A Volunteer’s Tale

Like many others, I believe you should give something back to your community. Generously volunteering skills, knowledge, or labor gives you a real opportunity to change lives, including your own, and it’s no secret that Americans in general are some of the most generous people on Earth.

Among the volunteer activities I list on my website is the time I spent at Saint Vincent De Paul center downtown. Since then, I have been asked many questions about the organization, what it is like there, the homeless people it serves, and so on. There was one question people asked so often I began to anticipate it, and they were always disappointed in my answer. But before I relate my experience, let me fill in some basic facts about the center.

St. Vincent de Paul started in 1950 as a small organization handing out peanut butter sandwiches to the poor and homeless. Thirty-two years later Father Joe Carroll was appointed to head the center, and he lobbied hard for increased funding. Through sizable donations, including a large gift from Joan Kroc, Father Joe expanded the organization into the St. Vincent de Paul Village. The Village now serves as a one-stop center for the homeless, and includes two housing centers, medical care, adult learning classes, counseling for addiction problems, and metal health treatment.

• It costs $65,000 per day to run the Village ($24 million each year)
• Private donations make up 77% of the Village income. Only 17% of the income comes from public grants. The balance comes from investment income.
• Each year, the Village serves 1.5 million meals and provides 36,000 showers.
• The Village houses 881 people every night.
• The Catholic Church does not run the St. Vincent de Paul Village. The Village is a 501(c) 3 non-profit corporation run by a board of directors, with Father Joe Carroll serving as president.

The Village depends heavily on volunteers, and one day I thought I might like to help. I attended the weekly volunteer orientation, which was well-attended by other prospective volunteers, and at the end the staff asked where in the Village I might wish to volunteer. Most of the other people chose the meal serving duties. These positions and others were filled quickly, but there was one position left vacant and the staff could not get any takers. This position was to help teach the homeless in the resource center. I suspected there was a high turnover in volunteers in the resource center because the staff stated, several times, that anyone volunteering there needed to commit for a full year. When nobody volunteered, I felt bad for the staff and stepped up.

The next year turned out to be very interesting.

The resource center at the Village is a large room where each night fifteen to twenty homeless people spend two hours studying math and English, or learning a skill such as typing. A volunteer is needed to supervise and assist. My job was to show up one night a week for a solid year and help those who are learning to help themselves. I was nervous my first night, of course, but I assumed the staff would show me around all right, and being a volunteer “teacher’s aid” would not be so bad.

My surprise can be imagined when I received maybe 5 minutes of instruction, given the keys, and then left on my own. Twenty homeless people now depended on me as the teacher and all-around expert on everything from math, English, social science, typing, computer skills, resume writing, and anything else that might come up. I, who have never taught in my life, was scared to death.

Of course, it became easier after time and everything settled down into a routine. I arrived every Friday night, parked in the underground parking lot, took the elevator upstairs to street level where I walked through the milling crowd of homeless people talking to each other and standing about smoking, identified myself to the guard who unlocked the door to the stairwell, climbed up the stairs that smelled faintly of urine and ammonia, and then to the locked glass door that led to the classroom. At the glass door, the crowd of the night’s students would part to let me pass and I would unlock the doors and let them in. The next two hours passed quietly and I spent my time assisting here and there, answering questions on various subjects, monitoring the computers, and ushering everyone out at the end of the two hours.

During my year of service I formed an opinion about the homeless people and it seemed to me there were three basic types. First, there were the hard-core homeless. These were the ones living on the streets near the Village. They did not want anything more from the Village than a free meal and maybe a shower. This group had the worst problems with substance abuse and mental illness, and, frankly, they scared me. They would scare anybody. They seemed unreachable, society’s outcasts, people our society just hasn’t the resources, or inclination, to care for.

Second, there were the temporary homeless. These were the hard luck cases. Perhaps a job had been lost, or an illness had hit them and they lost everything. These people were always the ones who worked the hardest at the resource center. They were ashamed and embarrassed to be homeless, and wanted out of the Village as fast as possible. Sometimes there was a family involved and it was always sad to see the children sit quietly by a parent’s side as they studied.

The third group, and the group I suspect accounted for the high turnover of volunteers, was the social misfits. These were the ones who made life difficult for everyone. Many of the homeless who attended the resource center did so as a requirement for staying at the center. They had no real interest in bettering themselves; it was just something they had to do to stay there. Therefore, if they could find a way to “beat the system,” that’s what they tried to do. I believe they spent their whole lives doing this and after using up the good grace of their families and friends they ended up at the center. They had nowhere else to go, finally.

Of these three groups of homeless, it was the second group, the temporary homeless, who benefited most from the Village. They came in, received the assistance they needed, and left. I always hoped the best for them. The first group, the hard-core homeless, was beyond the reach of the Village. The hard-core homeless used the Village, but if the Village didn’t exist, they’d find some other way to survive. The third group, the social misfits, resented the Village. They didn’t like anybody telling them what to do, and any problems I had came from this group.

Individuals from the third group looked at me suspiciously. They would sign the attendance sheet for the resource center to get credit for attending, and then sneak out at the first opportunity. “Just getting a smoke,” they would say, and then never return. Othertimes they would sign in absent friends, hoping I would not do a head count. Of course, I knew what was going on and I would log everything in my notes for the staff. The staff would warn the offenders, and the following week I would endure the angry stares.

For the third group, any particular rule of the resource center was a rule that had to be defied. For example, the computers were reserved for typing tests, job searching, or doing general education tests. Many of the people in the center were studying to pass the General Educational Development Test (GED), and they needed to use the computers to study. The social misfits pretended to use the computers for legitimant reasons, but I would catch them surfing the Internet while others were waiting. I would have to pull them off the computer and lecture them and so forth, and each week repeat the process. Sometimes they baited the other people there with insulting comments and I would have to calm things down. I never missed anyone from the third group if he did not show up. I realized there were many reasons for their behavior, and that they probably had had a very difficult life, but it was hard not to favor the people who truly wanted to help themselves over the ones who were merely working to get a free ride and making things hard for everybody.

My year at Saint Vincent De Paul actually passed quickly. Overall, I found it very interesting and enlightening. I answered many questions about my experience there, and I was always happy to talk about it. But I always let people down with one answer. That answer was: No, I never met Father Joe. He lives, as a matter of fact, right across the street from the Village in a non-descript house like any of the others in that run-down neighborhood on 16th street. But I never met him. In fact, I never even saw him. Sometimes I would leave the Village at night and drive by his house and see a light on and know he was there, but I never met him.

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