One hot summer day, after swimming lessons and before an afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, we went to our homeless shelter. The parking lot was packed.
I was wearing a short black dress, had my makeup, nails, and hair done. My kids were in clean clothes with hair still wet from the pool. We parked our shiny new minivan, looked around, and pulled out 7 suitcases.
I strapped the hanging bags on my shoulders and carried two smaller ones, the big kids pushed two giant rollies, Greta dragged a bag. We lugged them across the soft asphalt and got in line at the front door. I took a deep breath in the hot sun. I whispered to the kids, “Be kind. Be polite. Do not touch each other or fight. Smile at everyone.” They looked around, a little scared.
An old guy with a dirty shirt and beard blocked the doorway with his big belly. Two little girls with black pigtails and turquoise shorts giggled under a tree. Lots of tall skinny guys in undershirts filled the entry, talking smack. A short Italian looking woman with dark wavy hair turned around and stood on tip toes to scan the crowd. She saw me. She looked me in the eyes. I stopped breathing.
She walked sideways through the crowd toward us, and smacked the guy who blocked the door. He moved. She looked at my face, then at my kids, then at the luggage. She looked back into my eyes.
Her: [broad smile] “Oh! Hi there! Welcome! We’ll make space for you right here. Right here. That’s great. I always make a point to be extra nice to the Newbies. Welcome. They’ll help you here.”
Me: [internal panic] “Oh thank you. Good morning to you, too! Hi! Um, we’ve got a lot of suitcases here to–“
Her: [cutting me off] “You sure do! Don’t worry about it. They’ll help you here.”
She reached for a hanging bag.
Me: [whisper] “Actually, these are empty…we were hoping…to share them here…?”
Her: [looks at the bag, goes quiet] “Oh, so, you’re a donater?”
Me: [nod, shrug, weak smile] “yeah…”
She looked outside and talked about the weather. I asked if the little girls were hers. She said they were on their way to summer day camp. We tried to rally.
Soon the front desk opened and the shelter employee waved for me to come right up. We cut in front of all those waiting people and were quickly ushered into the common room. Moms in tank tops chatted at lunch tables, babies shook toys on their laps. Some folded laundry. Some sat quiet by themselves.
The employee was so thankful for the luggage. She told me to follow her to the back storage room. But the young moms rushed over. One saw the huge black suitcase and said, “Oh my, are you giving those? My suitcase broke a couple days ago and I haven’t found one in a thrift store. Oh, thank you thank you! You have no idea.” We all kind of smiled and side hugged.
The employee looked at me and said, “No need for the storage room.” All 7 suitcases disappeared.
Normally I would ask for an in-kind donation receipt on our way out, to give to our tax guy, but the woman who welcomed us was still in the entry. I could not imagine asking for credit for suitcases we didn’t even want with her watching.
The sun was really bright and the parking lot was still full. We noticed there were lots of minivans. Dented Honda Odysseys with leather seats and dvd players. Through the tinted glass we could see they were full. Toys, blankets, pillows, boxes of files, dog bed, shoes, box fan.
We got in the car. I turned the key and let the air conditioning blow on my neck. The kids were still quiet and wide eyed. I turned around and said, “That was hard, guys. That was harder than I expected.”
From the back row Caleb asked, “Are they, like, living in these cars, mom?” I nodded. Greta asked, “People really come here to take a shower and do laundry?” I nodded. Zoë said, “This is all so weird. It’s so weird to understand that some people really don’t have anywhere to live.” I nodded.
I tried to say more, something meaningful. But instead I faced the steering wheel, put my face in my hands, and cried.
In 2014 we chose Homelessness as our Family Compassion Focus. Chris and I served the homeless in our city days, but our kids had really only seen the 3 known homeless men who shuffled around our small town, talking to people exiting Starbucks and the Popcorn Shop.
Things didn’t go quite as we expected. I pictured sandwich making, handing out granola bars, and maybe a holiday service project. Instead we collected underpants for homeless kids, did a school supply drive, ran a 5k, hosted a Christmas Craft Sale, and had a housewarming party for a former homeless family. We really didn’t do any of those things well, but we tried.
- The woman who generously greeted me assumed I was homeless, too. I looked like her. She had a nice car, her kids did camp and school, she had on makeup. But they lost their house. What happened? How many steps am I away from homelessness? When you picture a homeless person, who do you see?
- I was deeply moved by her kindness. I was deeply moved by her shame when I became a “donater.” I could tell she was a influencer, a welcomer. She was powerful and encouraging. I was just trying to do a good thing on the down low. I did just want to donate, and not make a friend. She seemed to know that. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. I felt like I betrayed her. I felt misunderstood. What could I have done differently?
- Compassion means “suffering with.” My kids didn’t understand homelessness until they saw those loaded up minivans. They didn’t think people really lived in their cars. I think they pictured themselves in those vans. It pained them. Do you let your kids see hard things?
*All these amazing images are from Lisa Condon’s site http://collectionaday2010.blogspot.com.
©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2016.