Our middle school mission trip began at the Kearney Center homeless shelter in Tallahassee, Florida. Before we got off the bus, chaperone Stewart Nobles reading a quote from St. Vincent de Paul. “You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket…It is not enough to give soup and bread. This is what the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor.”
The week was about getting out of our comfort zone and serving others.
Outside the large brick Kearney Center was a rack filled with bikes, some with flat tires, some just a seat chained to the rack or a twisted, tireless frame. A plastic Publix bag holding four dozen eggs hung from handlebars and a man aired the tires of his yellow bike.
Two hours before lunch and men limped slowly to the center along with others in wheelchairs or carrying canes, rolling bags, and back packs. Women sat in shade or on the corner.
“These hands have dug in a lot of gardens and changed a lot of diapers,” said Linda while she was waiting for lunch. She is staying at the shelter because the apartment below hers caught on fire when her neighbor was cooking meth. “I couldn’t live with the fumes. I never felt safe living there anyway. Save your money and hide it from your family if you don’t want to end up in a shelter like me.”
“My old man was a Vietnam veteran and he beat me and hit me in the head,” Linda says. “That may be while I am a little strange. I kept going and have been in situations where I have had to be on my toes. The city is a jungle when you are homeless. You have to let people know when you carry heat or a big stick. I always have to think about my next survival move and word got around not to mess with me.
Kearney Center, built two years ago by a private donor, serves three meals a day. All donated and served by the community. 260-500 men and women stay here, more come in the winter. The men stay on the right side of the center and the women on the left. This is a low barrier shelter and takes in people with mental problems and addictions, but security is tight and they can’t bring drugs or alcohol inside.
Eight caseworkers try to help 400 clients find housing and get back on their feet. Community, disability and medical agencies have offices in the same hall. The center provides computers for GED classes and clothes for interviews. The goal is to get people out of the shelter quickly but it is hard to find affordable housing for people getting $400 a month for disability or $700 a month for veterans. To us, the shelter felt chaotic, but for the homeless, this is their only stability in an unstable world.
On our tour of the shelter, we walked around a man sleeping on a hallway floor. He wore two watches on his left wrist, both had different times.
“Becoming homeless is traumatic and people suffer a lot before they get here,” said Murdina, who gave us the tour. “They lose their homes and jobs, their sense of belonging. Some have dementia and are some are brought by taxi and dropped off at our front door. It is dehumanizing and there are many ethical issues we have to work through. Homelessness is caused by trauma, job loss, health issues and mental health problems. We help them deal with issues instead of punishing them. People fall through the cracks and aren’t lucky in their lives but they deserve someone caring about them.”
Our jobs were folding towels and sheets, working in the kitchen, handing out lunches, and pouring drinks. After lunch our kids sat down at picnic tables and benches and listened to the people they helped feed, even if starting conversations with strangers was not easy for them. There were stories of going to school at Duke or being a business administrator in Columbia for 40 years, then being fired in a massive layoff by the president and coming to the United States for a better life. Teri draws you in with her spiked white hair, big smile and tattoos, and she told stories of her difficult childhood and goth days, encouraging the kids to be themselves.
With her beautiful head wrapped in a black and gray scarf and red and blue glitter polish on her fingernails, Dion radiated peace and calm. She became a grandmother a few weeks ago and stays in the shelter instead of moving in with her daughter’s family because she doesn’t want to be a burden. She says she is at peace anywhere she lives, even here, because God is inside her and we are all created to be his kings and queens.
Most who come to the center aren’t that serene.
“Lose your home or job and you lose your sense of belonging and you no longer feel protected or safe,” said Murdina. “They come here overwhelmed and don’t know where to go or what to do. They find belonging and security again in this shelter and it is hard for them to move on.”
One of the hardest parts of visiting a homeless shelter is seeing what happens when people can’t afford health care, dental care or the medicines they need. Their bodies show how hard poor nutrition and life on the streets can be. There are emotional outbursts and jittery signs of anxiety. Some don’t smile because they have no teeth.
Murdina says they know they become invisible and ignored when they leave the shelter or looked down on because they are homeless.
“The homeless make us uncomfortable by being a glimpse at what could happen if our own life fell apart.”
Kearney Center also has success stories of people who just need a little help getting their life back together. After lunch, Amanda sat in the sun writing a paragraph about stress for her class in early childhood education. She writes that music helps her deal with stress and has taught her to “write down how she feels and all the pain she keeps on the inside.”
Visiting the homeless center was tough. Charity may be a heavy burden, but life is harder for the people with nothing left to carry.