The rain pitter-patters against my coat hood as I stroll down the sidewalk toward the Haven. The usual crowd of smokers stands outside the door sending puffs of white into the sky. “Hello.” I greet them with a smile. A large man holds the door open with his foot, his hand stuck out behind him to keep the smoke from trailing into the building. I wait patiently for him to end his conversation with the guy on the other side, his laughter echoing in the alleyway beside the historical building.
A pleasant aroma of food caresses my nose as I enter the building. “It’s well past breakfast time. I wonder what the smell is,” I think to myself. The Haven only serves breakfast, and as of recently is only open until 12PM.
I am greeted by the ever smiling Jesse, a guest who often volunteers at the Haven, and Herb, the Outreach and Community Service Coordinator.
It’s a busy day. People want the alphabetical mail slots checked for anything that might have come for them. They need to use the phone. They need socks, lotion, and ibuprophen, all of which volunteers retrieve for them when the items are available. Incoming calls ring the phone almost constantly. Some want to speak with the Haven staff, others the guests.
The things we take for granted
The Haven’s primary objective is to provide respite care: anything you’d need if you don’t have a home. From a clean place to shower to a comfy couch to nap on, the Haven provides a full gamut of services. Many of the amenities such as toiletries and medical supplies come in as donations. The breakfast that’s served is locally sourced, and healthy, as many of the guests have special dietary needs due to chronic disease such as diabetes.
Smiles and Tea
A small weathered looking woman chimes across the hall that there is soup and salad available if we would like to eat. My question of what the smell was is now answered. All of a sudden, Herb’s got a printer problem, and lucky for him, I’m pretty computer savvy. I investigate the issue and get things back on track to get a shoe voucher for Ragged Mountain Running Shop printed for one of the guests.
The printer crisis averted, I go investigate lunch, which I have heard rumor is being prepared by a group of students from a local Montessori school. Sure enough about eight girls are crammed into the kitchen helping the little weathered lady with dishes.
“Hey there. Who are your little helpers back here?” I ask the lady who is merrily scrubbing a large pot.
“This is a group from the Mountaintop Montessori school. That gentleman can tell you more,” she gestures to a man wearing a funky patterned hat.
He greets me with a smile. He explains that the girls are doing some community outreach work today at the Haven, and that the school incorporates study of sustainable farming and environmentally friendly practices into their curriculum.
“We have a garden where our students grow food including the herbs used in the Fall Herbal Tea we have out there,” he states. Two girls bound over to me, and eagerly explain their tea. I applaud them for their hard work.
I venture out into the dining hall and find the tea. It’s accompanied by a large poster board detailing the ingredients. It contains a wide variety of herbs the students had grown including lemon balm and rose hips. A couple of the guests come over to chat. I explain that the herbs have medicinal benefits, many of which the girls had detailed on the poster. I pour myself a mug of the tea and stir in a spoon of honey. It’s very aromatic and tasty.
The Haven recently got much needed funding from the government to start expanding their Housing-First program, which emphasizes preventing homelessness and rapidly re-housing those who do become homeless. There are specific criteria for eligibility, and candidates must schedule an assessment with the Haven staff prior to consideration for the housing assistance services. Similar programs have been successful in other states like New York and Colorado.
The Haven sees all walks of life. They don’t turn anyone down. The guests there can use the Haven’s address as their home address so they can receive mail, and the Haven phone number too, so they can receive phone calls and messages. There are a variety of factors that cause the Haven’s guests to end up homeless. The two largest trends in the past 20 - 25 years are a “growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty due to multiple factors,” according to Eleis Lester, the Development Coordinator for the Haven.
It’s quite a vicious cycle. One tipped domino in everyday seemingly simple responsibilities can cause a downward spiral that sometimes cannot be reversed, despite that person’s best efforts and good intentions. If you can’t make a living wage you have to choose between having a roof over your head or eating, not to mention the high cost of health care and pre-existing medical conditions and bills for some of the guests. Many have mental illness, including drug and alcohol addiction, or criminal records making securing and keeping a job extremely difficult.
As we’re winding down for the day I help out Larry, the building maintenance guru, with some of the clean-up. A guest expresses his gratitude for my volunteering and time as I wipe down the table he is vacating.
"I'm sure you don't hear that a lot from us, but I'm really glad you're here doing what you do. We need it." What a surprising reward for my work!
As I’m wiping down the ladies’ room bathroom sink three of the girls from Mountaintop Montessori clamber into the one toilet bathroom.
“Hey girls, there’s just one toilet in here, but if you want to wait, I’ll be done wiping the sink and counter in a minute,” I politely explain.
“Hey! That’s okay, we’ll wait, but I thought there would be stalls,” one says.
“Do you work here?” another chimes in.
“Nope. I just volunteer here. I come in for a couple hours a few times a week when I can to help out. They really provide a lot of needed services to these folks, but they can’t really afford to pay everyone that helps. I find that helping here, makes me really happy. It’s nice to just do good for people, like you girls were doing today with the meal you made and your wonderful tea.”
The girls beam up at me. I can see in their faces that they appreciate the compliment and have taken what I’ve said to heart. I think they appreciate that because they see me helping too.
I had no idea the school group would be there today. It’s one of those times where things just line up perfectly for me. These kids just absorb information! They’re very insightful and eager to learn. However, no matter the age, it’s important for us to lead by good example where we can. That in itself is a magnificently brave Small Act.