I have a personal confession. It’s blunt, maybe a little rude and totally unjustified. I’ve always been a little terrified of homeless people. I’ve played into the stigma that they are dangerous, irrational, dealing with mental or addiction issues and that I’m better off just avoiding them altogether. Living in Arlington, Virginia – one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country- hasn’t done a whole lot to change my opinion. But, I know better…and deep down I know I have something to give.
I have a deep desire to stretch myself beyond my fears. To give back to the homeless community. To do more than give some spare change now and then to someone on the street.
Last week, I was presented an opportunity to see behind the curtain and participate in supporting the efforts to end homelessness in my community.
ASPAN, or the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, is a non-profit organization located in my neighborhood. I walk past one of their shelter locations daily. I’ve thought about, and wished to, and had anxiety over dedicating some of my time there. I’d come up with every excuse in the book. But I mainly blamed it on safety. What if someone follows me home? What if I start to see their clients on the street and they remember me? And I justified those fears as a single female, living alone, as too dangerous, too risky.
On Saturday, I had a very innocuous introduction to the ASPAN operation. I spent just 90 minutes there, with a group from my leadership program, helping them get ready to open for the shelter season. This location in Arlington has space for about 70 people to find shelter overnight from November 1 to March 31. They provide 2 meals, a place to sleep, books to read, people to talk to and even some laundry service for their personal effects.
In the 90 minutes I was there, I helped organize materials for a communication campaign about the shelter and also organize donated clothes that clients could pick from when they come in to the shelter. It wasn’t much. But it was something.
The shelter ended up opening a few days ahead of schedule due to weather conditions from Hurricane Sandy. I’m glad we were there before the storm to help get some of the very last few details in order. Having this brief introduction to the group and a tour of the facilities tore down some of the barriers I’d created.
I truly believe no one should ever have to endure sleeping on a street or a park bench. For years, I have known how strongly I feel about the issue, but ignored it, because it was easier, “safer”. But this year will be the one where I dedicate some of my time and effort to supporting those that face this hardship and do what I can to help end homelessness in my community.
I hope you can find a cause you feel deeply about and find some time to dedicate your efforts over the holiday season, and every season.