I took my son to see the Hobbit last weekend because apparently he was the only 5th grader at his school who had yet to see it. He had already read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, and was very eager to finally rid himself of the disgrace associated with not having seen it on the big screen.
I, on the other hand, was not as excited. I would have preferred to see Les Miserables or the Proposal, or the inside of the mall for that matter. So, I was surprised when I actually liked the movie. Of course, part of that was having my 11 year-old all to myself, whispering jokes about the countless previews and grabbing onto whatever limb of his I could whenever there was a scene with those big, scary Orcs.
Besides the good company I enjoyed, I was proud of myself that I was actually keeping up with the story line. I had seen all three Lord of the Rings movies, and I never got what all the hoopla was about. To me, it was just a lot of gory battles, a sprinkle of verdant mountainous scenes and a gold ring as ordinary as the gazillions Service Merchandise used to hawk as wedding bands before they went out of business.
Those movies stole 9 hours of my life that I would never get back, and I had not ever really forgiven director, Peter Jackson, for that. So yes, I was a little weary to see the Hobbit and all those dwarves again.
Nevertheless, there was one scene toward the end of the movie where things became meaningful to me. It was when the formerly reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, explained to Thorin, the leader of the dwarves who had shown little confidence in Baggins, why he had stayed to fight with them instead of returning to the safety and comfort of his home.
Baggins admitted to Thorin that while he is not a warrior, and does indeed prefer to get back to his books, his friends and his hobbit hole, he realizes that the dwarves don’t have a home to go back to (a dragon named Smaug destroyed it and drove the dwarves away.) Knowing the injustice of such, Baggins chooses to continue to risk his life on behalf of the plight of the dwarves.
This touching scene made watching all those gross trolls, scary orcs and ruthless fighting about more than overzealous special effects — it reminded me of our call to help the homeless.
Home, even in middle earth, is held dearest to our hearts. Like the dwarves there are people displaced from their homes in cities throughout our country — albeit by less dramatic circumstances than fiery dragons. Yet, I don’t know that they feel like they have an army of any kind fighting on their behalf. Too often I think their faces are unknown, their plight untold and their voices unheard.
Last week there was a group of volunteers who care enough about this segment of our community to find out who the homeless are and what services they need most.
Of course my experience as a volunteer surveying women in a homeless shelter was likely different than the volunteers who met at 4:30 in the morning to interview the homeless who slept on the streets.
Originally, that was what I had volunteered to do and when I spoke to the man in charge of coordinating this 3-day event, I questioned why it was necessary to go out before even the roosters were awake. (Don’t worry I didn’t use those exact words.)
Still, I hated the early morning outing for two reasons. I couldn’t imagine waking up a stranger from their peaceful slumber – it just seemed like bad manners. Second, and this is my own quirk that I admit may be growing into a neuroses, but I hate being cold. On the morning the surveys were scheduled it would be only 32 degrees. Of course, I was well aware that as much as I dreaded wandering in frigid temperatures for 3 hours, the homeless have no choice. They would be there all night and likely many nights after.
The coordinator explained that going early was necessary in order to get the best count possible before the homeless scatter to soup kitchens, the library or other areas of downtown. It would give us an idea of how many slept on the streets compared to in shelters.
We would give them $5 gift cards to Burger King for participating in the survey, and he said that would be a big motivator. Likely, they would wake up nearby homeless people so they could also get a gift card. It was nice to think even in their dire circumstances they still showed simple kindness towards one another.
However, the next time I spoke to my contact, he told me he needed two females to do surveys at a women’s shelter in the evening. So fortunately I never had to be a human alarm clock to people sleeping on the street. I also gained an entirely different perspective on homeless women from this experience.
What I learned from surveying these ladies was that homeless women are not all drug addicts or prostitutes or even as obscure as I would have thought. In fact, they often work among us in retail, customer service – even at our schools. Furthermore, almost all of them were employed. The few who weren’t were looking for jobs and had worked within the past month.
Often these jobs make minimum wage and one woman told me she works as hard as a Hebrew slave for almost nothing. Another woman who had just lost her customer service job told me she had spent the day going all over town applying for jobs. She was discouraged when as a last resort, she even went to a fast-food restaurant to find work and was told she could fill out an application but there were many others who had already done the same. Clearly, these are not women looking for a handout, but a job which just may be the harder of the two to get.
One of the fundamental questions the surveys asked was what is the main reason you would say that you are homeless. As I anticipated sometimes the answer was domestic violence, but just as often it was mental illness – women struggling with depression or bipolar disorder. One woman lost her apartment in a fire. Another left a 5 bedroom house in a different state to find out the person she moved here with was unreliable. She didn’t offer any more details, and I didn’t ask.
Another woman told me she had a problem with me saying she was homeless because she was living at the shelter. I apologized, and realized how hard it must be for a person’s pride to be in this situation.
One woman went on a mini-rant about how racist people are here and that if she doesn’t like you because you are white than she will just tell you. It made me realize how absurd racism is, both in its hypocrisy and because I can’t imagine someone not liking me simply because I am white. But she seemed to soften as I told her that I was embarrassed to hear that had been her impression of our city and offered a sympathetic ear as she shared her experience.
There was one girl in her early thirties who walked in and stood for an awkward moment before she asked if this was where the surveys were being done. She looked so lovely in a white linen shirt and perfectly pressed grey pleated skirt that I figured she must have worked there. How ironic to see the stereotypical girl next door, in a homeless shelter.
She embodied my experience more than any other as I pictured seeing her walking downtown blending in seamlessly with all the other working men and women who would get in their cars and head home after work. I imagined all the men, young and otherwise who would love to ask her out on a date. Men who had no idea they would be picking her up from a shelter.
For many of the women it was their first time experiencing homelessness, but there were others like her, who had grown up in foster care spending their lives schlepping from one home to the next. She even told me that one former foster-family had posted some pictures on Facebook of her when she was a kid. She seemed surprised to hear from them, and called it both nice and weird.
I wished her well when we finished, just like I had the other women. Although I just got a glimpse into these women’s lives, I was grateful for what they shared and inspired by their strength and hope.
But like the Hobbit, their journey is far from over. Challenges await and dark periods still lurk. Ultimately they are going to need help to find permanent shelter. Weapons like jobs, education, health care and mental illness assistance provide the best chances for escape.
Of course I would be remiss to not mention shelters, while still not a home, they are a safe place with access to resources the homeless need. All while offering them shelter from the elements, a bed, food and perhaps, a little hope.
Sadly, there were so many homeless people the first day the other volunteers went out that they cancelled plans to go an additional day. In that one morning they surveyed 122 people. Indeed one point in time, in one small portion of a city — among thousands of other cities in our country, battling the indignity of homelessness.
Having a home remains worth fighting for, whether the point in time exists in middle earth or now. Perhaps it’s up to us to take on that plight like Bilbo Baggins did when he humbly put his own comfort aside to help others – always a timeless endeavor.