Several times each year my church hosts homeless families, as part of The Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). I volunteer for the after dinner time slot, when children need help with school work, or tired mothers need someone to hold a baby. We open up the youth group room where there are games and a pool table, some donated sofas, a ridiculously large and unreliable TV. I usually take out a few craft and drawing supplies, glitter and glue, stickers, adding, "be as messy as you want."
In nice weather, we can walk to a nearby playground or across the street to the town library. All generally goes smoothly, after initial awkwardness and sometimes shame, the volunteers and those down on their luck meet halfway, finding some common ground. That often happens over a plate of brownies or picking up a baby's fallen sock, something simple. Judging falls away, as it should. People make snap judgments or erroneous assumptions all the time, whether it be about skin color, how you're dressed, or which side of the homeless fence you're on.
For privacy reasons, volunteers are not privy to back stories, unlike when I worked in special education and had to read every student's case file, from birth to current IEP status. There have been rare occasions where information was supplied for the good of the IHN "client", to alert us to potential danger and/or possible sensitivities. This information included known allergies, especially to foods, health conditions in pregnant females, health conditions in general, as well as past psychological problems and history of physical or sexual abuse. Not everyone agreed on how to deal with this information.
Since the basic objective is to supply food and safe haven at night, the harder work of parenting classes, therapy, education, and job skills is done by professionals during the day. The goal is to keep families together, if possible, and help people get back on their feet.
One woman stands out in my mind because she and her son cycled through several times. She barely spoke, except to rebuke her son. She didn't get along with anyone and often disappeared to her room, leaving her 8 year old with us. That was technically against the rules, but it made everyone else more comfortable, especially the boy. So we took turns helping him with his homework or reading books. He didn't understand games, cried easily, alternating with temper tantrums. His name ironically was Immanuel (God with us).
When we discovered his mother was hiding a pregnancy, I was horrified at some responses from other church volunteers. "All homeless women should be sterilized" was just one example. The real horror, though, came after discussing the woman's background with the person in charge. The mother, who didn't help her son do his second grade homework, wasn't "lazy" as was whispered by both her fellow homeless companions and some volunteers. She had never learned to read or write. She had been rescued from Sierra Leone, only to be raped by her rescuers, resulting in the birth of her son. The second pregnancy was also a result of rape, this time by an "employer."
She had no living family members, no education, no frame of reference for safety.The clinic gave us a rather wide window for her due date. They also had no details on the birth of her son, except that it was a C-section. Nor did they know her age. She didn't even know her own age. So this one night when she refused dinner and complained of back pain, I was relieved to be on duty with a nurse, albeit a nurse who worked at the local Veterans hospital in the pysch ward, but someone who could be counted on. By eight pm, most of the families were in their rooms, winding down, since the county bus picked them up at 5:30am sharp.
I went to check on the woman and she wanted water. I asked if she was feeling contractions and she shrugged, saying her back hurt still. Having had back labor with all of my children, I asked if it would help for me to rub her back. She answered yes without hesitation. I sat at the edge of the cot, careful not to touch her anywhere else, and rubbed her back. She cried so softly I almost didn't hear it, then she took my hand in hers, placing it on her belly. Right away I could feel the contractions, strong and close. My brain went into dealing-with-crisis mode, "I think we need to get you to the hospital."
She didn't want me to leave her, but I had to get the nurse to call the ambulance and contact the IHN co-ordinator, as per protocol. I explained, prying her fingers from mine, I would be back in two minutes, then would stay with her until the ambulance arrived. I asked if she had picked out a name and if not, to breathe deeply when the contractions came and think of names. That somehow calmed her, and I rushed off to get help, also arranging for her son to sleep in another room. We waited thirty minutes together, and she asked if I had ever felt "too alone". "Yes," I replied," but probably after tonight, you will not feel that way for some time."
I heard later in the week, she had been kept in the hospital and had a baby girl, who at the next cycle, I got to hold. With permission of the mother, who did not want to be photographed herself, I took one photo of Hope Grace. They had qualified for group housing, which the mother told me frightened her, so when finding the following poem, I thought of her, hoping somehow she learns to feel safe someday.
May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortunes never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rain go by.
Strengthened by faith, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm;
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep us warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching our lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.
Laughter shall drown the raucous shout;
And, though the sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out,
And hold love in.
Louis Untermeyer "Prayer for this house"
published 1923 in This Singing World, as a poem
which has been transformed into a hymn
"May Nothing Evil Cross This Door"