Thursday, May 08, 2008

My thoughts after volunteering at Tent City

Today I volunteered to help set up tent city at it's new location. tent city is an organized homeless encampment that travels around mostly to churches (you can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tent_City_4). It was set-up day, so we spent a lot of time working with others hauling stuff like pallets, plywood, tents and boxes. A lot of people helped; some were
residents of tent city and some were volunteers. Yes, you could recognize some as either residents or volunteers but for many it was really unclear. Some people were from churches, some from the synagogue, some were not native English speakers, some were young and others very old. We were all just people working hard together. You would hear these conversations
happening where a resident realized they were talking to someone who was a volunteer. I heard several people say thank you, but then the conversation would move. I was talking to someone who I thought was a volunteer and turned out he was a resident. It didn't matter. What mattered was that we were working together. There was lots of moving heavy stuff, unstable footing, nails and commotion. What mattered was the person holding the other end of the wood was being careful and that you were working together to share the load. I've set up for big projects, done the heavy lifting and many other projects over the years and this was the nicest bunch of people I've ever worked with. Yes, some people talked more then worked. Yes some
people didn't always get what they were supposed to do, but that was accepted. There was no anger or ego. There was patience with the confusion. There was a very clear, strong desire to make sure everyone was safe and protected. Everyone was watching out for everyone else. There was no "us" and "them".

It was cold out and we worked hard. At lunch time we sat on crates, tent city furniture, and ate sack lunches which contained peanut sandwiches. We all appreciated those sandwiches. We appreciated we had a crate to sit on and the chance to rest for a moment. We wished it was warmer. All the dividing lines vanished that simply. I was probably one of the grubbier
people there. I didn't really know how to socialize with anyone. I know that some thought I was a resident. It shows you how misleading our stereotypes can be. I was probably one of the smallest people there. People tried to make sure I wasn't give too much to carry, but they quickly accepted my strength and attitude. I was appreciated because I could work hard. A few
times someone asked to help carry something. Instead of getting wrapped up in pride and wanting to prove I could work as hard as the big men, I saw that these were people who wanted to help. Some of them couldn't carry much themselves, but they wanted to know that they had contributed. I probably have more serious mental health issues then many of the residents. I think one of the values of my struggles is I know I could have easily been in need of Tent City if things had gone slightly differently. I wish more often in the world, we could all be forced to work and sit as people together in the same situation.