Have you ever visited a homeless shelter? Seen what it is really like? This past weekend I had just such an opportunity and while out on a date. Not your typical date - that's for sure, but definitely one I will always remember. 

Coming from a large urban area to a rural area, I already knew there was a difference in not only the perceptions of homelessness, but I have also learned that the resources for people in need of shelter was miles apart. Here in my county we do not have a shelter - but we do have caring people who have come together - people from all walks of life - beliefs - and experiences who are working tirelessly to help those who want to help themselves in attaining shelter. 

With resources being what they are, the group I belong to...Lend a Hand...can only assist those who actively seek out resources and work on creating their better tomorrows. We invest in those who invest in themselves. In doing so we've had to battle many preconceived judgments on just exactly who a homeless person is. 

Many of the attitudes we first dealt with were people chose to be that way - 
Then of course came the comments about those who are homeless who are just lazy....addicts...the users and abusers of the system and of everyone else's tax money. 

Then, personally, I dealt with some personal attacks on why I was even involved in this social had to be because I was a "damn liberal" know that dirty word that when living in a conservative area is like wearing  a scarlet letter.  (One day I will share the story about why this weighs heavy on my mind tonight)

To say things like that didn't bother me, would be a lie - of course it bothers me - but I also know it comes with the territory of not marching in line of the status quo   -  a choice I make with the freewill that has been bestowed on all of us. 

But, when I can sit back....reflect.....breath...exhale...I know what is truly important is not the comments and actions of those who for whatever reason say and do what they do ..but rather the reason I am involved...what truly bothers me and what has kept me involved - 

I was reminded of that when I went on the tour of a couple of shelters this weekend... and while out on that unusual date. The first one was a men's shelter ran by an organization called Porchlight  - an organization my date works for.  A visit that came after enjoying a nice Italian dinner...something those I was about see probably dream about having a chance to have. 

The shelter is housed in Madison's Grace Episcopal Church the shadow of Wisconsin's Capital building. The men line up every night in hopes they will find a bed under a roof. They must sign in at the same time they blow into a Breathalyzer - if they blow over the legal limit, they are denied entry. If they don't blow over the legal limit, they may proceed downstairs to the shelter where they receive a bed in one of the bunks that line the room. 

Off to the end of the room is a dining area with a kitchen in the next room. There volunteers from various organizations and churches volunteer to serve the men dinner. They can either eat at the table in the dining area, or go upstairs to another room where there is a television and more tables. 

There is nothing fancy about the accommodations at the shelter - it is in all essence what people imagine a shelter to be. The men in line waiting for their meal run the gamut in age, ethnicity and abilities...however each and every one of them... when I was there had the same expression.....tired and worn. 

From there we went to the Salvation Army's women's and family shelter - just a short drive from the Porchlight's men shelter. There they don't line up, but rather they need to call earlier in the day to secure a bed. If you're a single woman, or one with children, you get a mattress that is placed in the gymnasium...a mattress on the floor. If available and you're a family...or a single male with may get a room upstairs in this once school building.  

In both shelters you need to leave in the morning and take all your items with you. Both organizations also have available resource services for housing and other needs, as well as some warming hospitality spaces located throughout the city. 

My tours of the shelter also included a chance to speak with staff...a chance to ask questions...and more importantly a chance to listen and learn. I learned that one thing we here in rural Wisconsin have in common with the urban centers is men tend to need shelter during the colder months more so than women because women tend to have people to turn to who will take them in during the winter. However, come spring when evictions start happening and utilities begin to be shut's the women who need shelter while the men tough it out on the streets. 

In the urban areas the homeless can try to blend in with the hustle and bustle of a day in the city - however here in rural USA they hide from the spotlight of being homeless the backdrop of small town America shines on them. They take to their cars if they have one, or the deep woods that are the living postcards inviting tourist to visit. 

In the urban areas, for the most part, the homeless are anonymous ...unknown to those around them - here in the tight knit communities, they were once your neighbor....your cousin...your friend...your co-worker. There is no anonymity and the rumors of their character follows them everywhere they go. Yet another reason to take to hiding - and another reason that keeps those whose world has caved in on top of them....down with the despair of depression that comes when you've lost everything - including pride. 

Each has it's cross to bear - whether it's lining up to hopefully to get a spot and mattress or hiding from the judgment from those one may know  - both have in common that they are tired and worn. 

Sometimes that weariness is numbed by alcohol and drugs - which are affordable five and ten dollars at a time, unlike the cost of housing - or - they are just  stuck in the whirlwind cycle poverty and bad credit creates  - however for some mental illness may provide a blanket of comfort to shield them from the reality of the situation. 

Truly, I believe, it's a suffering and pain one cannot understand unless they experience it. 

One thing I do know is that being involved and taking part in trying to provide a hand up to those who need it in their time of need has nothing to do with politics...or for that matter whatever church one may belong to or not...the core reason for each and every one of us who do come together to work on this issue has to do with humanity and compassion - the umbrella we all stand under, no matter what walk in life we take. 

So, as I sit here tonight...taking in that most unusual date (one I am grateful for going on) along with the events of my day - working with a young homeless couple here in Juneau County to coming home tonight and learning that once again that scarlet letter others have branded upon my bleeding heart so that they may excuse their own behavior.... I know that the only important issue at hand is moving forward...continue learning...growing and not allow others to define me ...move forward and on. It's the humane thing to do on all fronts.  After all it's what I tell those people who hide out of fear of the judgments that stigmas create....don't let someone else's ignorance and fear define you - their judgments are a reflection of themselves...not you. 


Nancy said…
Wow. This is a very important post, one written from a good and kind heart. Bless you and the work that you do and for this post tonight - as a reminder to me that there are so many out there in the cold and it is up to each and every one of us to do what we can for those so much less fortunate.

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