They said it was not a normal night. It surely was not. I do not go out to feed homeless people normally. When some church friends had asked if I would volunteer to do the Grate Patrol, I said yes gladly, motivated by a sense of doing something for those who appear less fortunate.
We started in a little quandary as our volunteer ‘coordinator’ from the Salvation Army, who said she was ‘new’, had not arrived with the regular van: she had not been due to do the driving before, though she had often been part of the feeding arrangements. She asked me if I knew the arrangements. I told her that I had never done this before. She had arrived in her four-door sedan. It was not really equipped to deliver food on the streets of Washington. So, we had to figure out if first we needed her to go back for the van, or if we could somehow get things to work with food in the trunk of her car, and water stacked around us in the car. We thought that would work. We then had to find bowls and spoons; these would usually have come with the van. One of my church friends made a call and then rustled around our church kitchen to find the necessary supplies. So, we were good to go.
As we headed downtown, reticular activation kicked in. All we could notice were the fine homes and fine restaurants that we passed. People dressed finely. People seeming to be happy in their lives. People who seemed to have no cares.
As we arrived at the corner of 6th Street and Constitution Avenue, and the first small group of hungry, homeless people clustered around the car, all I noticed was that the stream of tourists did not notice this as something worth noting. In some senses, homeless people are not very visible, especially when seen in the scattered places where they congregate. Whatever statistics or images one has to look at, the homeless are another minority in the eyes of most people. That makes them easy to ignore. Wherever we stopped we would not be dealing with a big crowd: the one man asleep on a grate was nothing to compare with those on the other side of the street streaming into Constitution Hall for an evening event. Homeless people appeared even less visible this weekend, just ahead of the Memorial Day holiday: the city has been spruced up and some of the places where they congregate, such as the small parks or squares, had been cleared.
As we went to each known feeding point, we found small groups glad to take the sandwiches, pasta salad and water we had to offer. I was not trying to analyse who the people were. Yes, they were mainly men. Yes, they appeared to be older. But, there were some women, and even one with a two-year old child. It was hard to keep back the tears, as the little girl took the bowl of pasta, raised her braided head and smiled. “I told you we would get something to eat,” her mother (I presume) said, as she took two bottles of water to put into her bag. One of my church friends could not hold back her tears, and I hugged her, while her husband found another sandwich to give to the mother.
As we drove around, we discussed how in some way each homeless person we would encounter had fallen through a gap, whether it was one they created for themselves or somehow circumstances had created. I was not trying to judge. We were not out trying to solve homelessness, just trying to deal with one of its effects. That people had found themselves in such a situation was both sad and maddening. Blame the individual? Blame society? Blame bad luck? Blame bad choices?
It is redundant to say that the people we tried to feed are in need. They need in so many ways. Some expressed their needs: for clothes; for blankets; for medical help; for counselling. But, needs expressed and help offered need not meet happily. It would make some bristle with immense anger that someone in need of clothes would not take anything that was offered. One man we met, seated alone on a bench in a park, had fallen earlier in the day and his knee was swollen. His biggest fear was of having to go to the hospital, and his main concern was that the rain had soaked the only clothes he seemed to have. Although he could not walk, he hoped the swelling would go down in the morning. He did not seem moved by our concern that should go for immediate medical help. The coordinator promised to go back to see him later in the night and take him to the hospital. I could see his eyes widen in fear. It added to the sadness and sense of helplessness that we could not get him to share our sense of his need.
The evening’s experience made me think about how social policy in a broad sense can only be about how you deal with each individual. It is not necessarily about providing financial or physical resources to help deal with a problem, but can be much about finding the patience and persuasiveness to make progress with those who are in the midst of the problem. That is a daunting challenge, not least because as one ‘success’ is achieved the door opens to let in another ‘failure’. It is much easier to turn the page and move on than to think about having to deal with that.
One night of handing out food has not changed the world–and it was not meant to do so. I could not avoid thinking of the story of Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, and how he had to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. More groups will be out tonight distributing food to the homeless.
I try to inspire myself by saying that life is not about problems but about challenges to overcome.