Out of the mouths of babes…as true today as the day someone first said it. My daughter volunteers at a homeless shelter every year, on two consecutive weekends. She hands out blankets to men and women who opt to come in from the cold for a few nights in January, and she sets up sleeping mats on the auditorium floor. Sometimes she talks to the visitors and makes them feel comfortable.
Two years ago, she linked up (at the age of 12, her first year volunteering) with a homeless 19 year-old girl who was left without a place to stay after her boyfriend kicked her out of the apartment they shared. If you looked at the woman, you wouldn’t know she was homeless. She could have been me — or perhaps you. Styled hair, sporting an IPOD, wearing a beautiful eggshell white knitted sweater that looked to be somewhat expensive, and boots that matched her purse in color. Nope, if she passed me by on the sidewalk at noon, I wouldn’t view her as homeless. In fact I wouldn’t view her at all: she fits in with everybody else, at least in appearance, but her life isn’t like ours.
We have keys. That’s how one of my friends who was temporarily homeless put it. Keys make the difference. When you have keys you have a place to go, even if they only open the door to your car.
We have a place to stay, a home with a warm bed, blankets, a furnace that rumbles on and off during the night. She doesn’t. Doors at the shelter open at 7pm and patrons are lined up to get in, particuarly on nights in Michigan with temperatures hovering lower on the scale. Doors open again at 7am to signal everyone must leave.
Fifty degrees isn’t “really” cold if you’re used to being homeless but when temps dip below 20, or 10 or 5, you feel it — the stinging bite of your plight: no shelter, no place to call home. As that friend of mine put it: gotta have keys — they open doors. We don’t know what happened to the girl my daughter linked up with, but I know the experiences the woman shared affected my daughter then and still does today: my daughter prays for her at night and pictures her in a house, with heat, and a bed — and keys.
Last weekend my daughter met a guitar carrying man at the same shelter. During conversation she found out he came from California, and had a good father when he was a kid, who taught him how to play — and well. In my daughter’s words, “He did scales and melody and chords….he was good.” But that’s not nearly as important as what my daughter took away from the conversation. He was not a drunk; he had not abused himself or someone else; but he was homeless. The kind man let my daughter play his guitar, gave her pointers and played some music for her too. When she returned home and wrote out a reflection sheet for volunteer community service hour credits at the high school, as any mom would do, I took a peek. And it made me smile. Here’s what she said.
” When you work at a homeless shelter you connect with people and they connect with you. You discover that we aren’t all that much different. And you find out, homeless people are not all bad. Many are pretty much just like us.”
You know something? It’s true, but there is one big difference separating us: we have keys.