Homeless people have a set of mores – a code that they live by. Maybe not all homeless people, just like not all fortunate housed people followed the same moral standards. But in my dealings with the homeless, their understanding of and care for one another astonishes me.
Sunday February 10th David and I decided to do a homeless giveaway. I had made up 11 baggies of toiletries a few weeks ago and had been itching to hand them out. Most had full sized deodorants – a cherished commodity – a score from RiteAid s “freebate” program. All the bags had brand new washcloths (big Target sale), hotel soap, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush (some courtesy of David’s dentist, others from a DC Marriott where I begged), and toothpaste (some real full sized tubes, again thanks to RiteAid).
I made up 20 cups of coffee using packets of hotel coffee and we packed up. We also brought along 4 hats, 4 sets of mittens, and 3 scarves that we had purchased using a $20 donation from a co-worker.
As soon as we started into town we realized we messed up. TOILETRIES? It was one of the coldest nights of the year. Who in their right mind is thinking about shampooing their hair when the wind is howling and you are doing all you can to stay WARM? So when we stopped the car next to the park we didn’t even bring out the baggies – just the hats, etc and coffee.
The first few people in the park were happy to get coffee. They had no block from the wind and were bundled up in all the layers they had. Interesting observation about homeless people – they like them some SUGAR in their coffee!!!! It is a rare cup that goes out without at least one sugar. The record for this trip was the man who needed 5 packets for one cup of coffee! David has a couple theories on that – sugar = energy, and sugar goes right for the pleasure points. I think both ideas are right. One person in the park also needed a hat and was quick to point out to us that there were several people over by the metro who would want coffee.
This is a metro station we went to last time we went out, and it is a great boon for homeless people. The city must not run them out of there, cuz there seems to always be a group congregating there. It is much warmer under the roof than it is out under the stars. There are no walls – it is just the entry point to get to the escalators going to the trains. But somehow it is a bit heated and feels like night and day when you walk in.
They saw us coming. We suspect they have look outs (grin). We carry laundry baskets to hold the cups, coffee, sugar, etc, and I guess the site of people walking in DC on a the dark cold night with a laundry basket must be odd because they knew right away we were coming with something to share. “Whatcha got there?”. We sat up on a piece of concrete and they bum rushed us (a term I later realized is probably insanely politically incorrect – bum rush??? Used in this context? Oh my…). In any event, about 8 homeless men were suddenly around us. Then they organized themselves and lined up. Queued for coffee. I thought it was spectacular that they formed a nice line! I filled cups and sent them to David a bit down the line for sugar, cream, and stirring. Later, when I thought about it, I realized that much of their life must be line-dependent. Their food does not come to them while they sit and wait at tables in a restaurant, like ours does, but while they queue at a shelter or soup kitchen. Same for their housing.
One man, in the midst of the coffee pouring, said, “Do you have any hot chocolate?”. Well! I immediately thought the old tacky expression, “Beggars can’t be choosers!”. “No – wish we did. Hot chocolate sounds good right about now!” was my reply. But you know what? When I got home, I COULD make myself some hot chocolate. Some fine Ghirardelli hot chocolate with marshmallows or whipping cream, and sit in front of the tv and drink it. That man couldn’t.
We gave out all the winter gear and were almost out of coffee when someone hollered “SHE NEEDS COFFEE! SHE NEEDS SOME! THE LADY IN THE WHEELCHAIR! SHE CAN’T GET UP TO GET IT!”. This is my very favorite part of dealing with these people. They take care of one another. They do it in any way they can. Every single time we go out and hand anything out, at least one situation like this occurs. It is the most beautiful thing. So the lady in the wheelchair (who was actually now out of the chair, lying on the ground, covered in blankets handed out by shelters) got the last cup. With sugar and cream, thank you! Just as we finished, a 40-something white man with long gray hair and a white scraggly beard came up and asked for coffee. “Sorry, we are out.” “Well, can I get a hat please?” Sorry – gave all those out, too. I felt bad that I had nothing to share with him.
As soon as we got back in the car, we both wanted to refill at home and come back down. David was the first to suggest it out loud – we needed to come back with more coffee and bring sweaters instead of toiletries. Deal! We made up 20 more cups of coffee, packed up 10 sweaters, and headed back.
But it is odd. The sweaters, scarves, and other material things are a finite resource. We cannot afford to buy more – with my soft heart I could buy buy buy to give away until we were broke. That isn’t the answer. We only have as many material things to give away as we come across thanks to the kindness of other people donating. So, knowing we had a limited number of sweaters, how do you decide who GETS them? On a frigid night when everyone is freezing cold, who wins the lottery to get the warmest sweater? We decided that those not under the roof of the metro should get them – the park dwellers and solitary people holed up in door frames. But I did bring a hat back for the man I called “The Artist” – the gray haired man who had gotten nothing the first go round. I wanted to spoil him with our best, warmest hat and a piping hot cup of coffee. But when we got back, he had left. A couple people knew who I was talking about and told me he was gone. But one of them asked for the hat, and he was the lucky winner. One sweater recipient was walking by our car as we were getting things out. At first I wasn’t sure he was homeless, then when he got closer you could feel he was. I offered him a sweater and he had a big smile on his face as he accepted it. We also brought a green sweater for the lady with the wheelchair. As we were there, a van called “The Grate Patrol” pulled up and guess what? HE HAD HOT CHOCOLATE! I was happy for hot chocolate man – who came up and smiled at me with his cup of steaming chocolate. I said something to him and he said, “You didn’t have anything for me last time.” I figured he got in line after we ran out of coffee, until I realized he was the one who hollered for the cocoa. He explained that he doesn’t like coffee – not even the smell of it. He and I had a real interaction and smiled a lot – and I realized that earlier he had not been begging OR choosing – he was simply asking nicely.
A most beautiful generous act occurred. A man came up to David and offered him a juice box. A sweet, tasty, small juice box. A gift. From a man who had nothing – an offer of what he could share. David instinctively went to accept it and say yes – the man was sharing and thanking us for sharing, too. But we didn’t need the juice box, and there were other people around who certainly did. So David changed his mind and said, “Thank you, but no, you can give it to someone else.” And the man turned and offered it to ME. It was so touching. I declined nicely, too, and of course the next person offered it snapped it up.
We handed out coffee under the metro awning, then drove around looking for people in doorways and parks for sweaters. We ended up giving away 6. The problem was, it was so cold that people were bundled up as tight as they could be – swaddled. Their heads were under the blankets. By offering a sweater or coffee, we would be making them COLDER than if they stayed in their make-shift tent using their breath for heat. We found one man walking with a shopping cart filled with gear and gave him a sweater which he happily took. Then he pointed us in the direction of a lady he had gone past that he was worried about. “She needs to walk around. I told her. She needs to MOVE. I checked her for hypothermia. She needs coffee.” Again – taking care of one another. We found her curled up outside the Christian Science church. She was lucky enough to have a thin sleeping bag which she was totally encased in. We were hesitant to talk to her – didn’t want to wake her. But David asked quietly if she would like coffee or a sweater. “I just want to sleep. I want to be left alone.”
We meet so many people when we hand things out. The African American young lady who seemed high on something – living near the metro people but up on a grate. The somewhat grumpy lady with loads of stuff who is always parked on the corner and loathes coffee. The little Asian lady who is sometimes in the park who all the men take care of as if she were their mother. The well-spoken African American vet who gets in trouble with his doctors at the VA hospital because he walks so far to get there to pick up his medicine. The man on the park bench who just got released from prison – for a crime he committed in this very park…
And all of them are thankful. Grateful. Even if they do not accept our gift of coffee, a sweater, a washcloth -–they thank us and make us happy we have something to share.
February 10, 2008