Matt and I took dinner to The Landing for the Friends of Youth Shelter again tonight. Dinner for 15 homeless young adults (18-24). Our first time was pretty eye opening, actually. I'm not sure what I thought to expect, but I wasn't exactly prepared.
The Landing is, during the day, a youth center or something. It's clearly a space that is used for other things; it's an office in a strip mall. And at night time, when we showed up at 8:30 to deliver dinner, they start dragging mattresses out to cover the floor. We arrived a few mintures early to get assembled- I'm not sure if I was afraid that the yuppie guests would diss my cooking, or that starving hoards would try to steal my donation, but mostly I wanted to get it right. When we arrived (at the office space in the strip mall not far from the movie theatre we sometimes go to), there was no one there. I wondered if I had brought too many lasagnas. We dodged the mattresses being dragged out by the (college aged) volunteers, and assembed dinner in the kitchen.
While we were arranging salads and things, people started to knock at the door. On the door, there is a schedule: 8:30 Line-up and Registry. 8:45 Lottery and Dinner.... What I like about this shelter/organization is that they make an effort to connect people to other services that they might need. What wigs me out about this shelter is that they might not have space for everyone who needs it. And that the Vista Volunteer who is barely 24 might have to tell someone his own age that there is no bed and he has to sleep in the street. That thought made the experience all too real.
I had briefly pondered staying for dinner- acknowledging the humanity of my neighbors who just don't have a home tonight, breaking bread and sharing encouragement. But I couldn't do it. I was struck by the need, the complete need, that would drive a person to an emergency shelter- you have no home, no family and friends to land on, no money to make your own way, and possibly no clear path to change that. In the few hours (~12) that people stay at the shelter they are warm, fed, and connected with people who might be able to help them solve the very real problems they are facing. Making small talk with someone who is self-conscious about her cooking is probably not the best use of anyone's time.
BUT, having a warm meal provided frees up the staff/volunteers to focus on helping the people who show up. And providing a meal as just some private citizen is a gesture to say that I still think of these people as my neighbors (even if my notoriously awkward ability to converse with strangers prevents me from being social in these circumstances). Bringing dinner feels like the best way for me to help- not that it is all the help that these people need, but it is probably the best thing that I can do.