Today we went to the monthly “giveaway” for the homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina. This event’s name doesn’t speak to what it really does and how people in the community really come together, so I wanted to give you a closer look.
For many years Jerimiah and I have been looking for an organization to support, a cause to get behind, something that was close to our hearts, something tangible, a way to hit the streets and feel like we were making a difference. Up until last year our “charitable service” involved checks to the DAV, occasional donations to friends and family who were taking them for a cause they felt strongly about, checks to the Trisomy 18 Foundation, the American Heart Association, etc. We shop at thrift stores when we can and we donate regularly. But basically we felt like we were phoning it in.
Then last year I met a women who volunteered her time at the holidays making meals for families at one of the many shelters for women and children in Charlotte. She told me all about how wonderful it was to meet and talk with these mothers, who generally were victims of domestic abuse and who were seeking better lives for their children. I was taken with how genuine she was in her belief that she had a real impact on the lives of the women she met. The only problem was, she was a Christian fundamentalist. So she took that time, above all else, to try to “bring these women to Christ”. She said it was sometimes difficult and she sometimes had to be direct about it, and that sometimes she got the sense they didn’t want to talk about it, but she still did. The more I talked to her the more uncomfortable I felt. It doesn’t seem like a good thing to try to weasel your love for the Lord into a conversation with a woman who has run from an abusive husband, left her home in the middle of the night, and is looking for a comforting ear and a bit of safety. It seems rude to try to make her believe in your beliefs or even make religion a priority at a time in her life when she has a million other things to deal with. In my experience it makes people feel worse, not better. Not to mention that it can turn people off religion altogether to think that in order for people to be nice to them, they have to accept Jesus Christ.
Now listen, I am a Christian. A Baptist to be clear. I do not attend church, nor do I proselytize. I do not feel called to share my faith with others, even though my church has told me many times that is my job. It is not. My job, as a Christian, is to help others and to be kind. I feel called to understand and be accepting of other beliefs. I know full well that others’ beliefs have nothing to do with me, and that they are entitled to them. I am not so ignorant to think that my God is any more powerful or “right” than any other God and there are many, many Gods (Hinduism alone has over 10,000,000). Having said that, any missionary that puts God above the people they are helping is not for me. It was also not for my Atheist husband. We also did not want to teach out 10-year-old son that you can only help others who believe what you believe. Because the truth is that you can help anyone, at anytime, even if they believe exactly the opposite of you.
Having said that, Jerimiah found the Atheist Alliance Group on Facebook. This was a nice group, full of, you guessed it, non-believers, who are loosely associated with the larger group Atheist Alliance International. We don’t know much about AAI, because we are not members, but we do know Shane, who runs the local “giveaway” each month. We know him and we have talked to him. We found out why he does what he does and it is pretty simple: Because he is fortunate and he can help those less fortunate. Period. Bottom line. End of story.
Shane and the group of people who work tirelessly each month getting donations, organizing volunteers, and hauling around Amazon boxes full of flashlights and Q-Tips, recognized a problem and worked toward a solution.
In Charlotte there are several shelters for both homeless men, and women with children. On Tryon there are two in particular: The Men’s Shelter and the Urban Ministry Center. At 8:00 sharp, the men’s shelter kick the men out for the day. This serves a couple purposes: 1. It helps get the men out and moving, hopefully to find work, even temporary day labor and 2. It allows the staff to clean the facility, and work on getting people in and out, on a more permanent basis.
Urban Ministries takes men, women, and children, but they do not open until 11:00 for food and shelter, so Shane decided to set up shop in an empty parking lot on the corner of Tryon and Dalton, once a month, at 8:00 am sharp and run until the last person walks up, which is usually about 10:00 am. It isn’t until you go a few times that you realize that right across the street, next to the 7-11 with no public restroom, is also a homeless village. A large grassy area full of tents and sleeping bags strategically hidden behind the blacked out fence of a body shop. It’s a good spot to set up shop.
This is one of two giveaways Shane does. He also holds one each month in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but we do not go to that one as we like to save our resources for the homeless in our community. Shane lives in SC and makes the trek up to Charlotte each month because the need is present.
Today was like any of the other giveaways we have been to over the last several months. It was not the coldest we have worked, but it was by far the windiest. The highs today are supposed to top out in the 60s, but the wind this morning was fierce and the temperature never above 40 degrees. Of course, we have a nice, warm home to go home to after we work our two hours, but the people getting our assistance do not. They also had nowhere to go when it rained for four days straight, raining so much our backyard flooded and the rain penetrated roofs and flooded small creeks. But they came out this morning in full force, enjoying the rain-free morning and even more so the hot breakfast.
Shane and his core group serve up a piping hot breakfast, which has just gotten better over the last few months with a donation of a large, portable, flat-top grill! They can cook loads of pancakes and sausage and bacon on that puppy at one time. And they do! And the men and women who stop by for breakfast appreciate it.
The food is all donated or purchased with donated money, either from the people there helping pass it out, or the many donors (some anonymous) that the Atheist Alliance Helping the Homeless receive each month. This month my own mother-in-law (not an atheist) sent us $100 to spend on what we saw fit for the giveaway. We were able to buy, in addition to our own donations, flashlights, deodorant, more non-perishable food items, and washcloths, among other things. (We usually bring hand sanitizer every month. It is one of the most liked items and we routinely run out.) We always ask Shane to see what is needed that month, most people do, and many of us in the group have taken to bringing the same items each month, sort of taking charge of that item. It helps Shane a lot to know he can count on certain items from certain people month after month.
No that all that is out of the way I want to tell you about a man I talked to today, his name is Willy.
Willy is a “frequent shopper” at the giveaway. He has been there every month that we have been going and his state of consciousness changes drastically. I am not sure if Willy is a drug-user, if his old age plays a part, or if he is, like so many others that are homeless, is mentally unstable. But sometimes Willy is very nice and friendly. Sometimes he says, “God Bless, y’all” or thanks us, sometimes he demands help and tells us that we are going to hell. It sort of just depends on the day.
Today Willy said all of these things, then he high-fived a kid, told him that he was awesome, hugged a woman who gave him a belt (his pants were falling down), then told me he didn’t “give a shit” when I told him that his bag was unzipping and the contents were spilling out. I just smiled and said, “Okay Willy”. I guess today was a bad day.
The blond woman working next to me was watching the scene unfold and she wondered aloud what was wrong with him. I didn’t know, I told her. I explained that he once hugged me and assured me that Jesus loved me, and that once he had cried when his coffee tipped over and I helped him clean it up. A woman on the other side piped in and wondered if the majority of these people were drug addicts. There’s a good chance, I told her with a shrug. And then the blond woman said, “Who cares. Drug addicts need to eat and be loved too.” And we all agreed. Because that is the truth.
For as much as we want to see these people succeed. As much as we don’t want to ever see them there again, we do see them. Month after month, the same faces. The man who can hardly stand up-right, the woman who cries about being raped when she was fifteen, the transgender woman who doesn’t talk, the lady with the stroller, the man in the tire shop shirt who promises us that he does work, but he has just been laid off for a while. It doesn’t matter, I tell him. Because it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter which side of the table you are on. It doesn’t matter if you work, it doesn’t matter if an addiction controls you most of the time. It doesn’t matter if you can’t control your emotions or if you don’t understand why we do what we do. It only matters that you are there, and you know that you matter to someone, even if it is just one Saturday a month.