What serving food at a homeless shelter taught me

Last Friday, my friend, David, invited me to come with him to drop off leftovers from our 30-person dim sum dinner at a homeless shelter. That was my first time going to a homeless shelter. David has been volunteering there on Friday nights for 3 years.

I was intimidated to work so closely with homeless people. 

I had a lot of assumptions about homeless people and many questions. If I could get through college on loans why can’t they? If I can sell my time in exchange for money, why can’t they? Why should I give the money I worked for to someone who refuses to work and already taxes the system working Americans pay for? I assumed these people had some kind of enormous character flaw that caused them to become homeless.

I wasn’t sure if they would: be aggressive or rowdy towards me, say something to me about my clothes or make assumptions about who I am. Maybe one of them was one of the Philadelphia homeless people that I walk by and don’t give money to and would recognize me. 

None of those not-sures happened.

The shelter entrance had several homeless folks sitting, waiting for the shelter to open. They were talking amongst themselves. There were two homeless men hugging. David knocked on the door and we waited for the staff to let us in.

Once inside the church, we came through a yellowish green hallway to a lobby area and finally to a large, bright, empty atrium where tables were set up cafeteria style in front of the stage area. The inside of the church was very plain. The desks, decor, chairs and tables were not matching or in perfect condition, but nothing was broken without repair. The church had no smell.

Walking further through the atrium, there was a carpeted, dimly-lit corridor leading to rooms on both sides, mainly leading to a clean, industrial-size kitchen. In the kitchen, David and I microwaved 10 large styrofoam take-out boxes worth of Chinese food. We worked on splitting up the variety of saucy vegetable dishes, sweet fried fish, General Tso’s chicken, rice, and pseudo-bird’s nest foods into bowls.

We were preparing food for 20 minutes before the homeless people were allowed in. Once they came inside, most of them found seats at the tables spread throughout the atrium. Some had their blankets and belongings with them and found nice patches on the floor to rest. I saw a woman giving herself a pedicure in a small tub. In the corridor leading to the kitchen, a man staked a two-person cafe table along the wall and was reading a newspaper under a personal desk light.

David took out the first tray of Chinese food and I watched him work the room. I followed his lead with several trays. I made my rounds through the atrium. I was intimidated. I was scared of how to react if one of the homeless people said something aggressive to me. I was scared that I would stare or make them feel uncomfortable by being different from them; having work, having clothes I chose, having a home.

But none of the scenarios between those fears materialized into reality either.

As I was walking with the trays, there were fewer homeless people who approached me than me approaching them offering what I was carrying. I was surprised by this. There was a very real sense of dignity in the room, like, “While, I am in a position of powerlessness, I am not without dignity.”

My favorite was making rounds to serve two trays of coconut jello. The jello was the dessert at the Chinese dinner. The coconut flavor was very subtle and tasty, but not too popular with the dinner guests.

It was rewarding for me to offer a treat they infrequently ate. I could see the intrigue evolve on each person’s eyes and face. From squinty eyes to raised eyebrows to a relaxed face of alright, I’ll give this coconut jello a shot. Many of them ended up really liking it.

The Chinese food meal was uncommon to the homeless people. They don’t often get to choose what they eat. If David and I did not bring the Chinese food, they would only be served bean soup and coffee or tea. It was very special to share food with the homeless that they don’t often get to eat. Especially because I love different food so much.

My second favorite experience was being told by a homeless woman to cheer up. After all of the food was served, David and I were hanging out in the atrium with the shelter employees. Mostly just standing. I was really cautious not to stare at anyone as usually people don’t like being stared at and I assumed that went double for homeless people. So instead of looking around, I was looking mostly down.

So then a woman who was there with her husband walks up to me and starts talking to me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying at first, but then I asked to repeat and understood her. I couldn’t believe she was telling me not to look so glum being there. A homeless woman telling me not look so glum! I think I was more upset for the people and the realizations I was having than the people who were in the situation!

Volunteering at the homeless shelter was rewarding. It made me realize how many small freedoms I take for granted. Small, awesome things like:

  • Washing and using my own dishes and utensils
  • The ability to make choices about the food I eat and where I get it
  • Having a place I know I can go to be home
  • Having parents who would always offer me a second home to come back to

Volunteering at the homeless shelter also challenged the choices I make about food. I spend so much money eating at restaurants to feed my foodie habit. I dually spend as much money on food from supermarkets, sometimes not finishing all of the food I buy, and throwing it away. 

Reflecting on my Friday night two days later, I realized how much I enjoyed the experience. Walking in, I felt a very clear delineation between being non-homeless versus them, the homeless people. I don’t know why I felt that way. The interactions I had surprised me. They spoke well and had manners. One woman cared enough to ask me my name. 

While after volunteering one time I still don’t have answers to my questions, and while I am still convinced their situations are changeable, I am certain that for people who’ve had bad luck but are otherwise capable, homelessness can be a choice. Something like a checkbox that one would select about themselves rather than a deeply rooted, unchangeable personality flaw. Today I like blue jeans, black coffee and have a career in service. Three years from now, slacks, tea and teaching.

Having this experience reminded me to be aware of the little things. If you’ve ever been inclined to volunteer, figure out a way to realize what you take for granted, and donating some of your resources (food and time), helping out at a homeless shelter is worth your time.