My husband and I spent last night with the homeless. Well … not literally. We didn’t sleep on the ground or go without food. But we did hang out on the streets.
Sonny and I volunteer monthly with the Salvation Army, serving meals for people in need in the area where we attend church. And for years, we’ve financially supported the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, which serves the homeless by offering food, shelter, and programs that help them transition from living on the streets to living more productive and fulfilling lives.
But we’ve felt a tug to do more….
When I began working on a novel that required researching programs that help the homeless, it seemed the right time to dig in and learn firsthand how the Search and Rescue Van program at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission works. The first step involved filling out online volunteer applications so background checks could be done.
Last night, as scheduled, we arrived at the mission in downtown Seattle at 8:00 p.m. Both Sonny and I felt a bit apprehensive because we didn’t know what to expect. People were lined up at the front door, waiting to receive shelter for the night. Staff and volunteers loaded two vans with sandwiches, hot chocolate, blankets, socks, feet warmers, gloves, scarves, and hats.
As we worked through the coming hours and camaraderie was built, my husband and I were privileged to hear the other volunteers’ stories and what brought them there.
- Six men who had met through AA, been sober for twenty-some years, and wanted to “give back.”
- A mother—whose daughter had used heroin—wanted to help people surviving under the same bridges where her daughter once lived. The daughter is now clean and off the street.
- Three college students—two guys and one girl—who felt their time was better used volunteering than sitting home and playing video games.
- Three men in their early twenties—addicts who had completed six months in the program—and who were determined to stay clean and help others get clean and sober.
We stopped at four locations in the city: a busy street, a small park, and areas beneath two bridges. We split up and walked in all directions, looking for anyone who might need some help. If they could walk, they were brought back to the vans to get whatever we could offer. If they were unwilling to leave their spot or stuff, or it was physically difficult for them to move, food was brought to them.
We found people lying in entry ways to buildings, on the sidewalks next to buildings, and in sleeping bags beneath the bridges.
We were warned to not approach anyone without first telling them we were from the mission. We were also given a “safety” word to yell out if we felt in danger. Not once did I feel “unsafe.”
People were glad to see us. Along with several other volunteers, we prayed with one man. He was really drunk, so I don’t know if he remembers it today, but I don’t underestimate the power of prayer. Several people accepted rides back to the mission for the night. Room was found in a woman’s shelter for a lady who had gotten into a fight and acquired a whopping swollen eye, but at the last minute, she changed her mind. There was nothing more that could be done for her.
One gentleman sported four stocking caps piled on top of each other. He was deaf, but one of the college students knew a little sign language and was able to communicate with him. Someone had given him a small New Testament. He was frustrated because he knew there had to be more to the story and was excited when one of the staff people gave him a Gideon Bible, explaining the rest was in that book.
Sonny and I thought we were dressed for the chilly weather. I wore a heavy winter coat, boots, and gloves. Several layers of clothing covered his upper body. But whenever we stopped walking, we felt soooo cold. By the end of the night, we were chilled to the bone, even though we’d had the opportunity to warm up in the van in-between locations.
After we arrived home, we were still chilled.
How do people do it? Day after day—night after night—surviving low temperatures with little or no relief?
Men and women slept under a bridge—on hard dirt—with obnoxious traffic noise overhead.
Climbing into our warm, safe, comfortable bed felt like a luxury.
Will we spend another night with the homeless? Yes. Definitely.
It was both a rewarding and humbling experience….