Invading Basements & Making Friends
By Tony Melton
I’m driving home from an oil change. I see Bob. He’s sitting outside in the cold, rain dripping on his winter jacket and stocking cap. Obviously waiting for a bus, Bob looks off into the distance – alone and uncomfortable. For as long as I’ve known him, this has been his life as he goes from shelter to shelter.
I’m checking out a book at the library. There’s Lawrence reading a book. I walk past as he sits at a table with other friends from the shelter. Our conversation is short and pleasant. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s been looking for places like this to stay out of the heat or cold.
I’m driving to work. I see Wayne walking down Main Street. High school students are flooding into their school parking lot; hundreds of students litter the streets as they try to beat the tardy bell. In just a few minutes, Wayne will pass them all. I wonder, What will they say to him? How will they look at him? Will anyone wish him a good morning?” For as long as I’ve known him, Wayne has taken this walk.
I’m jogging the third mile of an eight-mile run. I see Odell sleeping on a bench. It’s a pleasant morning, and twenty or thirty people are around the park this morning. None of them notices Odell. This isn’t the first time he’s slept on that bench. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s never had a bed to call his own.
When it comes to the homeless, what counts as enough? Is it enough to offer temporary shelter, have some pleasant conversations, share a few laughs and then go home? Is it enough to know their names, learn their stories and offer encouragement? Is it enough to provide an environment where people feel welcomed and valued? Is that enough?
For the last five years, I’ve been asking myself that question. I offer leadership and support to a weekly overnight shelter in my community, and on the third Tuesday of every month I pull together a consistent group to serve dinner, set up sleeping quarters, do laundry, serve breakfast and clean up. We’ve invaded the basement of the First Church of Lombard monthly for the past five years, ready to hang out.
I say “invade” because that’s what it sometimes feels like at a shelter. Sometimes it seems like volunteers want to turn this awesome experience into “Mission: Save the Homeless!” Many people with great intentions think that their job at the shelter is to help homeless folks become more like them. Some think that by cooking up some food, putting down some mats, even saying “Hello,” they are doing these guys a giant favor.
It’s different working with a group of people who “invade” with love. I’ve seen some volunteers walk into the shelter wondering what they can learn from our homeless buddies. I’ve been able to witness a group realize the mutuality of the shelter experience—realize that hanging out at the shelter is, in many ways, a gift.
The volunteers I work with at the shelter aspire toward being a “wheel” for our homeless friends: to form relationships with homeless people and then “go with them” to take advantage of all the resources available to the homeless community. If you visited our shelter on a typical Tuesday night, you might not be able to tell who was homeless and who was a volunteer. Instead, you would see a bunch of people having a great time – homeless people and “homeful” people playing “cornhole” or shuffleboard together, filling out tournament pools together, painting each other’s nails and cutting each other’s hair, singing together and referring to each other by name.
I’ll be honest, the things I’ve seen happen in that basement at First Church over the last five years are incredible. To get to the point where a homeless person can say, “You guys really look like you like being here,” to get to the point where you’d look into the basement and it would look more like Thanksgiving than a homeless shelter. But the question still bugs me, “Is it enough?” Could any of us say that we’ve been directly responsible for a person going from homelessness to homefulness? I don’t think so. Has any of us even gotten involved in their lives past the Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that we’re at the site? Not on a regular basis. Have we been a wheel for our friends? I’m not sure.
As I move through the community and see my homeless friends move from shelter to shelter in between weeks, I’m asking myself the question, “Is it enough?” Is it enough that for at least one day out of the month our homeless buddies can go somewhere they are valued and people enjoy being with them?
Bob is still at the bus stop, Lawrence is still looking for a place to stay warm, Wayne is still walking down Main, Odell is still sleeping on benches. There are still over 1,000 people in my county who are homeless. Is it enough to just be a friend? Is it enough, even, to aspire to be a wheel? Or do we, the homeless and the homeful alike, still need to figure out what being a wheel – being a friend – really means?
Tony Melton is a volunteer with DuPage PADS and the author of Buy This Book So I Can Go to Ethiopia, a book on Christian discipleship; funds from the sale of his book will go toward his efforts at mission partnership with Arbogonea, a village in the Sidama region in Ethiopia.