I honestly believe today more than ever people genuinely want to get involved. After my CNN story came out I received lots of emails from people wanting to help. As always I suggest they support their local homeless services. I also give a disclaimer that it may be challenging trying to connect and that the person cannot give up until they find an organization that fits.
We suck at getting people involved. Please forgive my candor but I don't know how else to put it. Yeah, I know you're busy. And who has money to hire a volunteer coordinator? In homeless services, everything that can go wrong usually does so when a group of people show up to help they are sent to the kitchen just to get them out of the way. There are far too many people for tasks so most of the volunteers stand around doing nothing. It's a horrible experience so they never return to help that or any other homeless services organization.
The other thing we do is make volunteers jump through so many hoops just to get involved they give up! As we enter into another year of a crappy economy we need volunteers more than ever. They save money and once a person gets involved most become financial donors.
Meet the volunteer you turned away:
Susan left a note on my Facebook. I don't remember her exact words except she stated that after reading my CNN story she had to do something. I gave my normal response encouraging her to find a local shelter that "fits". Susan really wanted to take action and started to apply as a volunteer in her area. She tried several places and each one made it nearly impossible for her to connect. She asked for my help so I recommended a few homeless services in or near where she lived. Unfortunately, I only know these organizations by their outward appearance. They, too, made it difficult and Susan was basically turned away every place she tried to help.
Susan decided to take action and started to research what people on the streets need. She even sent me links to information that I didn't know. She planned on filling up her car and driving to a park to help.
Here is just one of the emails she sent:
My neighbor just gave me ten ski suits. Those things are unbelievably expensive and talk about durable, weatherproof and warm! I have hats, scarves, gloves, tons of thermals, sweats, jeans, socks, and someone gave me a inflatable bed with electric pump. Should I approach the people who are doing the feeding and give them the bed? My entire car is loaded right now. Are we able to park close to that park or do we have to park in the garage and just lug things back and forth? I have two rolling suitcases. Figured we will fill them up and go.
I then received this sent from her BlackBerry:
You are not going to believe this. We didn't have enough. Corner of K and 15th. They came out of the woodwork. Down the road a little on 16th was a crowd of them too. It is cold and raining and miserable out. Food, clothes, jackets, all of our bags - just everything gone. My entire car was packed. Completely empty now. Unbelievable.
I responded simply asking how the experience was for her. Her answer again from her BlackBerry:
My heart is full. I don't know if I have the words to express all of the emotions and what we experienced. Invisible people is the best description you could have come up with. I NEVER noticed the homeless as much as I did today. When you look for them, you see them EVERYWHERE.
We drove out there in the downpour. Started driving towards that area that you mentioned. Saw a guy standing by a monument, looked real close and saw a cardboard box. Swung back around, got out, walked over and he was grateful to get food and clothing. He came over to the car and as we were giving him things, he politely asked if he could have some things for his girlfriend who was sleeping under the box. Didn't even see her! She came over and we gave them sweatshirts, hoodies, tshirts, food and bags (found these great drawstring bags for a dollar). I wanted to give them everything. I wanted to pull them out of their misery and give them shelter. I felt so helpless!
Got in the car and headed to that area you mentioned. Pulled up and saw plastic across this entire bench. Somebody was obviously under it. Not a single person around otherwise. To keep this short (I could write so much right now), we decided we were going to walk over to the bench. NEVER got to it. We never left our car.
One minute the park was deserted, the next minute it was filled with homeless people. We gave and gave and gave and stood in the pouring rain as more and more and more headed towards us. It was crazy. I never met the nicest people, the kindest, so respectful, looking out for each other, saying thank you and please and yes, maam and yes, sir and so grateful. I was floored.
Once we gave it all away, I swear I blinked and the park was empty. Not a soul around except for this one older lady just standing at the bench with her things and an umbrella. She barely spoke English and I went back to her and tried to figure out why she was out there. She didn't even understand the word 'shelter'. I called the shelter hotline and they said they would send a van out to her but she walked away. I couldn't communicate what I was trying to do. I watched her walk away and the shelter never found her .
What do you do when you come across that type of thing? How do you help? I stood in the downpour and did nothing. I didn't know what to do. I am in tears thinking of it.
And afterwards, we got back in the car and I thought ... 'OMG! That was so unexpected. We were mobbed but the thing is ... every single person was polite, respectful, happy to receive something, kind, helpful, looking out for each other ... it blew me away.
What if they weren't that way? We actually threw ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. There were so many people. It was so unexpected.
I don't want to let that deter me but we saw one person and a mob came out of nowhere and then disappeared just as quickly. As we were leaving, I saw a small type of enclosure (tunnel?) and it was filled with people. I wanted to help them all.
On the way out, on rt 66, there were people under the overpass. They were everywhere! It felt good to help but my heart is full. I want to do anything to help but I feel so helpless.
Are we putting ourselves in danger by approaching one or two people only to have a mob come out nowhere and now we are outnumbered? They could have overpowered us but nobody did. Don't know how to approach this the next time.
Today was exhilarating and heartbreaking ... it could have been dangerous but it wasn't. My heart is all over the place. I want so bad to help and help and just live and breathe helping them.
Sorry for so much writing. I could go on and on ...
I really don't have words to express what Susan's actions mean to me. This is beyond amazing! THANK YOU SUSAN! What I will tell you is that Susan may be the perfect volunteer. She demonstrated leadership skills and that she is a make-things-happen person. And for those of you that still hold on to the delusion you cannot afford a volunteer coordinator Susan has donated several times to InvisiblePeople.tv. Honestly, I would rather have her donate to local homeless services organizations -- but they all passed her up!
If you have had a similar experience please share. If you are a service provider how can we improve at getting people connected and involved?
Follow Mark Horvath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hardlynormal