Saturday, September 2, 2006

Experiences from the Count

As demanded by many, just note that this is merely touching the tip of the iceberg.
Monday night, I had 50 volunteers ready to go out into the two major cities of our county. FYI, our cities are suburb size, but there is no major urban metropolis of which we suburb off of immediately nearby.

We all met at a church by my house where goodie bags that had t-shirts, snack foods and hygiene items, were distributed, as well as name tags, pens, and surveys.

I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the goodie bags here.
Earlier in the summer, I developed a donor letter, explaining the count's methodology and purpose, why I would like to have donations for incentives, and the fact that since United Way was our fiscal agent, all donations would be tax deductible. I sent the letters out to all of the chambers of commerce in our county with the request to pass them along, via e-mail, to all their business members. That turned up nothing.

I dropped a hard copy of the letter off with the Super Wal-Mart, and they answered with $50 in $10 gift cards. A friend of mine from Ft. Collins Habitat for Humanity schmoozed $100 in gift cards from the ordinary Wal-Mart, and something like $25 in granola bars from Wild Oats. Sister Mary Alice gave me a couple of $25 gift certificates to King Soopers for the homeless persons helping survey, saying, "Someone had been very generous earlier this month, and you can have these." I had known that there would be 4 homeless persons going out, helping lend buy-in as surveyors sought willing respondents, later that number increased to 5. So all of them who helped received $10 for Wal-Mart, and about the same for King Soopers. I wish it could've been more...

But the shirts came from 211, a non-profit agency that gives information and referral to anyone who calls in, on everything under the sun, including volunteer opportunities. Yes, a woman from 211 called and told me that they had boxes of t-shirts from old Make-A-Difference-Day events, and since they were dated, I was welcome to have them for the bags. I of course took them, and had close to 300 shirts when all was said and done. She also gave me some travel toothpaste/toothbrush packs that numbered about 150 in all.

The food came from the Food Bank of Larimer County, but the idea for that came from the lady with 211. You see, my contract was administered by United Way, and 211 is within United Way's umbrella as well. She thought we could purchase food from the Food Bank as an agency, and be able to get a super amount of food for as little as $10. I had $ in my contract for expenses, so we cleared it with the powers that be, and purchased a CAR LOAD of cereal bars, crackers, chips, and granola bars for $10.98 from the Food Bank, and the invoice is paid out of my expense allowance. We were able to put a granola bar, cereal bar, chips, crackers, and some 100 calorie snack packs into each bag - for 250 people!

The hygiene items came from a family who works with homeless youth in our community. Travel size shampoos and conditioners, soaps, combs, every bag.

Finally there was a collection that Seth initiated at his shop, since the owners of the dealership didn't see my cause as donation-worthy (The MS Walk that weekend, however, they put at least $5k into). And the blue collar boys came up with $50 to supplement the hygiene items (which ran short).

All of these came from people who had to find something to give, and yet they did. Abundantly. It touched me very deeply and reminded me of the parable of the widow who gave her last two coins.
So back to the church. I blubbered, having run around all day, dropping surveys off to agencies who couldn't afford to make copies, having run into volunteers who bailed at the last minute, and still unsure how the next day would go. I apologized for the disorganization and chaos - It was so out of my comfort zone. Everyone assured me it was going fine, but my emotional dam broke when Seth showed up with the kids and my brother, who was watching them that night while we went out.

I ran over and hugged my babies - I'd thought for some reason that Seth would just drop them off at the house and I wouldn't get to see them that night.

So, people loaded up the bags, surveys and other necessaries, met with their respective team leaders and we were off.
My team consisted of:
A Sergeant with the Larimer County Sheriff
3 volunteers from my church
A reporter for the Collegian (CSU paper - that was a nightmare, more on that later)
A community volunteer I'd gotten to be friends with
The young lady interning with my office this semester
(And a partridge in a pear tree!)

We walked the bike trail north and east of Old Town all together. Sgt. showed us the difference btwn and old camp and an existing camp. At the ones that were clearly being used currently, we left goodie bags, in which I placed a note:

Enjoy the goodies - wish it could be so much more.
______________ xxx-xxxx (my name and work number)
Colorado Statewide Homeless Count, 8/28/2006
We counted 15 existing camps, mostly single person get-ups, but some of them were inhabited by two.

We came up off the trail near an industrial part of old town, not far from the Open Door Mission. As we came up, we saw a young woman walking with several bags. I departed from the group to approach her.

She wasn't interested, she said. Her eyes were so filled with sadness. I thanked her, and let her be.

Because we had 9 people on our team, we divided into 3 groups of 3. I was with Seth and my intern.

We saw a crowd of guys hanging around the tatoo parlor, with a little girl probably aged 8? I approached them as Seth and the intern hung back and watched.

"Hey guys, how's it going?"

"It's all good."

"Listen, I'm doing a survey on homelessness for folks that either are or could be at risk of becoming homeless - would you like to help me?"

"Awww man, do we look that bad?!" laughed the bald, alpha male of the pack. "None of us is homeless, but we got some friends down at the Catholic mission, might go ask them."

I smiled, and said, "Hey, please don't take offense, we're shooting at the dark here, just approaching random folks - ya'll look fine! As for the mission, we've got a team down there, so your friends will get counted."

"So, you guys students or something?"

I told him no, and briefly how I got involved and what we were trying to do, mainly that I used to do street outreach for the mental health center, and was asked to head up this count because of it. I asked if any of them were having difficulties with rent or anything, because people who were being evicted are "technically" homeless.

Alpha male said, "Nah, we're all good for now, but I need to find a roomate, rent's coming up again next week."

I wished him luck, knowing that these guys were on the fringe. Then, "Hey, I know you're not gonna do the survey, but if it's ok with you, I'd like to give your little girl one of our goodie bags - they've got some snack food in them, and then a shirt and some little travel soaps/shampoos, you know stuff little girls love," I winked with a smile at this precious child who suddenly grew excited at the prospect of a gift, no matter how simple.

"Sure," he said, and then, as I handed the bag to the little girl, he laughed and teased her, saying, "I get the chips."

We all shook hands and I felt good for the contact. And relieved, knowing that a child who may not have had supper, got to have something semi-nutritious to fill her belly until morning when she was apt to be fed at school.

We rounded the alley and in time spotted 3 of our larger team members behind the downtown Safeway.

We checked in, and reported it being slow going. They said they'd approached a man across the street (hidden from my view) behind the Safeway dumpster, but he was really angry at the government and he'd vehemently refused to do the survey. While we talked, a man who was clearly homeless (bedroll and bags) walked by and down the block. I told the group we'd go follow up with him.

But first, I walked over to the shopping cart by the dumpster, placed a bag in the cart, and tried to throw my voice to the right over the industrial dumpster, "Sir? Hey sir, I know you didn't want to do the survey, and that's totally a-ok. I just wanted to leave this bag for you - it's got a shirt and some food, plus some soap stuffs in it. It's just for you, and no strings attached. You don't need to talk to me to claim it, I'm just gonna leave it right here in the cart - ok?"

Gruffly, from the left and behind me, a voice said, "He's not gonna come out."

Startled, I turned to see the man the others had described. "Oh, so there're two of you behind here? I'm sorry, I didn't see you. Would you like a bag too?"

Just as gruffly, "I'm not homeless!"

I smiled, "That's fine sir, we've got more than we seem to need. And like your friend, you won't have to do the survey, you can just have it."

"No thanks."

"Ok, well, I need to get going. Thanks, man."

I walked back over to the two groups, and said, "OMylanta - my heart about jumped out of my chest when he came up behind me!" To the 3 from the other group, "You didn't tell me there were TWO!"

They didn't know there were two, and besides, they had my back - or so I was told ;-)

So I grabbed Seth and the intern and went to go follow up with the guy we'd seen. There he was sitting on a bench on the sidewalk.

"How's it going this evening, sir?"

"Purty good, girl, now whatcha up to?" he slurred. He's pretty well lit you know.

"You're pretty quick," I said with a wink. "Well, my friends and I are doing surveys for the statewide homeless count that's going on tonight, and I wondered if we could take a few minutes of your time and go over the survey. Everything is completely private and cannot be traced back to you. Whaddya say, huh?"

"Girl, wha's 'is about?"

"Well, we're trying to figure out how many homeless people we've got in the state and what their needs are so that we can offer better services to them. You don't have to do this if you don't want. I've got a goodie bag that I'm going to give you, whether you do the survey or not."

"'ere's too many snot nosed people out there trying to figure out homelessness. If dey really want ta know, dey need to walk a mile in my shoes instead of come at me with papers and a clipboard!"

"Hey, that's fair enough. I know what you mean about the whole "rich kids going slummin'" phenomenon, and you're right, it's all about them when it's that way."

I could see the bristles going down, so I crouched down and said, "I don't know if you read the paper much, but awhile back there was an article on me and this project. I was homeless as a kid, and I know the disrespect that comes. I never had it so bad that we didn't have a roof over us, but it wasn't home, you know? Besides, see my teeth?" I flashed him my toothy grin, "they're not exactly the teeth of a privileged kid."

He turned, slowly looked me in the eye, and said, "'re her."

I laughed, saying, "Well I gotta tell ya, between you and my 5 y/o daughter, I'm starting to get a big head what with all the fame! Whaddya say, you gonna take the survey for me?" Smile.

He returned the smile. "Sure, I'll take your survey."

We began. When he uttered E-L-W for the first three letters of his last name, I smiled and asked, "Like Elway? You a football fan, man?"

He got an impish look on his face, and said, "Nah, but I dated his niece!" and laughed so hard I knew he was joking.

I nodded, "Sure you did, man."

When he answered that he'd been in the military, I responded. "I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you how much that means to me. I've a great respect for anyone who's worked to protect this country, in peace times or war."

We continued. When I asked him where he'd stay the night that night, he was brutally honest, "Detox, if I keep goin' the way I am. Else ways, I'll be by the tracks."

"Hey man, you're being honest with me, and I appreciate that." Smile. "Do you mind if I move your drink and sit here on the retaining wall? My legs are tired of crouching."

"Girl, you can sit anywhere you'd like." Smile and a laugh.

He'd been homeless for 20 years, since his military discharge in 1986. It made me wonder what had happened to him that made him handicapped from being a functional person in society upon his return to civilian status. Booze, from all outward appearances, but what were the drinks chasing away for him? Trauma of sorts? Mental illness? Both?

When asked why he became homeless, his volunteered response was, "My choice - sorta, I don't keep appointments when they're made, and mostly that's my fault." Topping that, housing costs and low wages kept him boxed out of housing.

At the last question, asking what services had he attempted to access but couldn't obtain, he verbally offered up "respect," as the number one thing he wanted but couldn't get.

I showed him the paper, and said, "Look, I want you to see me write that down. I think it's very important that the state know this is important to you. What about the rest of these, housing, job assistance, clothing....?"

I thanked him for his time, introduced him to Seth and the intern. We all shook hands, gave him his goodie bag, and we wished him well.

As we walked the perimeter of the store, the intern started dumping praises and "I'm not worthy-s" on me about how well I interacted with him. I started to demur and dismiss, but Seth would have none of it, "Honey, she's right. That's your calling - you were amazing to watch."

Alright, guys, I told them, if I were to accept it, then they needed to stop, because they were embarrassing me. We crossed over the intersection to head up north on the west side of the street we'd just been on. Shortly after, Seth directed us to look across the street. Our guy had already put on the t-shirt in his goodie bag.

"We just made his night didn't we?" Seth asked incredulously.

I nodded, misty-eyed. "He may not remember it tomorrow, but for a few minutes tonight he was reminded that he matters."

The power of that moment has been residing in me the entire week.

Later we met up with all of our original team-mates, and my new FCPD officer friend - who was a tremendous resource to me through the whole project, personally and professionally. We all kind of debriefed with each other. Mr. Officer and Sgt. Sheriff talked with the group about the homeless in our area - which was educational for them all. Their lives are changed, I hope. I know mine is, being reminded of my passion for these people.
Later, Seth told me, "That's your work, HAM. You had a connection with everyone of those people, even though you hadn't met before. Even you and that cop had a connection, you spoke each other's language." A language of love, compassion, and acceptance toward people who don’t always get that from the rest of society.

Instead of dismissing this sort of intimate praise – which is my tendency – I gratefully took it this time. Speaking this language is my gift and purpose in life – and I fully intend to speak it often and loud enough for the world to hear.

[As I sent this out with real names to my volunteers/agencies, this was for them:]
Thank you all for your participation, either in learning the language, or teaching it to others. This project was not my work, but our work. I need to figure out how to get back in that world, permanently. My job with the city, while I love the people I work with, is too far removed from the people who really need it for me.


  1. Wow.
    I do believe that you have found your calling HAMmy.
    I'm sitting here in tears of respect and joy at the way you are letting the Lord lead you.
    I can't wait to see what's next.

  2. Awesome Awesome! THANK YOU FOR SHARING! And when we finally move that way.. you can count on me for volunteering.

  3. Awsome...inspiring...thank you!

  4. Thanks for your work. Homeless counts help the funding stream. Better yet it makes the heart stream. Thanks for caring

  5. This is my second time to read this post and is even better than before. I have taken the opportunity to send a link to this account to some friends.

    Thank you for being an example of what I talk about in my book.

    Bobby Valentine

  6. Thanks for loving this incredible but oft forgotten sect of our society. Blessings to you as this ministry is only just beginning.