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feeding the homeless

orpheus42 posted an article about an ordinance against feeding homeless people in Orlando. The whole thing bothers me on a number of levels. But one quote jumped out at me.

Ultimately, "it's a balancing act," says Brie Turek, Dyer's spokesperson. "We need to balance the needs of our citizens and our businesses with the needs of the homeless."

So homeless people aren't citizens?

In short, while there are a number of homeless people who turn to drug dealing to earn their money, I think that we need to look beyond our personal distaste for the act of drug dealing and use and see what lies beneath it: a person who is in pain and choosing what they see as the most lucrative option. We need to find people who have overcome these lifestyles who can serve as mentors and help them tell their stories; and most of all, instead of scorning homeless people, we need to learn how to hold them accountable and help them recover. If they choose to go back to being homeless and engaging in unhealthy lifestyles, then we treat them as prodigals. Writing them off as filthy people who are no good to society should never be our way.

Last semester, I spent a couple of hours helping hand out meals at a food bank here in town. It was quite an interesting experience, although at the time I was very frustrated by it. Behind the cut is a bit from my reflection paper. I hope it illustrates my point: food banks can't do all the work, and they're often impersonal and shame-producing. Part of the power of feeding a homeless person as an individual is the ability to build a relationship and perhaps encourage the person in some way.

This probably says as much about my experience as a blind person as it says about the food bank operation. I hope it's interesting.

While I spent most of this time working with other volunteers to hand out emergency supplies of food, I interacted more with the volunteers than with the people who came in.
There was very little interaction with people who came in. I got the impression that at least one of the volunteers was quite uncomfortable with them. It's hard to explain what gave me this impression except to say that an odd feeling came over me when I responded to people who were talkative and she did not. Her interactions consisted of, "Sign right here... Do you need a winter coat?" Often she commented after someone left, "She's been here before. She didn't look lost." I wondered if there was a limit on the number of times a person could come in for emergency supplies or if the comment was a judgment on the fact that the person was still coming in for food and hadn't resolved the situation yet. I wondered if she would have believed me if I told her that I live at a similar income level to many of these people and it's sometimes a lot harder to resolve the situation than it might seem. Some of the clients were elderly, and one commented that a household member had recently had a colostomy. How is a person in their 70s supposed to resolve their poverty and stop being a repeated "customer?"
A good deal of my energy was spent educating the staff and volunteers about my ability to participate in the distribution activity. It was largely unsuccessful in my opinion. In order to participate fully, the system would need to be completely reworked so that I was forced to interact vocally with people coming in and could access information that had already been taken down about their families. From what I was able to piece together, one volunteer greets them at the door and takes down their information in writing. They then proceed in to where the food is being distributed, pick up their allotted amount, and sign that they've been there.

At the beginning of the afternoon, the elderly volunteer brought in a piece of paper with reminders of the allotment amounts based on family size written on it. Without telling me what was on the paper, she asked if I could read it, and I said no. She said, "Well, how are you going to remember who gets what?" I answered that we would need to come up with another strategy. She became very agitated and said, "I'll have to talk to D!" and ran from the room. When she came back, she asked if I could tell a brown box from a white box. I again suggested finding an alternative solution. She realized at this point that the boxes were different sizes, and I suggested that we put them on opposite sides of the table.

She left again, and eventually the other volunteer came in, a young girl. She said that she thought that it might be good if I wasn't alone "because we have some greedy people here." I had to work hard to figure out what she was talking about. I finally asked about the piece of paper, which she read to me. No one had bothered to explain to me now the "system" worked; so I had assumed that it was all based on vocal interactions.

We ran out of boxes quickly, and the young girl said that she would go downstairs to get more. I offered to go with her since I was not doing much interacting with people who were coming in. She questioned at first whether I could do this; but after a couple of assurances I went down with her and we each came back carrying a box. The secretary saw me carrying a box and began exclaiming, "I can't believe you did that! You need to sit down and catch your breath!" By this time, all of the previous boxes had been used up. The secretary tried to stop the elderly volunteer from going down to get another box; and I thought, "Well, you don't want the blind girl straining her heart! Who's going to get the boxes?"

The young girl seemed to catch on fairly quickly, and by the end of the day we were carrying multiple boxes up and making jokes about balancing them on our head in order to keep enough boxes running to feed the people. In the end, we ran completely out of boxes and had to discuss what to do in order to supply the need in case more people came. The obvious solution seemed to be to dip into the food allotted for weekly stock-ups.

I think that the elderly ladies just had a very hard time with the concept of me doing this kind of thing. To them, I am someone to care for and minister to, or someone to admire because I can perform basic daily tasks in spite of blindness.

Dealing with these aspects of ministry is very taxing emotionally for me. When I find a place where I can chip in and contribute freely, I find that I can go all day and not get tired; but when I must spend the day educating and struggling against these stereotypical views, I become tired before a quarter of the day is up.

I'll have more thoughts about this in time... I need to get some laundry going but wanted to post this as a starter.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 2nd, 2007 04:55 pm (UTC)
An ordinance against feeding homeless people is repulsive. It puts homeless people in the same class as animals at the zoo. Then again, I suppose that's how the bulk of society views them.

A big part of the problem is that the lawmakers who approve such laws are not homeless themselves, nor have they ever been. So it's impossible for them to truly have compassion or understand the plight of such people.

The same is true of disabilities, as the level of disabilities among the general population is much higher than among lawmakers.

And while I'm on a roll, the new bankruptcy laws were drafted by folks who all make six figures, have cozy government jobs and great benefits. So they drafted a law (at the urging of the lobbyists of the credit card companies) to [further] punish people with bad credit and financial problems. It's hideous.

Unfortunately, it's hard to make an extraordinary profit from being homeless, disabled, or laden with debt ... and lobbyists [and subsequently politicians] are fueled by money.
Mar. 2nd, 2007 07:05 pm (UTC)
You took the words right out of my mouth!

And what makes it even better is that "lawmakers" vote every year to give themselves raises. Like they need it!
Mar. 2nd, 2007 07:03 pm (UTC)
Ultimately, "it's a balancing act," says Brie Turek, Dyer's spokesperson. "We need to balance the needs of our citizens and our businesses with the needs of the homeless."

Heh, I wonder how that person looks at himself/herself in the mirror everyday? He/She could easily become homeless themselves one day...
Mar. 2nd, 2007 07:55 pm (UTC)
I liked the line about "it's ok to feed ducks and pigeons in the park, but not homeless people."

I find it utterly horrifying.

There used to be some homeless guys here downtown I would hang out with, every once in awhile I'd get us all coffee and we'd just chill and talk. And every so often a train jumper will make his way from the railyard on the river to the downtown area. Talk about having interesting conversations!

And when I was in Cambridge, England I took a homeless guy to lunch. We had an awesome conversation... I wrote about it in my LJ, I'll have to go back and see if I can find it.
Mar. 2nd, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC)
Mar. 2nd, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
Trying to rehabilitate drug addicts is possibly the hardest job ever. Having been an addict myself, I know firsthand that you can offer an addict all the help in the world, but until the addict REALLY wants to get clean, rehabs and counseling do little to help.

As true as this is, when I finally came forward and decided I needed help, I was so lucky. The people who took me in and counseled me and mentored me never said, "We can't help her. She's just another addict who wants our sympathy. She'll never change."

There are so many freaking times when I've heard these sentiments spoken, and it really frustrates me. I really don't know how to help the homeless because they are often the ones who have slipped through the cracks of every governmental agency out there to help addicts. But you are right when you say that we need more people to mentor those who want to get better.

Governmental agencies fail drastically because they don't want to tell people about the one and only thing that can help them: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I personally feel that the local church needs to step up to the plate. Jesus told us to help the least of these. He didn't give any qualifiers. He didn't tell us to help those who are easy to help or those who have never received our help before. He said help them. Period.

I could go on and on and on about this, and I would if I didn't have to be somewhere very shortly. Thank you for posting this, though. I definitely have some things to chew on for a bit!
Mar. 4th, 2007 03:28 am (UTC)
I am involved in a study of homelessness in Arlington, as part of my internship. It's really enlightening, and you're right about people needing to look beyond their own prejudices and preconceived notions. When you're living the streets, there's an almost tangible level of desperation all around. People do what they have to, in order to survive. It may not be what I would do, but it's the best they can do at the time.
Mar. 4th, 2007 04:17 am (UTC)
That is a terrible ordinence! I deal with a lot of homeless people at work. It's really sad because there is little we can do to help but refer them to other agencies. We are an independent living center and we don't have emergency services.

Your volunteer experience was interesting and typical of what I have experienced. No one wants to put us to work, or adapt things for us. Sigh. I should be more of a go getter than I am.
Mar. 4th, 2007 11:12 am (UTC)
IL centers
We don't have an IL center here in town... I've thought very hard about trying to get one going; but I'm really just an idea and resource person and couldn't do this kind of thing without a business-minded person alongside me.
Mar. 4th, 2007 12:51 pm (UTC)
Re: IL centers
My schooling is really in agriculture, where I have a masters. My job at the IL just frustrates me most of the time. Sigh. Just being honest. Grin. I think it's because I'd rather work on ag and environmental issues, especially with kids, and I like to help and teach but at the IL I feel like we do a lot of stuff for these people that they could do for themselves.
Mar. 4th, 2007 07:55 pm (UTC)
Re: IL centers
Oh, fascinating! Where do you live? You should join the BVI-Parents list... Some of the families would love to hear about your experiences. There has been some discussion there at times about farm life and kids, etc.
Mar. 4th, 2007 07:59 pm (UTC)
Re: IL centers
What is BVI parents?

I live inmassachusetts. I don't like it. I plan on moving back to colorado eventually.
Mar. 4th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
Re: IL centers
BVI-Parents is a support group for parents of blind and visually impaired kids. There are a few adults on the list as well as a handful of professionals. If you'd like to check it out, send email to
Mar. 4th, 2007 08:17 pm (UTC)
Re: IL centers
cool. I'm on the sod list. That is the eye condition I have and it is mostly made up of parents.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah Blake LaRose
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