Feb. 6th, 2011

wook77: (christian - thinking)
On Thursday and Friday nights this past week, I volunteered at an emergency shelter. Tucson declared a state of emergency due to the cold and the fact that 14k people were without heat. Unfortunately, the shelter didn't get a lot of usage but, still, awesome idea.

During my time volunteering, I met some amazing people. There was the guy that gave up his condo in NYC to drive around in a beat-up Jeep and camp out in various places around the US. He was appalled that, whenever he asked anyone where the library was, they had no idea. It wasn't just Tucson, it was Seattle and Des Moines and Chicago and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. We talked about books and writing for hours.

There was the guy that came in that had a bit of gas going into his house but he simply couldn't afford to heat his house. He chatted with me as he walked his cat around on a leash. We had brilliant conversations about his time in the military and how he felt a bit loss because he'd never found a job that fit quite like the military. He had problems relating to people and never once made eye contact with me. He told me that I was the first person he'd talked to for more than a few minutes, at least in three years. Three years of not having anything more than a cursory conversation with someone.

There was the homeless man who had a service chihuahua. The dog was there for seizures and for mental health issues. It was freezing so the man came in from the cold only for his dog. If it hadn't been for the dog, he would've stayed right outside, he proudly told me. He was very withdrawn and only responded when asked about his dog.

But the one set of people I met that has me wrenched up in a navel-gazing sort of way was the 13 year old girl I met. (I'll call her "A") She came in with her father and they had two cats that walked on a leash. One was fixed and the other wasn't. It wasn't until they'd been at the shelter for three hours that she gave an interview to one of the reporters that showed up. When the reporter asked her how long they'd been without gas, she looked at him, blinked and said that there was plenty of gas in their car. It's just it was nice to sleep in a real bed.

A and her father (always father, never dad or daddy. always father) had been living in their car for two months. This time. They'd had a place for a few months before that but before that, they'd been living in the car. In the past year, she'd been living in the car over 6 months. A car.

Both her and her father had very limited social skills. The first night, they barely talked to anyone. They were polite but withdrawn. A was proud to admit that she'd started her first college class (13 and going to college and homeless). Other than that, they didn't speak. The second night, I greeted them by name, ushered them into the shelter with a smile and found myself talking to both her and her dad. It was hard to navigate the conversation, to keep it away from things they found intrusive (questions like, "are you warm enough here" and asked because the first night, the boiler malfunctioned and the place's temperature sank to 55, was far too personal). I talked to them about their animals and the importance of spaying and neutering. The father mentioned that one of my co-workers had mentioned a free neuter but he wasn't interested. We talked about health risks and ensuring that the animals kept all their shots up to date.

I took a moment to introduce everyone to my replacement, ensuring that my replacement volunteer knew the minefield and could make better decisions than I had the night before, and went on my way.

This morning, I got a call from the co-worker (who is a high mucketymuck at work and not just a grunt like me) that the father had agreed to neuter his cat and that it was all "your fault". I've never been so grateful to hear the words "your fault".

But, really, I wonder about the impact I had. Anyone who has been on my flist for awhile can tell you that, every year, for my birthday and for Christmas, I ask people to give to the needy, to look through their closets and downsize their stuff. I ask people to donate to local charities and take the time to volunteer if they can. I'm really good at the lip service to these causes.

However, I've learned that I still suffer from the "not in my backyard" syndrome. Sure, there's a problem with homeless families but, really, not in Tucson. We're a very generous small city. And, really, if it's a homeless family, it's female-led. That's why it's important to have safe places for families to go. Except that most homeless shelters don't really plan for male-led homeless families so where did this father/daughter combo have to go that wouldn't separate them?

The other part that really got me was that each person that I spoke to told me about how awesome the libraries are, how important they are for a safe haven and the opportunities they presented. To A, they meant a place where she could work on her college and high school classes. To the traveler, they meant a place where he can get a book, brush up on his skills and take a moment to rest somewhere warm/cool. To another gentleman, they meant a place where he could just be. It was rare that I heard about the importance of the books but, instead, they talked about the librarians that helped them without judgment and the rare one that did judge. They talked about how it was a shame that libraries weren't treated with respect anymore. They talked about how people abuse the library, stealing books that others want to enjoy.

And I sat there, knowing full well that I owe twenty-five dollars in fines to the library that I can easily repay but I've been too fucking lazy to do and I was so ashamed at that moment (and now). So, Monday, I'll be calling the main branch and having my credit card charged for my fines. I'll be making a donation, too. I'm going to work harder at my classes.

I'm reassessing what I've been doing and how I look at the world. It's all navel gazing but, really, sometimes you need something to rock you out of complacency and I have to thank A for that.

Sorry this is so long and not under a cut but it feels wrong to hide their stories under a cut. These people are hidden away so much by society already that I feel ashamed for trying to hide them again. So, no cut and you can flay me for it, if you'd like.

January 2012

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