I have been chewing over a range of posts on poverty and homelessness and volunteering. I struggle with the idea that I wanted to write a blog about redistributing some of my silly discretionary income from cosmetics to money that means something serious in helping the homeless shelter I support and volunteer for locally.
Every time I sit down to write though I run into a few issues; either I’m writing about someones else poverty and that seems like I am co-opting their story, otherwise I’m writing about my own issues and that seems like the ultimate in #firstworldsproblems. There are some great writers out there writing about their poverty like a girl called jack.
A lot of the guys I volunteer with won’t be able to write a blog. This isn’t because they don’t have a voice but largely they are people who have had a range of issues. It’s not as simple as financial problems, mental health problems, addiction issues or problematic issues. A lot of the time it’s a range of issues lined up, straws on a camels back that end up with people ending up homeless. There is a lack of services out there for people who need a small amount of in home help (cleaning, shopping, budgetting, once a week shopping) in order to live alone but many more available once people end up homeless. It’s wrong, it’s unefficient, and it’s undigified. We should not wait until people have exhausted every internal resource and strained all personal relationships before we help. I don’t know what to do, but I’m tired and I’m sad and I feel hopeless. How haven’t we gotten beyond this stage as a society?
Having a social conscious and being social awkward are not mutually exclusive. For a long time I struggled to find a good fit to volunteer for a charitable cause that meant something to me. I tried a range of volunteering options like one-on-one literacy tutoring but I always struggled as as much as I want to help people, I am not the most socially at ease person. I am introverted to the point of massive awkwardness with new people… I know right, what a surprise I have a blog.
When I started volunteering people used to say “Wow, that must be so rewarding. They must be so grateful”. Frankly I can’t think of anything worse than people feeling grateful toward me – it triggers my most utterly awkward side.
I volunteer at a homeless shelter that specializes in transitional care and elderly care for men who have aged out of traditional homeless assistance. The men have health issues related to years of homelessness and related untreated mental health and addiction issues.
These are grumpy guys. They are not fun. They are not grateful. We don’t have to heart to hearts and there are no epiphanies. I spend an hour each week playing board games with elderly men, most those with early onset dementia related to alcoholism. It helps them maintain some cognitive functionality. They don’t have much family support, but in many cases they have been less than excellent fathers, husbands, brothers or sons. They have drunk and drugged to abandon, and been hard to live with.
No matter what they have done these are still people though. They deserve some dignity, and to be recognized as people. I don’t blame the families who don’t visit, I don’t know the history of the relationships and I trust that if someone has cut off a family member or limited contact they have not done so on a whim… they have considered the physical and emotional health of all people involved.
So all in all, it’s a good fit for me at the shelter, as I know I am doing something that means something to me. The rewards are for me. When I come home I know how much I have to be grateful for – I have a house and a family. I have support networks. I have the social capital that allows me to navigate the world with ease. Even my hardest days are easier than an lot of peoples easiest days.
On the face of it there is a disconnect between writing a beauty blog and talking about not spending and donating time and money to the homeless shelter. However there is not as much distance as you might think initially.
A lot of the discrimination and isolation that the homeless face is around how they look. How many times have you heard some one complain about getting stuck next to a smelly homeless person on the bus? Now imagine how that odour comes about. How easy is it to shower and wash without a house, to control body if you can’t afford housing let alone toiletries, how you would smell if you slept in shop fronts, where drunks would urinate on their way home from bars? How easy is to transport toiletries if you need to carry all your possessions with you? How do you condition your hair and afford haircuts and shaving implements? How can you wash and maintain your clothing?
Then imagine that you want to connect with people but they avoid you before you can talk to them. You feel less than everyone, less than human. You are alone and vulnerable. Maybe you start to numb the pain with alcohol or other drugs.
How do you reconnect with people? How do you get a job? How do you make a first impression other than homeless? The rituals around beauty are culture-based of course, there were times when washing was not considered hygienic. But in this time and place pulling yourself out of homelessness often requires an ability to fake not being homeless to passersby. And I have to thank my stars that I have the abilility, the resources and the social capital to be able to pass that first impression test and to read as deserving of basic courtesies and respect. Not everyone can.