Saturday, October 1, 2016

Becoming Aware

This month has been full of highs and lows as I continue to adjust to full time service and living in the Northwest. I have had days when service has left me feeling helpless and mostly hopeless, when I feel like I am not making a difference. There have been days when I have felt truly homesick for my home state and for the college which has become a second home for me over the past three years. Days like these are always tough, but my community and the people I serve remind me each day why I am here and why I know I can continue to make the most of this year.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the highlights in my day is my walk to service, not only because I am fortunate enough to see the sun rise over the mountains as I walk down the hill in the mornings, but also because I get to say hello to some of our guests in the park where they have stayed the night before. These interactions were always positive and it gave me a chance to talk with the guests outside of a busy environment where I don’t usually have a lot of time to simply say hello and ask how they’re doing.

At the start of this month, the guests were no longer visible in the park. For a few mornings I looked and saw no one at the tables where there used to be small groups of guests gathered. When one of these guests finally came into the office I asked where they had been. They said they still saw me walking to service each morning, but they had been asked by the police to move back in the park to a spot that wasn’t by the road. I didn’t have to ask the guest why this was. This interaction has been on my mind ever since. The guests were asked to move to locations in the park where they wouldn’t be as visible- where they wouldn’t be noticed. I have heard that the city receives complaints that people experiencing homelessness are visible, that they cause disturbances on occasion, and other such comments. The fact that these guests were explicitly asked not to be seen deeply saddens me. Since they were asked to move by the police they would be at risk to receive a ticket if they did not oblige; at least this is my understanding of the situation. This happens frequently at the skate park, which is a popular hangout right down the street from my service site. People are ticketed for sleeping on the streets, in their cars, disturbing the peace, etc. and when they can’t pay off the ticket (which they usually are not capable of doing) they are taken to jail after a certain period of time. When I walk by the park each morning now I see the empty space where the tables full of guests used to be. I will never again see parks in the same way. I used to think of parks as a place where there were trees, paths, events, maybe some ponds. A place where kids could learn to ride bikes and where people exercise. I still see them in this way, but now I also see a place some call home. I see past the trees at the entrance of the beautiful park and I see what they’re trying to hide: the people that some don’t want us to see. This is a tough reality to face and one I wrestle with each day.

I talked to a man every day on my walk home from service who would sit by a stop sign with a cardboard sign asking for money. This man is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He would chat with me about the local news, ask me about my day, and tell me to make sure I walked home safely, as he said the drivers in the city didn’t pay enough attention. This man went missing for a week and a half or so and turned up again asking for clothing from our clothing room. When I asked where he had been he said he had just gotten out of jail. When I said I was sorry to hear that he told me “no, it’s a good thing! Now I have a clean record again because I’ve done my time!” This mindset is a new one to me for sure. Things I never would have thought of as positive I’m being forced realized I must have been mistaken about because to some of our guests they truly seem like positivity, light, and hope.

It hit me at full force one day, when I was hearing another story of how someone had become newly homeless and needed our services, that they were relying on me in that moment. I know that my position involves assisting people experiencing homelessness directly and that many people rely on our services each day, but in that moment (and many moments since) I was very aware that the person sitting across from me was relying on me and my knowledge to get her and her family through the day. This is a privilege each day to be able to interact with people with a vast array of life experiences. It is a lot to process, though, that I have to make decisions, find resources, and assist people with tasks I never thought I would have to know about. A few times a week new guests come into the office and say “I just got out of prison for X number of weeks/months/years and I don’t have anything.” Each time I take a minute to process what that would be like: reentering the world with nothing but some clothes.

One day, a man came into the office and he was very intoxicated. He admitted that he had been drinking that morning but wanted to go to detox to get help for his addiction to alcohol. This seemed like a reasonable request to me, but it was also my first time receiving this specific request. My supervisor and I called the local police department to ask for suggestions as to what to do in this situation, as the guest was, as I mentioned, very intoxicated. The officer we spoke with told us that there wasn’t anything that could be done until the guest sobered up. The officer told the guest that he needed to stop drinking and then seek help getting sober. This didn’t seem to add up to me. We then called a local detox center where the woman who was conducting the guest’s pre-screening to get him admitted to the program asked the guest to hand me the phone. The woman told me that the man was incredibly intoxicated (which I was aware of) and told me that they couldn’t perform a screening or admit him when he was intoxicated. I asked her what to do in this situation. She told me that he needed to get sober and then make an appointment for a screening, at which point they would determine whether he would be eligible for the program. This process couldn’t be started until the next week. I asked what to do in the meantime, for any other resources she could refer me to. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I found myself trying to regurgitate this information to this man, slumped in front of me, weary with nowhere to go. I wondered how he was supposed to get sober on his own when he said he had been drinking heavily since the age of seventeen. He was seeking help for a reason and there was none to give him. I gave him water and told him to stay near the day shelter so he could get sober. He didn’t feel like he could attend the AA meetings held at our facility at that time, which I offered information about. He thanked me for taking the time to assist him (which got us nowhere) and he wandered off for the day. I have only seen him a handful of times since. I couldn’t believe how long it took me to go in circles and come up without an answer. I felt absolutely helpless with someone relying on me for an answer and I felt terrible coming up short. This happens fairly often: we can’t fund a full bus ticket for someone trying to leave town, we can’t find a location someone is trying to get to, we can’t provide funds for a lost ID because this is the second one they lost in a short period of time. There’s a lot we can’t do, but there’s also a lot we can do. It’s easy to focus on our shortcomings and to take these home with us. It’s much harder to be satisfied in all that we offer to others.

I am working on being satisfied with all I can do in a day’s time. I am working on understanding the situations that have brought guests to us. I am trying my best to remain positive, even on a few days per month when this is a difficult task. How I react to situations is my own choice and how others react is theirs. This is a tough concept, but it is a relevant one each day. There was one day this month where a guest became so angry that we ran out of sandwiches to serve and just had pasta left (from our donated food supply) that he took pasta that I served him, threw it across the counter, knocked over various things on the counter, and stormed out while yelling. A line of about sixty guests saw this and as I went on serving the long line of guests, many guests from the line told me how rude the guest was, how good the pasta was, and that I was doing a good job that day. This is how service goes on a good day: there can be guests who cause disturbances, who are affected by drugs or alcohol, who cannot control themselves for reasons unknown to volunteers, who have experiences where it is just the last straw, and even through frustrating experiences, there are guests who are so gracious, kind, and appreciative that I know what I am doing each day has a purpose. This is a balance I am continuing to adjust to each day at service.

Thank you again to everyone who continues to read through my thoughts here each month. I hope you all can gain something from these interactions I’m discussing, as I know they are changing me in so many ways. I will continue to update this blog at least monthly.

This blog do not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site. 


  1. Keep up the good work and know the guests are greatfull for you being there.
    Know we are proud of you.

  2. This work is so important. It takes special people to give of themselves for others in need especially if we have not walked in others shoes but help regardless. "There but for the grace of God go I". Mariah, thank you for being a giver. Our world needs givers. Your blog is so insightful. Your Mom said I can share it with our Human Services class who is currently work on homeless education. Have some fun out there in the beautiful west. Stay safe. Best. Bev