Four Sisters of St. Martha and a couple of Martha Associtates attended the Vicentian Family Gathering in Denver, Colorado, October 23-25, 2015. The theme was: Going Deeper: Building Community and Collaborating for Systemic Change around Homelessness. Mike Finifan from the Sydney Associate group attended the gathering and wrote the following article on his experience.
It’s Monday, October 26, 2015 and the people who run the Double Tree Hilton Hotel on East Orchard Road in Denver Colorado are carrying on their business like nothing happened on the weekend. The people who met for the Vincentian Family Gathering too all packed their bags and headed for the airport to fly home to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Kansas City, Washington, Tampa, Vancouver, Halifax, Sydney… and many points in between, to go back to business as usual. Like nothing happened.
But something did happen.
First of all, I’ll have to admit this: I didn’t want to take this trip to Denver. I knew that this conference was coming up since last spring and I was invited and, though appreciative, I agreed to go reluctantly. I could not see how a conference whose theme was “systemic change” could involve me in any way, shape or form. I might as well have been asked to attend a conference with the college of physicians and surgeons on arterial rejuvenation.
Not to mention, I don’t fly well and started fretting about flying for a month before we got on the plane. And as usual, for a week before it all happened I stopped talking to everybody. Everybody except the cat. Cats you can always talk to and I know that if there was anything they could do about your problems, they would.
Mercifully though, time passes; the months became weeks and the weeks days before the conference and the day before we left, myself and the two Sisters of St. Martha who invited me, I drove down to Walmart to buy a little lock for my suitcase. I knew that those little suitcase locks are in the suitcase department which is near the clothing department so I made my way there and in one of the aisles I almost bumped right into a man would make my journey to Denver a lot more meaningful.
The man was probably in his sixties, but I didn’t ask, did I? He had greasy gray hair halfway down his back long and he had a grimy gray matted beard reaching down to his belt. His clothes were filthy and his skin like tanned leather. His fingernails were long and packed with dirt and he looked around like a shopper, but he wasn’t. He looked at me and then away from me like I might report him and get him put out.
I sized him up pretty quick but I sized myself up just as fast and I didn’t like what I saw in either of us. I didn’t like his poverty. I didn’t like his smell. I didn’t like the sight of him. He was too quietly loud; though he never spoke a word and moved along as silently as a cat, his presence alone blared with deafening insistence that we take notice.
As for myself, I prayed that God would look at me with infinite patience, as a parent might a petulant child, for I felt like a contemptible creature at the moment. A whiney, impetuous little ingrate, going about crying because my computer is too old, my wi-fi isn’t fast enough. I have to eat corned beef and cabbage leftovers from last night for supper… I have to fly to Denver, Colorado in the morning and see the Rockies!
I looked away from him as quickly as he looked away from me. I went on to find the suitcase lock and tried to get him out of my mind ASAP, while he shuffled on, probably hoping that, for the time being, nobody would notice him – especially the store manager. The poor and the homeless are more readily invisible against a background of dirty streets and alleyways, not clean, well ordered department store aisles.
The truth is, I didn’t know what to do in that moment after our eyes met. I wanted to turn around and give him some money, but wondered would he just take it and buy himself a bottle? I probably would if it was me. I’d buy a bottle and down it just to feel good for half an hour.
It occurred to me too to take him home and give him a meal, a change of clothes, get him a haircut and a shower. But then what if he remembered where I live and started showing up every day? Bringing others? Then again, what if he didn’t want any charity? Maybe he has a home… maybe I’m being a bit judgmental… but I doubted it.
I found myself wishing I knew where he could go to get help, a meal, some shelter. A solution. And I didn’t have a clue.
Funny thing is, I work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society; somebody calls me on the phone, I go get groceries – perishables at the grocery store and non-perishables at the church – and I deliver them with a smile and a “have a good day”. “God Bless.” I didn’t have a clue about this guy’s needs.
So I told myself he’ll be alright. He knows where to go and what to do. Then I told myself I had to hurry on to other concerns. I didn’t have time. That guy needed more than what I had to give. I didn’t have the resources, the time, the courage or the care in the end. I was frozen with fear.
And here I was, going the next day to a conference on “systemic change” that could bring about permanent change for the better, for the poor. Phhh.
Next day, we landed in Denver.
There were well over two hundred people there at the conference centre – 90% women I’d venture. And 90% of the women were sisters of one order or another – Charity, Marthas, Daughters of Charity, Vincentians… All of these people at the gathering represented hundreds of thousands of religious and volunteer lay people who work with the poor, some simply bringing groceries to the needy, and many working on the streets and shelters, living in the streets, living under bridges night and day with the poor.
There were stories exchanged, there were keynote speakers, there were breakout sessions, there was networking going on all over the place between people and between orders and agencies, all in an effort to raise hope and to bring about solutions.
In one session the entire group in one room played a game where we worked in pairs as members of a family struggling to meet the familial and financial needs for a month of 30 challenging days. Some of us found ourselves unemployed; some of us employed but not making enough to meet our needs. Only the shrewdest among us managed to get to the end of the month with maybe $50.00. Most of us wound up in the hole, with a new month beginning. The cycle starting again.
The weekend was packed with fine sessions like that, and with compelling speakers.
But for me there was one story that made the whole trip entirely worthwhile for me.
James is a big black man from South Carolina. I took him at first for a football player, maybe a retired professional who was doing some pro-bono work for a good cause. But no. … James has been working for 21 years for a group named Shared Experience and Faith Leaning Associates, or SEFLA, out of New York City. James shared his story of moving to New York as a kid and eventually living on the streets, joining a gang, becoming addicted to drugs and going to jail or some similar type of institution. A story of loss, death, addiction, homelessness, hunger, separation… which he told with a bright ear-to-ear smile and with lively, sparkling eyes. For he is no longer lost or miserable, angry or alone.
When James decided to turn things around he found two Sisters of Charity who ran a mission house in Washington Heights, two little women who he called “Them crazy ladies” who were armed in a rough neighbourhood with nothing but big hearts. Them crazy ladies welcomed him in and gave him a safe place in which to start over.
A safe place.
James said that, first and foremost, a homeless person, or any person, needs to feel safe. From that point miracles can be worked. A roof over the head, a dry place, a meal, a friend. And after a year of working his demons out, and coming to a place where he could stand up again, James took a job at the “House of Pain”, that same house that gave him hope, and he began his vocation, going out with sandwiches on the streets, feeding people and giving the hopeless hope. Taking people home. Talking to them. And more importantly, letting them talk. For they have stories they need to tell.
He and his team are not always met with open arms though. Sometimes people aren’t ready to turn around. They tell him right where he can get off.
“But you just go out and say ‘How you’ doin’?’” James said. Some people will tell you and some won’t. “You just keep askin’. ‘How you doin’?’”
James’s eyes sparkle and his smile runs away with him not just because he himself is safe and has work, but because he has the constant opportunity to help others find sanctuary and hope and new life. Every day.
And the people on James’s team are not professionals in any way other than that they all have a background in having been homeless themselves. And not all other the homeless are jobless and destitute. Many have jobs and many have college and university education, masters degrees, but cannot afford apartments let alone houses on the wages they receive, in a city where rents amount to a king’s ransom.
A young woman from Poland who works with James and spoke with him at the SEFLA session has two degrees. Her eyes flash with passion and intelligence, but she cannot afford to have a place of her own and so she shares with other people in her situation.
It was a busy weekend.
Most people there were from big city centers, where homelessness reaches epidemic proportions and where laws and bylaws are contrived to make homelessness a crime. Where when the invisible people start to become visible they are punished for their troubles. Where the poor and sick and destitute show up on city streets panhandling, begging for loose change, food. Where they bed down in alleyways, doorways, office building vents, park benches, bushes. When this happens, cities circumvent constitutional amendments, like personal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, amendments that guard against cruel and unusual punishment, and they create laws instead like the one against “camping” within city limits. What’s the difference between camping and falling asleep in a doorway or under a tree? Simple. Covering yourself to stay warm. Covering yourself constitutes camping.
Then again, you have to ask yourself, maybe being arrested is better than being exposed to the cold and the damp. But people are rarely arrested; they are given fines that they’ll never be able to pay. They are kept moving. They are kept from settling.
Homeless people are allowed to ask for food, but laws are made to prohibit people from giving food. That’s a by-law. That’s a crime.
On the other hand, and to be fair, these laws come into being by majority votes and mostly by people who run businesses which fail when people stop coming through the front door because they feel – and sometimes are- harassed by panhandlers, or when the panhandlers are using these storefronts as bathrooms, places to urinate, defecate, sleep.
People who run businesses have families to feed too. They are not that far from the streets themselves often.
There are no easy solutions. But what will definitely ensure that no solutions are ever found is if nobody talks, if no boundaries are agreed to, if no understanding is made on both sides.
People have to work together to find solutions, to find compromise.
Until then, there must be advocates, government agencies, benefactors, volunteers, charitable organizations, religious and faith-based groups reaching out.
One other thing I learned on the weekend was that St. Vincent de Paul himself, whose eyes were opened to the poor and who became an advocate for the poor, was a great networker. He knew who needed help and he knew people who could help and brought them together in one way or other. That’s what this weekend was about. Occasionally everybody needs to get together at a “gathering” or a conference, to network, to make connections.
To know that they are not alone.
At one table I sat and told the story of the man I saw at Walmart. When I said I felt at a loss and didn’t know how to respond to him, didn’t know what to do, a woman at the table, a Sister of Charity, flipped a few little ideas my way. “Keep a few cards in your pocket, little maps directing where shelters can be found, keep a few bus tickets on hand, keep some fast food coupons. If you’re traveling by car, keep some clean, dry socks on board that you can give away… some granola bars…”
I took notes furiously.
It’s not much and it’s everything.
At one point, somebody told James where he might find help when he needed it and wanted it. James says in the LEFSA pamphlet his team is eager to pass out:
“LEFSA gave me back my life. When I got well, it wasn’t just me that got well. My family got well, my community got a little better, and therefore our world got a little better.”
Something did happen.