Tonight I am leading a group from church that will travel to NYC to deliver food, clothing, blankets, and toiletries to homeless people. We leave in the late evening, get there about 10:30pm, and return to the church around 3-4am. I'm a night owl and insomniac, so this schedule works for me, although it's challenging for some of the people who are going. Every time we do this sort of thing, I am reminded that not everyone has experience working with - or even just being around - people with low or no income. I forget, because I've been doing this kind of thing for a long time. The assumptions that come out in conversations about this event are sometimes interesting, to say the least. I'm constantly trying to find ways to gently educate people (although gentle isn't really my strong point). Some examples of things that have been said to me in the last couple of weeks:
1) "It's not like they'll be able to read."
It is true that we can't assume that the people we encounter will be able to read printed materials in English. Sometimes they are illiterate, or have learning disabilities, or don't speak English. On the other hand, sometimes they have more education than I do. I've met homeless and impoverished people with Ph.D's. Given the job market for university faculty right now, this probably shouldn't be all that unexpected.
2) "You'd think they would eat anything if they're really hungry."
I suppose it's true that someone who is starving would eat things they might not normally eat. But we serve people who have religious convictions about food, and hence we don't have ham sandwiches. Also, homeless people still have things they like and don't like, just like the rest of us. If I were hungry, I'd probably eat a sandwich with mayonnaise on it, but I would have to be pretty darned hungry not to be grossed out by it. It's quite easy for us to give food that tastes good, is nutritious, and that people will be able to eat without compromising their religious beliefs, so we try to do that.
3) "Aren't they just glad to get whatever we give them?"
Well, sometimes, if whatever we give them is useful. It's also helpful if what we give enables people to maintain some sense of dignity. So, we don't give huge, non-portable items to people who have to carry their entire lives with them, and we don't give them used underwear or stained/torn clothing. We have plenty of good-quality, usable items to give.
4) "Is this really safe?"
Yes. This particular project has a spotless safety record, and they've been running it for several years. We are working in a fairly large group, in very public locations. In 14 years of leading groups on mission projects, some in situations that would have been considered much more dangerous that this one, I have encountered one person who was actually violent, and it was diffused quickly. Sometimes we meet people who are surly or verbally hostile, but it's no big deal. The same thing happens in church. The same strategy applies: remain calm, don't escalate the anger, get help if you need it, move on.
5) "Why do we do this so late at night?"
Well, you're probably not going to find people bedding down on the streets outside of the Dolce and Gabbana store in the middle of the afternoon. We go when people are there.
I'm looking forward to tonight, despite all the questions, and perhaps because of them. As much as I sometimes think, "Huh????" about the things people say, it's fun getting them outside of their comfort zones and exposing them to another way of life. It's fun watching them change as they meet real people in difficult circumstances. And it's really fun watching what they bring back to their own lives and to our congregation.