By Kat D. ’18
Imagine a bitter cold night in the middle of winter. You have just worked all day, and now as you wrap your coats and blankets tighter around you, you begin your trek slogging through the miles back to your house. Except you do not have a warm house, and you spend most nights walking along the streets even when it is freezing cold out. This is where the homeless shelter comes in to help, pledging to give women and children a safe, comforting place to stay.
The homeless shelter I volunteered at was housed at the YWCA of Lancaster. The program started the week after Thanksgiving, runs until March and each week different organizations took turns hosting those in need. The homeless shelter was strictly for women and children, providing a safe place as well as a warm place for its visitors. Volunteers welcome the women in at 7:30 p.m. and everyone leaves by 7 a.m. When the women arrived, volunteers checked their vouchers, their clothing and their bags. The women had to go to the police station to get their vouchers beforehand, which stated that they were eligible for the shelter and that they posed no harm to themselves or others. They each get their own envelope upon registration, which holds any necessary medications and documents. After they registered, they were escorted to the basement. The basement holds a gym where they sleep, a locker room with showers and a small lobby. When volunteers came to help set up, they placed thin mattresses out along the gym floor where the women slept. Volunteers also put out food and drinks in the lobby, along with towels and clothing, if needed. At 10 p.m., the women were ushered to the gym, and everything had begun to settle down. If they returned for more than one night, a corner of the gym was set aside for their bags and personal items. Many of these items included toiletries, a change of clothes and a book or phone. The shelter was very organized, and the women and children appeared to appreciate what was done for them.
My role in this carefully orchestrated system was to lead the ladies to the basement using the elevator. I had been hesitant at first, because I wasn’t sure how cautious I needed to be with these strangers. But it turned out to be a very simple job, and it helped that most of the women had been there before, so they knew what they were supposed to do. This gave me the chance to interact and meet all of the people who were staying the night.
My first interesting encounter was in the elevator with an older woman. To break the silence I complimented her scarf, which had a slightly tattered look to it. I realized my mistake too late, because she then returned the compliment to my new scarf and her eyes held a look of nostalgia and sadness. I had felt guilty afterwards, but it made me realize that this imbalance was reality and someone was always going to have more or less than somebody else. The women’s consistent kindness surprised me, for I expected to be frightened by some of their manners or appearances. They casually chatted with me and almost everyone thanked me and wished me a good night. There had been one lady that I was wary of, for she had two carts of her things and wouldn’t look at or speak to anyone. Yet the woman who came in after her explained that the other lady was scared of people touching her things and that she had been homeless for so long that she didn’t trust anybody. I couldn’t help but wonder what choices and what events led them to staying in a shelter.
I had been happy to see that there were three sets of mothers and daughters together. Despite their current troubles, they had still managed to stick together, which was intriguing considering they might have lost everything else except for each other. One of the mother-daughter pairs had a daughter who was pregnant with her fourth child. Optimism and pride radiated off of her and her attitude about her current life held no aura of grief. Whatever position her other three children were in, it seemed like she knew of a future ahead of her and her unborn child — and that was my biggest recognition of the night. That even though these women might be alone, without a stable place right now, they believed in a brighter future.
I was also happy to see some of the women interacting with each other, because in their time of need they still managed to have friends and care for others. The night changed my perspective immensely, because there were at least 24 women without a home right around where I lived. I wish I could have assured them that maybe next year they wouldn’t need a shelter, and that they would have help to get back on their feet. But the best I could do was offer my aid for one night, hoping and praying that my efforts joined with those of others would be enough to turn their lives back around.
In the coming years, I plan on volunteering again, because I really enjoyed helping others in my community. My youth was helpful because I could stay up later and have a more flexible schedule. I had found that the elderly women appreciated being around a younger generation, possibly because they saw opportunity in us, or hope. I felt as though when they looked at me, they saw pieces of themselves from a happier time. I wanted to reach out to them, and listen to their stories, but it wasn’t the right time. For these women that might not have many chances to share things with others, I hope that soon there will be a person willing to listen and pass their stories along. Since maybe the only thing that they can give to others is words.
My experience volunteering there has given me a number of goals. I plan on volunteering more frequently in December 2014, and knowing that this year socks and pajamas ran out, I plan on informing others on what the homeless shelter does so that more supplies can be distributed. I think that education is the first step in helping others, because people need to be aware of what is happening around them. I believe that there is always a hope for the future and that the only way for this dream to become a reality is to get others to understand the situations these women live through, and want to help. Help should be delivered to anybody, and shouldn’t stop until everyone has what they need.