Last Friday, I didn’t have class until 2PM, but I found myself up at 7AM, bleary-eyed and groggy, dragging myself over to the North Aztlan Community Center. To be clear: I am a college student. I like my sleep. So why was I passing up a chance for an extra six hours sleep? I was volunteering at Project Homeless Connect.
Project Homeless Connect is an annual event put on in partnership between the SLiCE office, United Way of Larimer County, Homeward 20/20, and many other community organizations. The goal of Project Homeless Connect is to make important resources available to the local Fort Collins homeless population, easily and without bureaucratic red tape. Volunteers are matched up one-on-one with clients, and volunteers are responsible for guiding their partner around the event, connecting them to services and educating them on resources.
While that is helpful work, and I did plenty of it last Friday, the services rendered aren’t what I remember. The clients I helped to get their hair cut for the first time in weeks, ate a hot meal with, and get employment assistance will hopefully remember the services, but I will remember them. I remember the people I met, and the connections I forged, not on a service level, but on a personal level. I found myself thinking about these people all weekend. I find myself thinking about these people, here, today.
During the five hours I spent at Project Homeless Connect, I was paired with only two clients, which meant I had a lot of time to get to know both of them. My first client-for anonymity let’s call him Tyler-was one of the very first people in line, waiting for the doors to open at eight o’clock. Tyler told me that the shelter where he was staying turned people out at 6:15 AM, and he didn’t really have anywhere better to go than straight to the PHC line. On the exit survey, his suggestion to improve the event was to “start earlier.”
Tyler’s a recovering alcoholic. Tyler’s homeless, living out of a shelter. Tyler’s also a rabid fan of one of my favorite sports teams, the Colorado Avalanche, and we were able to spend a good thirty minutes talking over coaching decisions, our experiences going to games, and the relative ups and downs of the team’s current defense. None of my friends like hockey– I never really get the chance to discuss it with anyone outside of the internet. Just getting the chance to see that interest, have the discussion, made me look at Tyler in a different way.
The day after Project Homeless Connect, sitting in the lower level of the Pepsi Center, watching the Avalanche achieve a rare, last-second victory over the Vancouver Canucks, I thought about Tyler. I wondered if he was watching the game somewhere– maybe sitting forlornly in a sports bar, sipping on a water. I thought about how, but for a few factors beyond our control, it could be him in the Pepsi Center, me, who knows where.
After Tyler had gotten all the assistance he needed, he went back to the shelter to grab his bike and bring it in for a tune-up, a service he hadn’t been aware we would offer. I would see him later in the day, hanging around with a happy smile, boxing with someone else’s kid. I suspect he was just happy for something to do.
I went back in line and waited for another client who might need my help. In front of me in the volunteer queue was a woman, Amy, who had lived with on my floor in the dorms. This used to be a woman I would see every day. “You’re so different from that little nerd freshman year,” she says, as we get to talking. I laugh, a little. She inquires about my love life, I about hers, and we catch up a bit while we ponder the different paths life has taken us down.
Even within the constriction of university life, sharing a common starting point, Amy and I have diverged wildly from each other. The plurality of experience offered at a four-year college is something it’s easy to forget about, as focused in on our own lives as college students can often get. This is what I’m thinking about when a volunteer coordinator pulls the two of us out of the line, and over to a group of three “vaguely unrelated” people, whose current volunteers must to return to campus for class.
Here I meet Michael. I can immediately tell something is slightly off with him, from the way he talks and how his eyes move. This doesn’t bother me; after all, according to national statistics, about a third of homeless people have some sort of mental illness. We had been prepared for the possibility at volunteer training. And Michael, whatever his issue is, seems like a nice guy. He’s cogent, congenial, and although he has a little difficulty remembering what services he’s here for, he’s happy to chat with me and walk around.
I split off with Michael, while Amy takes his two companions in search of different services. Michael mostly is interested in bikes: he tells me that he loves mountain biking, and he once did “a thousand flips” while on a bike. I nod along, smiling. Michael’s new to town, looking for a place to live, but having difficulty finding cheap rent. I take him to the rent assistance table, and the housing search people. We go to see if we can get him a Colorado ID to replace his old out-of-state one.
As we’re walking around outside, enjoying a bit of sunshine and fresh air, out of the blue, Michael says: “I hear suicide voices.” Ah, so you’re a schizophrenic, I ask him. He nods assent. “As long as I take my pills, I don’t hear the suicide voices though,” he says, as if to comfort me. “I took my pills today. I take 20 different pill.”
Now I’m very intrigued. I’ve got an aunt who is schizophrenic, takes her pills every day, and you can’t hardly carry on a conversation with her at all. Despite occasional trouble understanding Michael due to his speech impediment, our conversation hasn’t flagged since I met him. In fact, he’s a downright chatterbox, more than happy to fill me in about his life, his struggles, or ask insightful questions about Fort Collins, a town to which he is still adjusting.
Again, I come back to thinking about how entirely different people can be, despite their similarities. Two people, my aunt and Michael. Same disease. Both in treatment. Michael here, homeless, my aunt off in New York, living under the roof of my aging grandmother, who never really stopped being a mother to her ill child. Michael, able to converse and think and say: “I want a picture of myself,” and walk right over to the photo booth and set up an appointment. My aunt, who gave me a three-sizes-too-large blue Old Navy thermal with a massive toothpaste stain on it the last time I saw her. I’ve kept the thing folded up in a drawer ever since I got it, for little discernible reason.
Homeless. College students. Employed. Unemployed. On the streets. In an apartment. Old. Young. Male. Female. There are so many binaries and divisions in the way we tend to think of people. It’s easy to see why we divide things this way: it makes them categorizable, it makes them understandable, and it allows us to study them. The academic model. But the true value in Project Homeless Connect, at least for me, was in the way it perfectly demonstrates how all of those binaries are nothing but obstacles. Those categorizations and social classifications are very misleading constructs that actually prevent us from being compassionate and understanding one of the universal truths:
That people are all a million different variations on the same story. Maybe your life turned in a few fortunate ways, maybe Tyler’s went in the wrong direction for a little bit. But no matter how different two people may seem, no matter how much you may insist that you are different, or better,
It never hurts to give thanks for what you’ve got.
And it never hurts to help.