption was crushed by reality as I stood in disappointment. The relatively generous space was scattered with round wooden tables and metal chairs. There was an old big-screen T.V. in the back of the room, that played gushy soap operas that were barely audible. Soap operas that not surprisingly, no one ever seemed to watch. Behind the T.V. was a platform that supported dozens of thin cots stacked upon one another and black garbage bags, which I assumed held belongings. The main room was composed of around thirty males at the time. Their ages ranged from early twenties to mid sixties. Most of the residents were black and Hispanic. The lingering eyes around the room revealed an underlying sadness. The room was uncomfortably quiet and it was getting close to 5:30 pm: Dinnertime. There were butterflies and colorful flowers painted along the walls, and it was an ironically stark contrast to the solemn heaviness that could be felt in the air. Perhaps it meant to serve as a useful reminder of the beauty still present in the world.
There was an unfriendly looking man sitting behind a desk filled with piles of paperwork. Hannah, another volunteer, and I walked up to him, as he appeared to be a person of authority. We introduced ourselves as Loyola University student volunteers. He spoke to us a little sternly but with kind eyes and told us we had to talk to a man named Will. When Will approached us and introduced himself, a wave of comfort washed over me. He emanated an aura of serenity with the way his bright eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He was wearing a hair net and a long apron that was loose against his tall, thin physique. He was in charge of the kitchen, cooked the meals and served the food. He had been living at the shelter for a few years and summarized for us what a day at the shelter looks like: The residents register to live there upon arriving but can only stay up to four months, as an incentive to find a job and get back on their feet. Extensions are permitted, but having deadlines is what keeps them motivated to help themselves. The first meal of the day is given at five AM, the second meal at noon and dinner is served at five thirty. Local groceries or restaurants donate most of the food so meal varieties are quite limited. It surprised me when he told us they keep the center closed between meals until 5:30 pm every day. He explained that if they didn’t do that, people could freely hang around instead of being productive and work towards finding a job. The shelter provides resources that they can access for case management, financial issues, and job interview advice. At the end of each day, around 8:30, everyone helps with folding chairs and tables so there is space to lie out the cots for bed. Lights are out by 9 pm. The shelter is very structured and for good reason.
When Will opened up about his tough personal circumstances, I was in awe of his incredible strength and resilience. He had battled job insecurity, brain tumors and had even lived in France for some time as a DJ. His experiences were beautifully unique and he told them with an air of vivacity. What struck me as most puzzling, however, was how unperturbed he seemed by his situation. His life had not been easy and at the time he was struggling to pay for health insurance, yet he told us that he was so grateful for the life he was living. It was from this conversation and many more with other residents that I began to realize the true merit of experiences over materialistic goods. Every man I had spoken with, over the twenty hours I was required to volunteer that semester, taught me lessons in life that I would not have learned elsewhere. Many of them had college degrees and this astounded me.
I am ashamed to admit that I judged them before I had the opportunity to get to know them but the shame implies there was a lesson learned and I’ll know better in the future, and hope you will too. I learned that the people with few possessions possess the most abundance. Many of them didn’t have iPhones or laptops so instead they engaged with one another. It was nice to witness the rich human interaction that transpires when people can’t get lost in their gadgets. It feels as though we live in a world of technological zombies at times. While it undoubtedly would be difficult to find jobs and send resumes without having instant access to technology, the residents still chose to enrich their lives by opening up to other people, rather than getting lost in themselves. Our bright little screens and annoying pings always distract us, making deep conversations tread the shallow end. I learned that there is a novelty in owning less and giving more, and it provided clarity in the kind of person I was dreaming to become.
One of the most essential things I learned was that it’s important to stay happy even when life throws you a curve ball. Some of the men had no idea when they were going to find a home, yet they were still able to joke and laugh until there were tears in their eyes. It was humbling to be in the company of people who owned so little, yet continued to celebrate life. I respected and was inspired by their ability and their choice to remain positive despite being in such a difficult circumstance.
Through the course of the semester, I became more cognizant of how I was handling adversities, and actively reminded myself to be thankful for what I had. The most significant lesson I learned through the course of my volunteering was how gratitude can go a long way. As much as I wish I could have helped the residents in a more dramatic and impactful way, the extent of my help was creating resumes on my laptop and helping them figure out how much (or how little) was in their bank account. This was an eye-opening and sad experience for me. I was shocked every single time they thanked me profusely for the little gestures I had done to make their life just a small increment simpler. It was a positive-feedback loop. Their expression of gratitude fueled an even greater desire for me to help them. Despite where I was and despite where they were, if they had not been so thankful perhaps it wouldn’t have resonated just how important it was for them to have someone they could rely on.
Their genuine gratitude, for what I felt was so seemingly small, was actually BIG for them. To know that some stranger cares to help must have made them feel as important as I felt to them. I learned that labeling the homeless as merely “homeless” is close-minded and inconsiderate, as whom these individuals are is so much more than their homelessness. They are unique individuals, like the rest of us, who are worthy of a meal, a home and people who love them.
The memories and lessons I acquired through this experience are gems that will carry with me as I maneuver my way through this complex world we call “home.” I hope that you will practice compassion, or at the very least, tolerance and respect, when you stumble upon someone with a roof (and a window) that is different from your own.