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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 11:17 am

The difference between homelessness and the homeless


It didn't take long in the homeless shelter for me to realize I am among exceptionally gifted people. Funny. Smart. Kind.

Troubled, too. But many seem no more troubled than a lot of other people I know. I went in thinking this would be a good place to learn and cameout thinking it would be a good place to look for new friends.

"We're just a bunch of people trying to pull our lives together," one of them toldme. Well, so am I and aren't we all. I don't want to glamorize the homeless or to be naïve about those at the bottom of the economic heap, but I'm pretty sure there's little reason to be afraid of those who need a place to sleep.

I'm volunteering for the new Springfield Overflow Shelter program, a well-planned community effort of cooperation among three existing shelters to prevent anyone from being turned away this winter for lack of space. Extra space for beds was found in the basement of Contact Ministries, but there's no money to pay staff, so the overflow shelter must be staffed by volunteers. During a training session for SOS volunteers, we were encouraged to spend some time at the Salvation Army shelter or Helping Hands to get a feel for what the homeless "population" is like.

At the Salvation Army I start at an "issues" meeting at which men go around the circle saying what problems they are dealing with and how. One says he needs more patience because he too often gets short with people who don't respond as he thinks they should when he lays out a "set of facts." Others in the circle praise this one for his leadership skills. Another man says he needs help with his anger and is told by the others that a certain amount of anger is normal. I say I am facing the decision of whether to volunteer in the homeless shelter. The next man says he started out having a bad day, then found some work that looks as if it may last three weeks. The men around the circle are caring and supportive of all.

Next I spend time at the intake desk, the center of authority at the shelter. Staff people show me the intake list comprising the names of 30 men and eight women, a more-than-full house. The names are followed by a bed number, except for a few followed by an "M," which indicates that that person sleeps on a mat on the floor because all of the beds are taken. Another long list shows the names of those barred from the shelter for disruptive behavior.

The residents arebeginning to settle down for the night. Some areoutside on smoke break while others are on their cots, reading. The Bible seems to be the book of choice. Some come up to me, curious about the new guy, then thank me when they find out I'm volunteering. When one of the most knowledgeable workers goes over and lies down on one of the cots, I realize that I am having trouble figuring out who works here and who lives here. It turns out that some of the residents are the shelter's best volunteers and some of the staff first came here homeless. There is a steady stream of quiet activity as residents come by the desk with requests for early wakeup or to use the phone and questions about their laundry or whether it's time for another smoke break.

I go back the next morning and sit at the desk as those who are heading for work or court or to apply for work leave and those who have nowhere to go prepare for a day of focus groups, classes, and chores. One of the people in the latter category starts in on me: "Why aren't you in Iraq feeding the hungry children?" I keep quiet, not sure whether he's serious or kidding, and another resident comes to my rescue: "How long were you in Iraq, Craig? Three weeks?" The rescuer winks at me. Craig gives a hint of a smile and hesitates. "That's what I thought, Craig," says my rescuer. "You probably weren't even in Iraq." Craig insists that he's going back to Iraq to help the Marines feed the hungry children, and the banter continues. I am relieved to no longer be the focus. "They'll behead you in a minute," one says. Another: "You'll come running back here when it's time for your SSI check."

I'm no expert after my short time. But I did get a glimpse of the difference between homelessness and the homeless. "Homelessness the issue" involves the economy, housing, mental illness, drugs, and other problems in a mix too big to understand, let alone solve. "The homeless" are interesting and mostly friendly people whom I respect. I'm volunteering with the hope of getting to know some of them while supporting a community effort to help meet some very basic needs. SOS needs lots of volunteers. There are slots for more than 100 volunteers a month through March, and many slots are open. Call 217-753-3939 to ask how you can help.

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