First of all, sorry for being away for a while. I got so caught up in work and volunteering that I even neglected my friends and family for a while. But something happened a few days ago that made me sit down and find the time to write a new post.
I was volunteering at a solidarity event where free meals were given to the homeless. There were many other volunteers, some I knew and others that I saw for the first time. Jenny, a young and idealist student, was one of those unfamiliar faces. She was very friendly and very eager to help out. It was clear that she was just one of those people that leaves a great first impression. When we started handing out the meals, an older homeless lady was so grateful that she wanted to shake Jenny’s hand. However, Jenny seemed reluctant and pulled back. “Sorry, I am not a fan of touching”, she said apologetically. The rest of us were confused and didn’t know what to say. The old lady simply smiled and thanked Jenny again, calmly saying: “I understand”. I swear if she got angry or visibly offended it would have been easier. But it was the gracefulness and calmness with which she handled the situation that left a particularly bitter sting – she was grateful, even though she was treated with disrespect.
Jenny felt visibly uncomfortable and felt like she owed the other volunteers an explanation. She told us that while she likes helping the needy, she felt that the lady “smelled bad” and that she doesn’t have to touch them.
Of course, Jenny forgets that as volunteers, we are privileged. If I didn’t have my solar water heater (that helps out a lot after a long and draining day – see Tankless Center for more) and if I spent days without showering, I would also “smell bad”. So would Jenny. And so would any other human being. This is the most important thing to remember if you ever decide to volunteer for the homeless – they are also human beings like me, like you, like any of us. They also have feelings like us, feelings that can easily get hurt even from well-intentioned and idealist people.
So the first thing to learn when deciding to volunteer is to help in solidarity. We may never be able to fully understand the harshness of living in the streets and having no roof over our heads, but trying to at least put ourselves in the other person’s shoes can help us come a step closer.
Ultimately, helping the homeless is not just about giving material support like food or clothes, but also emotional support. Of course, people end up homeless for all sorts of reasons, and should not be thought of as a homogenous group. However, one thing that homeless people share is that they are no stranger to the feeling of being an outcast. They experience what it’s like to be shunned and rejected just for looking a certain way on a daily basis. Many of those that throw a few coins even avoid looking them in the eye. So next time you are handing out those warm soups, consider also extending a few warm words and why not, even a handshake if it seems appropriate.