As my service learning experience, I elected to assist in the dinner service at the downtown homeless shelter. I arrived at the location before five p.m., and concluded my role at the shelter at approximately 7:30 p.m. I was guided in my work there by both volunteers and social services professionals and, although the actual staff was minimal, it represented a wide range of experience in this type of effort. On one level, my time there passed quickly; there was a consistent stream of people coming in for the meal and this, combined with my attempting to function in a helpful way in new surroundings, completely occupied me. At the same time, distinct impressions were formed, the most striking of which was how I had never before been within such an environment, even though they widely exist. Then, there was a practicality to the entire service that both impressed and confused me. I had expected, I think, a more “dramatic” scenario, yet all concerned, from the homeless to the workers, were simply going through necessary motions to either survive or assist. Ultimately, it was beneath this atmosphere of practical work that I felt the real urgency and “drama” of the situation, as I came face to face with the homeless, not as a nameless collective, but as fathers, mothers, veterans, and children.
The Service Experience
The shelter was a large, plain building, seemingly once an office or warehouse space. There was little in the way of ornamentation, and everything I took in as I made my way to the dining hall was only there for a purpose; a few chairs against walls, tables with social services literature, and two cork boards with announcements of other types of assistance available. Before entering, I also was very much aware of the people waiting on the street. They did not appear to me so much hungry, as engaging in a minor social ritual the approaching meal time made possible. Once in the kitchen, I introduced myself to a woman who seemed to be in charge; that is, I waited until she had finished directing someone else in regard to the meal being prepared, and then came forward. This Ms X was gracious, if a little nervous. She immediately told me they were expecting a larger turn-out that night than usual because another shelter was unable to be open. Fortunately, a sizable donation of chicken had come in, so they felt up to the challenge. I understood that, for this effort, nothing could be worse for these workers than to run out of food. The emphasis in my half an hour in the kitchen, in fact, was always on volume, rather than culinary skill. They wanted the food good and tasty, but it was more essential that there be plenty of it.
My job was potatoes, and Ms X trusted me to stir, and salt and pepper, an enormous vat of them, mashed. I was eager to show that I was ready to help, but I must confess that trying to stir a mountain of potatoes with a steel spoon as large as a spear is exhausting work. Around me, small conversations broke out, all based on personal matters being shared between friends or acquaintances. As in most work spaces, the nature of the work was not discussed, except when new cooking orders were given. In that time, I strangely lost sight of the objective; I consciously thought that I could be in an army mess hall, or any mass feeding operation. As noted, and naively, I had anticipated some sort of emotionally-charged, charitable feeling in the room. What I encountered were people busy getting a job done, and I was ashamed of my assumption.
Soon after, I assisted in setting out the buffet in the dining hall. I lit sterno cans and filled the steamer trays with water, along with other helpers. At this point, I took in the sparse hall. Long tables, plain chairs, waste containers, and dim windows were all there was to see. I was reminded of an especially drab student dining hall, as I briefly connected this with the homeless. It seems juvenile, but I clearly saw the common denominator. We all need to eat, and we all often gather in places to do it. At that moment, and only for that moment, I permitted myself a tangible sense of pride in stepping out of my world long enough to help out in an arena where such an experience must be created.
Before the doors opened, I was given “roll duty,” to hand over with tongs one dinner roll per person. I was, then, at the end of the line. Quietly, the room filled, and it was extraordinary. Homeless or otherwise, these were all just people coming together and, while most seemed respectful of the surroundings, others engaged in light conversation. I was struck again by the parallel to “normal” life; changes of clothes on the guests and some art on the walls, and the room might have been an ordinary restaurant. As noted, the team simply carried out their work, in a friendly and professional way. There were no overt expressions of pity or sympathy, as I had somehow foolishly expected. As each person came to me, I was literally humbled. There is no other word for it, for I felt suddenly a sense of privilege in handing over a single roll. I saw faces, not the homeless. I saw eyes that had taken in life I could not imagine, as I saw traces of antagonism and anger as well. Homelessness is inherently chronic, yet I had a sense of serving food at a battlefield site in a rare and emergency situation.
At one point, something in the look a young woman gave me compelled me to violate policy and give her an extra roll. A moment later, Ms X came to me, to ask how I was doing and to commend my help. I believe she had seen the extra roll, but she did not mention it. I suspect she saw many similar transgressions when new people come to help, and she learned that a simple restating of her presence was the best course. It was. In that moment, strangely, I completely understood that undue sympathy could mean someone else going without. The coffee urns needed more attending, so someone else took over the rolls and I helped fill and hand out the paper cups of the drink. In no time, the trays and urns were empty and the guests left. I volunteered to help clean up, but they merely asked me to get some trays into the kitchen sinks. Then Ms X shook my hand, thanked me, and said I was welcome to come by anytime. I can recall few validations as meaningful.
As I reflect on my service experience, I am faced with unresolved feelings and issues. On one level, all I have described is accurate and fairly ordinary. On another, I retain a sense that I was exposed to a hidden part of society, and I am conflicted in wanting to leave the experience as a memory or pursue it. I was by no means emotionally overwrought during or after the service, as I am glad to have lost my condescending assumptions of a charitable atmosphere in action. I definitely do not feel as though I “did a good deed”; on the contrary, I feel as though I came to learn how small any individual action may be in so enormous an arena. At the same time, I believe I now have an awareness that will stay with me, and affect how I think of the homeless. In a very real sense, I was “introduced” to them, and given to see how similar we are. My desire is to remain open to this awareness, and see how it motivates me further.