04/15/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

When a Full Fridge Overwhelms

I haven't yet been part of an actual moving-in, the moments when someone homeless metamorphasizes back to someone housed. At Bethesda Cares, those days, when our staff fill their own cars with donated household items and coordinate the delivery of yet others, when our Outreach Team helps a client sign a lease and accept a key, are emotionally charged even for those of us on the periphery.

"How did it go yesterday, with 'Steve's" move-in?" I asked Sue, our Executive Director. Steve, a middle-aged man in failing health, had lived on the street for 19 long years.

Sue smiled. "It was quite something. John had to spend twenty minutes showing him how to lock and unlock his door. Steve says he can't remember ever having dealt with a key, or deadbolts," she said.

I thought about that for a moment, rather unsuccessfully; I admit, I plead a total failure of imagination. I just can't get my head around a grown man so unfamiliar with basic hardware.

But that's the way it is. Although some clients are savvy enough to discuss matters like set-top DVRs in advance of a move-in, others, particularly the chronically homeless, have been on the streets for so long that even fundamental residential matters stop them in their tracks.

"He didn't know how to use a microwave," Sue continued, but I interrupted.

"Wait," I said. "We have a microwave in the Drop-In Center, for clients." I stopped myself, the light dawning. A grown man who didn't know how to use a microwave might be unlikely to ask a roomful of people for a lesson, if he even saw the need for it.

Then she started telling me about the challenges of teaching someone how to shop for and plan meals. "Think about it," she said. "This guy has taken what people give him, for years. He has lived in the moment. He hasn't been able to store food, to expect that an apple he buys today won't be lost, stolen or squashed, and will sit on the counter for two days until he feels like eating it.

"Right," I said. "Options. He hasn't had options. Or certainty. And that's what we do when we shop, right? We stock our kitchens with options, like, 'Oh, I might want this soup if it gets cold outside, and I'll get that yogurt in case I want something light.' And we take for granted that those things will still be there in a day or a week."

"Exactly," she said. "If he's had money in the past, he's either grabbed something he could eat right then, or that was light and easy to stuff into a backpack. It's going to be a long time before he learns to start thinking, 'Oh, I ought to pick up an extra box of noodles so I don't have to go out in the rain tomorrow,' and maybe he'll never think, 'Wow, that can of tomatoes would make for a good sauce.'"

Who knows, really? We'll do our best to support him in the coming weeks and months. He has a lot of behavior to relearn, or maybe to learn for the first time, and it must be overwhelming. As I type, I wonder how long it'll take for him to function in a more "normal" way, or what that even means, to him.