Homelessness And The Loss of Roots


homelessnessVolunteering at a St. Martin’s Hospitality Center which is a day shelter for homeless people has given me a new perspective on rootedness.  No matter what happens to me I always know I can go home and how much this contibutes to my sense of who I am. If I had no place to go I think I would feel less a person.  Somehow my sense of myself is partly rooted in where I live.  The people who are homeless have lost this piece of their identity.  I think that a large part of our mission at St. Martin’s is to help them hang on to the whatever part of their identity they still retain

The shower station is my spot when I volunteer.  I help people sign up for a shower giving them towels and soap and shampoo.  When a shower is free I page them and they get to take a shower using the small bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo and conditioner which kind people carefully save for us when they travel and then donate to us.  They can use a hair dryer or a straightening iron if they want.  Most of all they seem to want scent to put on after their showers.  Especially the men.  I breathe a sigh of relief if when I arrive to volunteer if there is at least one bottle of fairly decent men’s cologne.  Often I buy some if I can find it on sale since I hate saying  sorry I don’t have any scent today.  The people are always kind about it but I can see the the disappointment on their faces.   Right now I can’t find any scent on sale because it is the Chistmas season.  I am planning on hitting Walmart before I go to the shelter early Monday morning and buying something decent even if I can’t find it on sale.  After all it will be Christmas Eve and a bottle of Ralph Lauren will bring big smiles to their faces.

As to rootedness,  homeless people have lost most of their  roots.  The Shelter tries to help.  It provides long term storage where with just an ID, someone can store one box with whatever is precious to them for whatever period they need.  Our clients can also receive mail at the shelter and people can leave phone messages which they can return on phones provided to them.  Since they can’t wash their clothes we give them up to 3 outfits of donated clothes a week.  I think that the hope is that these services provide a sense of belonging to people who are struggling to get from one day to the next without a disaster.

Many years ago in Los Angeles I volunteered at The Downtown Women’s Shelter on Skid Row.  It was a day shelter as well.  My job was to make lunch for the 30 or 40 women who came in each day.  There was one woman called Lydia who was obviously paranoid.  Probably schizophrenic.  She came in each day for lunch.  She took showers and got clothes.  After several month we pieced together the fact that she was sleeping in the parking lot at the Methodist Church.  Finally I talked with her one day and she told me that she was over 65 and had worked for many years before she became too mentally ill to work any longer.  She said when she went to the Social Security office they wouldn’t let her apply for social security 

The next day I came to the shelter wearing my best business suit.  Lydia and I walked to the Social Security Office and we were able to get her though the application process and within a few weeks she was receiving a check.  She didn’t want to leave Skid Row.  But we talked her into getting a room in one of the hotels there.  I will never forget the look on her face when she walked into the small dirty little room with a bed and a sink and a chair.  She felt rooted I am sure.

Lydia’s brother who had been trying to find her for over 10 years called us at the shelter.  Apparently the Social Security Office notified him as her next of kin.  He came to see her from Ohio.  He came to the shelter from the airport and Lydia would not speak to him.  We were able to tell him about her being off the streets and having enough money for a room and life’s necessities.  While he was saddened that she wouldn’t talk with him he was relieved to know where she was and that she had a base.  I think this was the most we could hope for for Lydia.  But she was satisfied in her own way.  This was probably all the rootedness she could handle.

God bless you all and I hope you have a Merry Chistmas.   Give a prayer for those on the streets on Chistmas that they too will find whatever rootedness they can handle.