I walked up to the big, intimidating brown door, carrying a pan of warm apple crisp dessert as its sticky juices leaked out the sides onto my hands. Christmas music played loudly behind me; young children laughing and skating circles on a small ice rink under bright lights and the moon.
As I approached the building, I noticed something. The window wrapping the front of the door was shattered. The glass was broken, but not enough to cause an opening.
There was a part of me wanting to turn around, get back in my car and drive safely home. But, I signed up for this and knew it would be an eye-opening experience. I was right.
2 big myths about chronic #homelessness. 1) It’s a choice. 2) All solutions have already been tried.
— Felicity Reynolds (@FlickReynolds) December 22, 2011
After reaching the front door, I peered through the window. A young woman made eye contact and walked over to open the door for me. I smiled, introduced myself and nervously asked to be directed where I might set down my leaking dish. An older gentleman walked down a hallway towards us and kindly showed me the way. But, moments later I learned I would need to first walk through a large gym before getting to the kitchen.
One big room, 25 mattresses; just as you see in the movies. Every mattress was accompanied by a notebook piece of paper torn from a tablet and taped above each pillow, labeled with a corresponding number. Women of all ages – young, old, crippled, healthy – sat on the mattresses, walked around the room, sang to each other or simply sat at one of the long tables set up nearby.
As I weaved my way through the mattresses lined up on the tiled floor, I noticed some of the women gathered in a corner of the room. Piquing my interest, I stared long enough to see what they were doing. A volunteer sat in a chair as the women took turns having their fingernails painted.
“You look beautiful,” the volunteer said after finishing painting for one of the women.
I made my way to the kitchen, helped set up a buffet-style table of food and grabbed a cup of coffee.
One of the women quickly ran up to me, eager to hand me a brown paper bag.
“Would you like to read this?” she said, holding up a local newspaper with a square photo of her pictured in black and white on the front page. “One of the stories is about me and the path I’m on to make a better life.”
“Yes, I would love to take a look,” I said, smiling.
“There’s something else in the bag that’s a bit more personal, if you’d like to see,” she said.
Hesitant, I opened the bag and reached in to pick up a yellow piece of fabric.
“Would you like me to take it out of the bag?” I asked, unsure if the item was too personal for the rest in the room to see.
She nodded her head yes.
I picked up and unfolded the item, which I quickly recognized as an extra-large macaroni and cheese colored t-shirt covered in words and images, hand written with a black permanent marker. I fumbled the shirt a bit, so she snatched it out of my hand and held it up for me to see more clearly. The front of the shirt read “We are a family and we still love you”.
She rotated the shirt, showing me the backside. My stomach dropped as I saw four little faces drawn on the fabric, and above the image, the words “If you love us, why do you make us black and blue?”.
I nodded again, unsure how to respond to a message so clear, yet so disturbingly sad.
She told me she made the t-shirt in therapy as a way to help her cope with life and start on the right path. As she placed the t-shirt back into the bag, a tall authoritative woman walked into the large room and signaled for everyone to gather in the middle of the room.
Without speaking, all of the women and volunteers (including myself) gathered between the mattresses and the tables and held hands. The woman who seemed to have authority began saying a prayer.
“Thank you Lord for bringing us together to a warm place tonight. Please bless this food and show us your grace through fellowship and the meeting of new friends. In God’s name we pray, Amen.”
How cool, I thought.
I, along with four other volunteers, took our position behind the long table with food. The women lined up single file on the other side of the table — plates in hand and manner in tact. We served our homemade chicken pot pie, garden salad and warm apple crisp and they thanked us for each serving.
“This smells so good,” one woman said.
“A home cooked meal is just what I need right now,” another said.
The women ate their meals while sharing fellowship. The dishes were empty, all food gone. I grabbed another cup of coffee and sat down at one of the tables.
What can I possibly say to these women? I’ve never been homeless. And, while I’ve had extensive training and experience working with women involved in domestic violence, I’ve fortunately never had to experience it myself.
“How was the food?” I asked, feeling a little out of place.
All of the women at the table smiled and shook their heads as if approving of the meal.
And then it hit me – I was no different from these women. I am human and so are they. Our experiences should not define our being, who we are or who we hope to be someday.
“How was your day?” I asked the woman sitting next to me.
“Difficult,” she answered, attempting to ignore me.
“Well, it’s good to know you have a full stomach of good food.”
“Well yes, but I’d like my own kitchen and be able to cook for myself again. It’s hard being homeless. It’s heavy on your heart and your mind.”
I didn’t have a response and sat silent for a moment.
“Where are you all from?” I asked, seeking conversation.
One woman grew up in Ohio and another in South Carolina. I shared with these women, while now in North Carolina that I too was an “outsider”. I had recently moved to the state from Michigan less than one year ago with my husband and 15 month-old daughter.
“They were interested to hear more about my little girl and share with me stories about their own children.
“Guess how many children I have,” one of them said. I responded with a confused look and asking, “how many?”.
“Ten,” she answered, lowering her head as if it hurt to talk about them.
“I have four kids,” said the other woman – the one who had shared her personal item with me earlier in the evening.
“But…I haven’t seen them since 1997,” she said. “They are what keeps me going each day. I know I will see them again, but it’s about taking life one step at a time and I’m focusing on that.”
I instantly felt sadness and looked over at the woman next to me who had just shared she is a mother of ten. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked up.
“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said.
“You’re welcome; it’s a way for me to help myself, too. I am amazed when anything I do or say actually means something to another person.”
How true. And while I’m not sure if anything I said that night made a difference to those women, I left with an appreciation for my family, a warm home and for my very own kitchen – used to make sticky apple crisp for new friends on a Friday night.