Last night’s outreach was a cornucopia of events, a true crazy-quilt of good people who met us under a canopy of stars on a chilly, windy night in Manhattan. It has never ceased to amaze me how, despite the 26 years I have been volunteering, each “run” is a new episode. There is nothing boiler-plate about it.
Armed with 19 high schoolers, two good friends, a parent of one of the kids who was new to the experience and my daughter who truly was raised within the culture of the Run, we drove into the city darkness with no expectations at all other than to meet up with the homeless and extend ourselves in conversation. I recall how a past volunteer years ago said that the Run wasn’t about the food we bring or the clothing and blankets we distribute, but it was about the dialogue that is created between the homed and the homeless that matters. I have never forgotten that and with every introduction and briefing I have with the kids who attend, I drive that point home loud and clear. “If you walk away without having had a conversation with a homeless person, you haven’t done the Run.” Our Mantra, for certain.
Our first stop was a quiet one on the Upper West Side. The park was our backdrop and as one of the kids and I ladled hot soup into cups and poured coffee, the other kids handed out their bagged lunches, clothing and toiletry items and started to engage in conversation with these 5 or 6 homeless men and women. The bonding is often immediate and always wonderful to watch. Once the soup and coffee was handed out, I walked over to two men who looked as if they were new to the street. They were a young married couple whose Astoria, Queens apartment house caught fire, displacing them and a few others to a shelter in this Manhattan neighborhood. They were fish out of water and the kids simply eased a painful moment for them with their conversation. And by the time we packed it in to go to our next destination, these men were smiling and genuinely happy to have met this terrific group of students, offering to volunteer their help, as well, once they got settled in a new home.
And our quote of the night? “I’m a dike, so no frilly panties for me. I’d like a pair of boxers, please.” A truly lovely group of men and women at that stop.
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Many years ago, my daughter Catie, a seasoned volunteer by the time she was 8 years old, met an elderly Japanese man sitting on a hillside in Riverside Park while we were helping a large group of homeless a few feet away. He was enchanted with her and from that point on, Sam and Catie became fast friends. Last night, Sam and Catie had an impromptu reunion at our next stop, and as she quietly approached him, he saw her and hugged her tight. The others went on to speak with the other people who were beginning to gather. It was a moment for me, as I watched Catie and Sam chat and smile and laugh. To me, Sam was always the wise elder, his wispy white beard making an exclamation point from his chin to his chest. And now, Catie was a grown woman, not the 8 year old who found this new friend that night on the hillside so many years ago, bringing him a blanket so she could cover his swollen knees as they chatted. A real moment, indeed, as my memory fired up these intimate flashbacks to another time.
Our next stop has always been unusually large, but this time, it was our smallest one, with only a handful of people who waited in the cold for us. I was told by one of our friends at the stop that there were many more who simply got too cold to wait any longer. “They’re tourists!” he exclaimed and then showed me how he bundles up for nights like this, sharing that he grew up in New Hampshire and knew what REAL winters were like. And then there was Jeffrey, a gentle and kind man who I have known for twenty years, greeted us with his award-winning smile and spent time speaking with a group of girls. A young man whose name I don’t know, saw us from the shadows of the park and ran toward us, calling my name, or rather calling me by what he thought was my name. “Jenny! Jenny! I’m so happy to see you!” he yelled as he hugged me tightly. My young friend is socially and mentally challenged but has made enormous progress in staying connected to the Run. He was a guest this past year at our annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the Homeless and has been meeting us each month now. Despite any of his handicaps, he engages with the kids and with me and when we leave, he’s the last waving hand I see in the rearview mirror. And, admittedly, I think about where he’ll go after we drive away.
Our evening had been satisfying and truly well-planned. We hardly expected any wrinkles, but that was a short-sighted thought and our last stop proved that. We pulled up to our destination and it was only when we were out of the van, that we saw what we thought was a spirited dialogue between one of our homeless friends and two homed fellows, become a nasty personal attack of words. When I started this journey as a volunteer many years ago, homelessness was a huge issue for the city of New York. Under the Giuliani Administration, the homeless were ignored and mistreated by a system that simply wanted to banish them, rather than work to eradicate the issue. Watching these two older men argue and provoke this quiet group of five homeless individuals, I was reminded of the profound bias and hatred of the homeless that was so pervasive in the early 1990’s. The kids stayed in the cars and the adult volunteers stood nearby while we watched the scene before us. I handed out soup and food and then after we went back to our caravan, Catie and I decided to wait for the police to show up. And they did. I stayed with our students in the van while the others headed back home and Catie simply reported to the police that these men were provoking the homeless, with one of the men jabbing a homeless man with his walking stick.
What is our role as members of a greater community? We claim to be advocates for those far less fortunate than we are. We claim to be so politically correct in our well thought-out statements we spew, each to the other, but here was a very real situation where these neighborhood men chose to pick a fight with the homeless and with all of their might, these homeless individuals restrained themselves from physical violence, opting only for the words that these men chose not to hear. Human behavior – all sides of it – fascinates me. On one hand, we can love they neighbor and respond with kindness, but once things become uncomfortable, once things begin to threaten our sense of propriety, we retreat into another darker place, claiming our territory, digging our spiritual heels into the ground, shutting the door of tolerance in the face of our perceived foe. We lose our humanity and revert to our baser instincts, as what we witnessed last night.
We, as volunteers, did what was the right thing: we stood witness to an uncomfortable situation without endangering ourselves. And when we needed to report the truth, we did. The police were grateful for my daughter’s account and the homeless were left alone. As for the two homed fellows? I suspect they were ushered away and told not to return.
I laud the students and the adults who volunteer with us. I admire their desire to help. They, like me, do it quite simply because they can. This isn’t a resume-builder or a self-agrandizer. It is simply people extending themselves to those who need the aid.
Now imagine a world if only more people did this.