I drive 7 minutes on Monday nights to a homeless shelter to volunteer. Just 7 minutes.
Now, the slubs live in the Wedge, an area in Uptown. We are surrounded by young urban professionals (yuppies), a variety of hipsters, a number of delicious restaurants and bars, and beautiful lakes. Homelessness and poverty have a clever way of disguising themselves in our neighborhood. But it exists. I drive seven minutes and have a concentrated view of how Minneapolis has been affected by homelessness.
This isn’t a post about how privileged I am and how blessed I feel (although I do). This isn’t a post about guilt or feeling bad. Instead, this post is intended for you to think about two topics close to my heart: volunteering and housing. (Also, sorr’ about the length. This is a looong post)
I work at an organization this year whose mission is, “to inspire excellence in the field of volunteerism to impact communities,” especially through the development of volunteer leaders. We truly believe that volunteers have the power to inspire change in their communities and work to foster that in Minnesota. We are especially encouraged by the fact that the Twin Cities Metro is ranked number one in volunteerism for large metro areas and Minnesota is the third most volunteering state.
When we talk about marketing volunteer roles, we always talk about the benefit to our volunteers. What will they be getting out of volunteering with a certain organization. Is it a resume builder? Does it make them feel good? Are they able to utilize certain skills they have? What impact will they have on clients? I believe all of these reasons are great reasons to volunteer. Personally, I have volunteered for all of those reasons. But the number one reason I believe in volunteerism and reason I volunteer is the ability of volunteerism to foster and build community.
Like most people, I tend to only socially interact with people like me, almost exactly like me. Upper-middle class, usually white, college educated, socially liberal, etc. (oh yeah…and mostly women, but that may be because I work in nonprofits…). Volunteering is a great opportunity to get to know people that are part of my community but that I don’t interact with on a daily basis. It makes me feel connected to my community, and thus responsible for my community.
I drive seven minutes to a shelter in my community to volunteer. The shelter serves mostly men, although there is a small women’s wing, with emergency shelter for up to 28 days (90 days if residents choose to meet regularly with a case worker). It provides rooms for 2-4 men or women, a luxury in the world of homeless shelters, where many times shelter is cots or mats, hundreds at a time, on the floor. Like most emergency shelters, it is only open at night (doors open at 6 p.m. and men leave by 7 a.m.). We provide meals and according to the residents we have the best food in town thanks to some wonderful church and community volunteers, as well as activities, from job club to laughter yoga. We also provide toiletries, medical help, and more.
So you might be thinking, what do the men and women do during the day? Actually, many work during the day. Yes, that’s right, many homeless men and women work (Wilder Foundation reported that in 2009, upwards of 20% had a least a part-time job in Minnesota; with the tough economy this number has fallen a bit, down from 40% in 2000). For those who do not have jobs finding a place to go may be more difficult. During the winter if the temperature drops below 0 degrees or there is a major blizzard the shelter will stay open all day. Catholic Charities, down the street, provides day shelter. Many men actually choose to spend the day in the library as well: warmth, free shelter, and something to do. However, none of these options are open on Sundays…
Why homelessness occurs is a complicated question to answer. It disproportionately affects African-Americans (41 percent of homeless people are African-American; 4 percent of Minnesotans are African-American). 26 percent of homeless adults in 2008 had not completed high school. 65 percent have recently left correctional facilities. 55 percent have been diagnosed with a significant mental health problem. 46 percent have a chronic health condition. 33 percent report staying in an abusive relationship because they had no where else to live. In 2009, 40 percent reported job loss as the reason for loss of housing. 19 percent have served in the U.S. Military. But I want to stress the structural aspect of homelessness. Systems, not people, create and perpetuate homelessness. Epidemics are rarely individuals’ problems.
I volunteer because I believe that everyone deserves a home, a roof over their head, a house, shelter, whatever you want to call it. Safe and stable housing is essential to leading a happy, fulfilling, and dignified life. Volunteering reveals the obligation we have to one another (Appiah, anyone?). I feel connected to the wonderful people I work with in the shelter and I want to work to make sure that no one has to suffer the indignity of not having shelter.
And we should feel connected to the homeless, the marginalized, etc., because our decisions affect their livelihood, and theirs, ours. I don’t want to make this political because I believe that fighting poverty should not be a partisan issue. It should be about fostering relationships with people because they need a little extra help right now, and there is no shame in that. Sadly, however, the government must look to making budget cuts, and often these cuts affect social services and organizations that serve low-income people. Not including these homeless men and women in our economy and society means we are missing out on the talents and skills they have to offer. Your vote matters. It costs us (as individuals) more to have uninsured individuals go into the emergency room, than to provide them with health care (read T.R. Reid’s book, The Healing of America). We should want these people to lead lives that include housing, healthcare, education, and jobs because it will make our community better.
I drive seven minutes to commune and connect with people who deserve more than temporary shelter. And above all, they deserve a home and community that welcomes and supports them. Volunteer. We can make that change.
Check out some great places to volunteer that the slubs have connections with (also Give to the Max Day is coming up November 16 and I am sure any of the organizations would also appreciate financial support!) For more general volunteering information visit handsontwincities.org or volunteermatch.org.
MAVA (Special Plug: MAVA is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year! Consider giving 10 dollars to support the amazing work MAVA is doing to keep Minnesota on the cutting edge of volunteerism!)