I started my journey to the Northwest with a week-long orientation just outside of Portland. The orientation focused on the four core values of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest: simple living, spirituality, social and ecological justice, and community. Walking away from orientation with the tools to build on these four values within our community, we drove from Portland to Boise on Saturday, August 13th. Since arriving we have spent time with our wonderful support families who live in the area. They took us on a tour of Boise, hiking up the foothills to watch the sunset and the moonrise over Boise, cooked dinners for us, and checked in from time to time. We have spent weekends and evenings as a community exploring downtown Boise, checking out the local farmers market, volunteering at the community garden which is run by one of our support families, and attending events put on by local nonprofits. Most recently we attended the hot air balloon festival at a local park. We watched as the hot air balloons were lit up after dark, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I already knew how to cook fairly well, but I’m learning to cook for a community of four now with the vegetables, fruits, and other ingredients we happen to have from the garden at any given moment. The joke in our community is that we have to make zucchini everything… zucchini bread, zucchini bake, zucchini salads, etc. because zucchini apparently grows like crazy in our garden, and some of our neighbors put out signs for free zucchini. Who are we to pass up on free food with a budget of sixty dollars per week for groceries? So, we are getting creative about cooking with zucchini.
Our first day of service was August 17th. My walk to service is about two miles round trip and I enjoy this walk more and more each day, mostly because I can see the sun rise over the foothills in the morning and I can say hello to the guests I serve on my way to and from service. The guests are people currently experiencing homelessness who use services which are provided at my service site. These services include the use of bathrooms, showers, sinks, laundry services, some long term storage, access to donated clothing, meals in the morning and afternoon, a place to receive mail if a guest does not have an address, a phone for outgoing and incoming calls, access to the internet, and generally a safe place to hang out and get out of the hot or cold weather. My role as the services coordinator is mainly to assist guests and volunteers in whatever way I can. There are guests who need directions around Boise, who need to find services locally, who need bus passes, who need to talk with someone, who are new to the area or newly homeless and need to figure out where to start. This is what we’re there to assist with each day. The goal of my service site is to ease the burden of homelessness, and that’s what we try to do on a daily basis.
My first day consisted of me sitting and visiting with guests in the main area of the building, the goal being to get to know as many guests as I can and for them to get to know me. This task was a bit overwhelming at the time, though, as there were about fifty guests in a small area eating breakfast, talking, etc. I didn’t know where to start. As I talked with guests throughout the day I learned a lot about them, my service site, homelessness, and Boise. I still feel like a sponge every day, absorbing as much information as possible from guests and volunteers. Some people who stuck out to me from that day include two guests who were getting married the following weekend, guests who had recent experiences in prison, friends of guests who had been recently incarcerated, many guests with physical and/or mental disabilities, guests who were married, guests who wanted to find love, people who had lost love, guests who were going through detox, people who told me nonchalantly that they were sleeping in the parks at night, a woman who had just left her husband because he had met another woman and now he was dependent on heroin again, many people who had everything stolen from them, two people who were starting college at a local university, a woman who had her children taken away by social services, many people who said they came from other towns and cities where conditions for people experiencing homelessness were worse than in Boise currently in their opinions, many people who told me I missed the peak heat of the summer (even though it was 97 degrees that day), people venting about the current housing shortage for those applying for housing, people bringing donations, people continually welcoming me, and people who experienced some joy by being at there that day. This was just day one. Every day at my site is a rollercoaster. I never know what will happen next and I’m never bored. There are always emails and phones to be answered, mail to be sorted, guests to talk with, and volunteers to check in with. The controlled chaos is an environment I feel I fit into so far, a place where I enjoy being busy.
As the weeks have passed by I have developed more of a routine at my site, saying hello to people who stay in the parks as I walk to service in the mornings, making conversation with people “flying signs,” or panhandling on the side of the road, and generally trying to meet some of the needs of the guests. A big part of this role, as I learned on my first day, is knowing that there’s no way to possibly change every guest's situation. While all of the volunteers try our best every day, we have to know that there’s only so much we can do and there’s only so much time in the day that we are available to our guests. One of the founders told me that every volunteer has certain strengths they bring to our services. There are some feet, some hands, some mouths, some ears, etc. and together the volunteers make up a full body, helping our operation to run as well as it can. Each volunteer knows that no one could do it all alone.
On the first two days of September the floors of the building had to be redone, which meant that no one could be in the main building for a couple days. This was hard on the guests and the volunteers. On these days I volunteered in the morning, sorting mail and greeting guests for a few hours. On these days people from local churches brought donations of sandwiches they had made. I went to the most popular and visible area where people hang out, a skate park down the street. The skate park is a place for people experiencing homelessness to sit, sleep, etc. since the area is covered by an on-ramp, which protects the area from rain, snow, and other unpredictable elements. This experience was important for me because on one of my first days in Boise I walked with my housemates through this section of Boise, directly past people experiencing homelessness, and I could feel myself tense up, uncomfortable at the sight. I’m not proud at all to say that, but I think for most it could be a natural reaction to a situation which can be considered uncomfortable. Now, handing out sandwiches in the exact same area to people I now know by name, it just felt natural. I noticed people passing by in their cars staring as I had a ten minute conversation with a man holding a sign on the side of the road (a fairly regular occurrence now). I continue to notice how shocked some of our guests are when I say hello to them every time I see them, regardless of what I am doing or who I’m with, and make a point to smile and wave, to make them feel acknowledged. I don’t give our guests money, but I try to give them everything I can offer: some food, conversation, acknowledgement, a smile, and a sense of normalcy in a world that is anything but normal. When I walk past the park in the mornings and some of the guests wave so enthusiastically, it makes me realize how simple it should be to remain positive throughout my days of service. No matter what, I am surrounded by people who are positive, kind, and genuine in spite of situations that are anything but fair. There are some who don’t quite fit these qualifications, but overall I walk away from each day of service reminded how fortunate I am to know the guests and volunteers there.
Someone in the community knows that I volunteer at my site full time and asked me recently if I thought the guests are entitled. They didn’t specify, but I’m assuming they meant in terms of receiving our services as well as money from social security, food stamps, or other benefits. I told them that in the brief time I have known the guests I serve, I can’t think of one person I would describe as entitled. I have found that most guests are respectful to volunteers and each other, wanting to be as reasonable as possible because if there is fighting, disrespect, drug or alcohol use, etc. guests are kicked out for a certain period of time depending on the offense. This is not taken lightly for people who truly need our services. I interact with many guests throughout the day and in my experience so far I wouldn’t call anyone entitled, but I would say some are frustrated, which can come off as entitlement if you don’t look more closely at the situation. They are frustrated with the current housing system, lack of support, lack of compassion from the community, police who, while doing everything they can to protect the community and help us in any way we request, give tickets to people because they are sleeping on the side of the road or in their cars. They are frustrated because they are currently experiencing homelessness and to most people who pass by them daily, it is easier to look away than to advocate for them. I often see people who have had their shoes stolen and when I open the clothing room to find there are no shoes that fit them, they smile and thank me for taking the time to look for them. This is a truly humbling experience. So, no, I wouldn’t say that the guests feel entitled. I would say that in a system which has pushed them aside and forgotten them, they will often take what they can if it’s being offered. Although it is not rare that people will share what they have or give others their food who seem to need it more. This is the beauty in having the opportunity to observe others: you might just witness something profound.
If you have read this far, thank you for hanging in there through my whirlwind of thoughts from the past three weeks. I am still actively learning about the issue of homelessness in Boise and I have a long ways to go, but I will continue to update this blog with new information about my community life as well as my service at least monthly. Thank you all for your continued support in my transition to serving the people of Idaho. Please think about saying hello to someone new, donating time or goods, and paying it forward if you can. I know these things have changed my life in the past few weeks.
This post does not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site.