Homeless in America -- on Memorial Day

05/30/2011 12:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Some had spent the night outside, in sleeping bags or just under the Texas stars. Many more showed up just after dawn.

Close to opening time there were more than 200 people waiting and more were arriving.

As "guest volunteers," my wife and I were allowed to enter early, and saw the "staff" making last minute preparations. The servers were checking their stations making sure all was ready. The food was steaming. The coffee was brewing. The goodwill was palpable.

Just before the clock struck eight, on this Saturday morning in Austin, Texas, the coordinator asked if all was ready.

After a brief prayer, everyone assumed his or her positions and the doors finally opened.

They started filing into the big room -- some hesitantly, a couple in wheelchairs, a handful of beautiful little kids hanging on to their Moms.

They were dressed casually, some more colorful than others, a couple of women in their Sunday best.

My job was to greet the guests and to offer them hand sanitizer, if they wished to use it.

You see, some of them had not had the opportunity to wash their hands, or to take that shower we take for granted, before gathering outside the University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, this past Saturday morning.

For many of our special guests -- just a few of the 4,000 homeless people in the Austin area -- this would be their first hot meal perhaps in days.

As greeter and "hand sanitizer offerer," I had the pleasure of welcoming our guests, of smiling at them, and I had the chance to look each one in the eye and to think about what sometimes seems a dramatic cliché: "every face has a story." This time, however, no cliché. I am sure there were 315 unique, heartbreaking stories.

As to the appearance, race, national origin, behavior, whatever, of our guests? They were a microcosm of America.They were polite, quiet, appreciative. Most important, they were like you and me, except that they have fallen on hard times. Some were veterans, "one could tell."

My wife and I were helping a wonderful group of volunteers who have been, for many years, lending a hand, lending an ear, opening their hearts to provide some relief to their less fortunate neighbors.

What started out as a simple snack has grown over the years into a delicious and nourishing, hot, sit-down breakfast. This morning, it included delicious quesadillas, steaming oatmeal, grits, half-a-dozen varieties of cereal, several kinds of toast, fresh cherries, canned peaches, juice, milk, coffee -- and more.

After breakfast, the guests were given tokens and invited to go on a 10-minute shopping spree at the church's "Fig Leaf" clothing store.

In the meantime, the lunch staff moved in with all the ingredients and goodwill, ready for another special performance: Lunch for the Austin homeless.

Do not get me wrong. This is not a daily occasion. These meals are served by the Methodist Church and its volunteers only on Saturday, but other churches and organizations also provide meals, food vouchers and "pantries" for these Austin residents.

Why bring up homelessness in America on a Memorial Day weekend, while we are enjoying a truly splendid table of home-cooked and grilled delicacies, with our loved ones, in our comfortable homes?

First, homelessness in America is staggering and shameful any day of the year and it ought to be brought to our attention every day of the year.

Second, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an estimated 76,000 veterans are homeless in America. (Other sources put this figure even higher). Included in this number are thousands of combat veterans from our most recent wars: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, many of these homeless veterans die every year. Some literally die on the streets and we ought to remember them, too, this Memorial Day.

Two weeks ago, at the Veterans Memorial in Colorado Springs, 19 homeless veterans -- nine from the Army, five from the Navy, four from the Marines and one who served in both the Air Force and the Army -- who have died in that city since 2003, were remembered and honored.

Nearly 27 years ago, but still shockingly fresh in our memories, our nation laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors, Jessie Carpenter, a decorated World War II hero who froze to death, homeless, in Lafayette Park, just across from the White House.

We just happened to volunteer at the homeless breakfast this Saturday, and it just happens to be Memorial Day weekend.

But there is nothing at all fortuitous about our homelessness tragedy in America. It is ignoble, pervasive, growing, and totally inimical to our values -- a national disgrace.

While providing a meal for these men, women and children, giving them a smile, or looking them in the eye may not solve the problem -- or "their problem" -- I know it makes them feel a little better. And you know what, it made us feel a little better, too.

So, just Google "homelessness in [your home town]" and you will immediately see hundreds of opportunities to make it better for these unfortunate individuals and, who knows, to start solving the homelessness "problem."


Photo: Veteran Homeless, courtesy endhomelessness.org