Last Friday I joined United Way in a day of caring for the homeless.
When I became aware of this event I knew I wanted the experience.
Living in Seattle has definitely exposed me more to the homeless and in visiting Fresno made me more aware of the obviously growing problem there.
At the day of caring I was at a station where we washed feet and gave them new socks. There were over 70 services available: Veterans Services, DSHS, eye exams and glasses, flu shots, checks to get a Washington State IDs, pregnancy tests, new shoes and more. We sat waiting and the doors opened. Men and women came pouring in. What was interesting was that they headed for one particular area. I had to know what drew them so. The big draw was sleeping bags and backpacks; their home furnishings and necessities.
It was obvious these men and women weren't quite sure what we were there to do so I walked out to the middle of the main aisle and began to invite them to have their feet washed and receive new socks. Here was my 2nd lesson of the day. It was very humbling and embarrassing for them to bare their feet to anyone.
After about 45 minutes they began to come and sit. Every person I served apologized for their feet as they removed their shoes and socks. It was hard for them to do. They can keep the visible part of themselves clean and somewhat groomed; but their feet are usually hidden and so are not a priority. I would just chuckle and tell them there are very few pretty feet out there.
The first man was Mark. He was pretty quiet. I asked him how long he had been homeless. He said just the last couple of years. He said he has always worked....until now. What was most remarkable about this man? About 2 hours later he came back looking for me. He told me thank you and that having his feet soaked, washed, massaged and clothed with new socks was the best part of his day at this event. It was hugely humbling to know you had been a part of that experience.
A 23 year old young man told me he was originally from Senegal. He first lived in Atlanta but heard Seattle was a good place to live. He told me how blessed he was. Then he leaned over and showed me his head. He had been beat with a baseball bat while living on the streets. He had a scar that started at his hairline and went to the crown of his head and then over to his ear. He went on to say how dangerous it is. Lifting his shirt he showed me scars where he had been stabbed several times. Again he said he was blessed. He shouldn't be alive. Picking up and opening his backpack he showed me several bottles of prescription medications. Because of his head injury he now has about 6 grand mal seizures a day.
Next came Mohammed. He was the first who seemed a bit hard. He was probably the most apologetic for the condition of his feet. But as I massaged his feet and calves with lotion he started to smile. He wanted to know why in the world I would do this. He has served several terms in prision.
Sydney was 53 years old. When I asked him about his homeless history he said it was Hurricane Katrina that started his journey. Being left with no home and no job he started journeying form one city to another to find his place. He had one felony that he confessed was committed during a 6 month stint of drinking himself out of control. He has now been dry for 2 years. He is hoping to start city college this month. I just let him talk for about 20 minutes. I realized these people have no one who will just sit and listen. While I was washing his feet he suddenly turned to check on his 2 new back packs. In realizing how his action must look he explained that on the street and in shelters you always have to guard your things. His has been stolen twice. He told me how to keep money safe and how to sleep with your backpacks safe.
One man considered himself an expert on carcinogens. He certainly had a vocabulary beyond mine. Warned me of things I shouldn't eat or natural foods to help fight the effects of those foods.
I heard a young man next to me say he was from Fresno. So I said I was also. I asked him why he moved here. He said he is married and has 6 kids. In Fresno, the best job he could get was at MacDonalds and he didn't make enough money to take care of his family. He had heard things were much better in Seattle so he moved his family here. He also said that nothing like this event and the services offered are available in Fresno.
The one woman I served was pregnant. This was not her first.
My day was a very humbling one. Seeing how exposed these men and women felt in baring their feet. Watching them relax and say "ahhhh" as they were able to just sit and soak their feet in warm water. Seeing these brothers and sisters as just that. They were kind, thankful, just trying to make their lives better in some way.
Another lesson in guarding myself from judgement. The homeless are not scary, evil, less than human. They are us.
This is true - it was a blessing to serve these people.
My challenge? Could it be possible to be part of organizing something like this in Fresno when we get there? Is that some idealist thought or could it be a reality?
Advice to others? If you want to give to those on the corners, at the intersections.....sleeping bags and backpacks.