Volunteering to help the homeless changed how I view them — and my own comfort

Mike was late that evening. The Project Warm volunteers had arrived and set out some food. The men had gathered. I delivered a short devotion. The food was served. The men ate. Some chatted. Some watched television. Some sat alone quietly, waiting for the smoke break to be called. Mike missed all of that.

I moved to the front of the old Hope Rescue Mission on Michigan Street in downtown South Bend where bedding had been positioned on the worn wooden floor. Some men were already down for the night, too tired and cold to worry about a snack. The men slept fully dressed. Likely, they were too cold to remove the clothing that had feebly tried to keep them warm on the street all day.

Mike entered the front door. I greeted him. I had never met him before. I invited him to the back room for some food and drink. He seemed upset. Had he missed the devotion, he asked. Yes, I told him. Would I repeat the devotion for him? Of course. I had the copy of “Our Daily Bread” that I had used for the group earlier. We sat on a raised portion of the front room together and I read. I don’t remember what the devotion was. After I was done reading, Mike still wasn’t ready to go to the back room to eat. He wanted to talk. He was agitated. 

Mike told me he was an alcoholic. His family had attempted to help him numerous times. They had provided him housing and access to treatment. He had resisted help, “burned bridges” as he put it, and now his family had washed their hands of him. They no longer welcomed him in their homes. 

Then Mike revealed why he was upset. Before he came to Hope that evening, he had sold his bicycle. It was his only means of transportation. And then he confessed that after spending the night at the winter overnight warming shelter, he was going to take the money from the sale of his bike and purchase alcohol with it. He stated this matter of factly, but his words were tinged with sadness and regret. He felt powerless to change the course of his life. Although I volunteered at the warming center many times after meeting Mike that night, I never saw him again.

On another night at Project Warm, this time in the old Kraz Construction building on Monroe Street, I met a man I’ll call Steve who regaled me with detailed stories about his life. He had been a chef at a country club down south. He had bought and sold antiques online. He had battled with his adult son who was not doing very well raising his grandkids. By the time Steve wound down, the rest of the volunteers I had come with had left. 

Steve started complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. The shelter staff discussed calling an ambulance. I volunteered to take Steve to the Memorial Hospital emergency room. What Steve experienced that night at the hospital was eye opening to me. I have taken family members to the emergency room on several occasions and am familiar with the long wait times. But when a physician finally did examine Steve, he was dismissive and uninterested. I had to wonder if part of this posture was due to the fact that the doctor knew Steve was homeless and could not pay for his medical care. After hours at Memorial, Steve was dismissed and I drove him back to the warming shelter where he spent the rest of the night on a mat on the floor. I never saw Steve again.

Project WARM was started more than ten years ago by a Memorial Hospital employee with the help of several local church congregations. The purpose of the organization was to prevent homeless people from freezing to death on the streets during the winter months. Project WARM was housed in different locations in and around downtown during its existence. It offered overnight shelter and food to the unhoused community. It was originally open only to men, but eventually changed to allow women and even a few children. 

 In the time it operated, no homeless people died on the streets of South Bend. The City of South Bend, partnering with Hope Rescue Mission, has assumed the role of housing the unhoused during the winter, currently in the former Salvation Army store on Main Street.

People who know me and know that I have volunteered to help the homeless in the South Bend community comment to me how many unhoused people are on the streets every day. There are many and there are many reasons that they are there, including addictions, mental health problems, affordable housing shortages, evictions, physical health problems, divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment, foreclosure and independent streaks that make them not want to follow rules. The majority of the homeless are men. Some are veterans. In 2020, it was estimated that there were 580,000 people living on the streets of the United States.

When the St. Joseph County Public Library closed for two-plus years for renovations in 2019, it left the homeless in a predicament. The library is an important resource to this community. It has books, newspapers, cozy furniture, bathrooms, and warm places to shelter during the day. Little thought was given to what the closure would do to South Bend’s unhoused. The City Council eventually provided bus passes as a stop-gap, but the failure to have an alternate plan for the homeless was an example of how they are often discounted and overlooked.

Coronavirus took away the opportunity for volunteers like me to interact with unhoused. I still see some of the same people hanging around downtown. My time being around them has made them more than just homeless people. I have listened to their stories and broken bread with them. They are not always friendly or pleasant to be around. They are very resourceful, though. Living on the streets isn’t easy.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote: “A home shelters daydreaming, a home protects the dreamer, a home allows us to dream in peace.”

After an evening volunteering at the warming center, I would come home and give special thanks for the roof over my head, the heat from the furnace and the comfort of my bed. I hope none of us takes those things for granted. And when we see the unhoused, may we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and do everything in our power to alleviate the scourge of homelessness in our communities.