Fighting Poverty with Passion
Sometimes I forget that my job as a VISTA is to eliminate poverty. When I’m trying to determine all the public elementary schools in voting district A (there are more than you’d think, and not all of them are currently operational), and preparing a curriculum for a group of students who will do anything they can to escape learning more math (up to, and including, actually “escaping” and hiding in other classrooms), poverty isn’t the first thing on my mind. After a long week of trying to put together a grant portfolio using test scores that don’t correlate, (Why is one of our student score reports in a graph and the other more of an itemized receipt? How could I possibly have spent four hours digging through grants and only come up with two applicable options?) I sometimes try to summarize my accomplishments at the end of the week and draw a blank.
A lot of VISTA life is disconnected from the actual results. When doing direct service, it is easy to say, “the service coordinator says X activity helps in Y ways”, but as that coordinator it is much harder to dig through data to determine just what does and doesn’t work. The most difficult part of this is finding needs that we don’t have the capacity to meet. Sometimes students ask for services we don’t offer.
Most of my work is done from the library, coffee shops, or Banneker Elementary, a school located uptown. As a result, I’m really removed from most of the problems my non-profit is trying to prevent. Sure, I get the results when our students fail their tests, but what does that really mean in the long run? I know that a good education is a huge factor in improving the quality of life for these students, but that isn’t something I necessarily see every day. Nor do I see the other side of that coin; I don’t work with school dropouts (although we have a program in development, so stay tuned).
A few weeks ago, a fellow Tulane VISTA, Jack Duffy, asked if I’d be interested in volunteering with a Point In Time count. For those who don’t know me, when I have time in my schedule, I pretty much say yes to volunteering for everything. Don’t believe me? I’d like to direct your attention to the volunteering shirts I’ve received recently (and I’m not even including my Tulane volunteering shirts).
As I am rarely busy between 8pm and 2am on weekday evenings (sleep doesn’t count as being busy, right?), I took a shift. On January 27th, a lovely Monday evening, Jack and I participated in a quick Unity training on collecting data from the homeless population in New Orleans, and then were placed in a team and sent into the city. It turned out to be the best volunteer experience I’ve ever had.
In the interest of leaving Jack something to say (this was his idea, after all), I’m going to keep my summary brief, but here are a couple things I learned:
1. Never give a homeless person a tent.
I know this seems weird, after all, isn’t some shelter better than nothing? But the fact is, the more belongings a person has, and the more rooted they are to the way they are living, and the less likely they are to accept help or seek help with a shelter or other support services. The people living in tents are far less likely to be sheltered in a building than those just sleeping by themselves on the street.
2. I judge too much.
The tricky part of the evening was that our jobs were to wake people up at one in the morning and ask incredibly personal questions. How would you feel if I woke you up in the middle of a very cold night and asked if you were HIV positive? How would you feel if you had to do the waking and question asking? It’s hard to imagine doing that with people I know, not to mention random strangers on the street. But the fact is, everyone was really, really nice, and, for the most part, very honest. Over the course of the night we documented alcohol addiction, chronic homelessness, drug abuse, and serious, stigmatized health problems. One man I interviewed was sleeping in a group with two young women. He told me without hesitation that he was HIV positive, had been called “mentally slow”, and has been struggling with homelessness for the past two years. Despite his display of openness, when I asked him about the women he was sleeping next to, he told me he didn’t know their names, or ages. All he knew was that they were a couple, and he could protect them -to some extent- from anyone who might take offense to that fact. They had been staying with him for several nights, but that relationship didn’t involve needing to know each other by name.
To reach that point, the homeless have really fallen through cracks in society. As a result, what I’d consider normal has nothing to do with the way things actually work among this population. In the end, I mostly felt guilty for not working on homelessness enough. Honestly, I felt bad because everyone was just so nice. Even people who didn’t want to participate in the survey politely said “no thank you”, before rolling over and going back to sleep. I wasn’t prepared for that to be the norm.
My goal as a VISTA is to set up programs and tools to prevent the people we serve from ever becoming the people I saw that night, and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to see what it is exactly I’m working to prevent.
I’m not going to say, “go out and talk to a homeless person”, but I will encourage you to volunteer at a shelter, food bank, or soup kitchen. Go interact with people in places and situations you haven’t experienced, and try to understand the situation. Step one is knowing and acknowledging there is a problem. Step two is learning about it and understanding it. Step three is working to fix it. Don’t skip step two.
Kedila Family Learning Services