This Thanksgiving was probably unlike yours – calm and quiet with almost zero hustle and bustle in the kitchen. I spent the day making Thumbprint cookies with raspberry/cloudberry jam centers for men at The Sleeping Room (the local men’s shelter in Muncie, IN), before serving them dinner. The menu: from-the-box stuffing, from-the-can green beans, 2 cans cranberry sauce, a dismantled homemade turkey, Sara Lee pumpkin pie, and cookies (my only genuine contribution). When we arrived Betty, the mom in a mother-daughter 2-person team of shelter managers, was sorting through the day’s food donations from Feed My Sheep. What seemed like a bounty to Betty left us confused. Opening the bags we found the offal of pantry discards: 4 jello snack packs. A can of black beans. A package of expired cheesy rice. A can of kidney beans. A can of tuna. A jar of toffee-flavored coffee sweetener. How do you make breakfast and dinner for 10 men every day with these pantry remnants? “We are so blessed,” said Betty. Thankfully the holiday cheer drives a flood of donations, while the rest of the year the shelves dry up.
The hour spent there was quick but meaningful. We returned to spend the evening enjoying the warm weather by our backyard campfire deep in thought over the experiences of our country’s homeless. What is it like to survive on the streets? How does involuntary urban camping change your daily habits: when/where to go to the bathroom, what counts as entertainment or dead weight, and what types of behaviors (like sitting on a curb or carrying a book bag) while completely normal for many attract unwanted suspicion and attention? How long can you survive being homeless?
Most of all, it made us think how completely insufficient this tiny studio apartment-turned shelter for 10 men was to quell the needs of the local homeless. Elizabeth, a Chicago-area women who recently Airbnb-ed our spare room for a night, told us about her work advocating for Chicago’s homeless population of 140,000. An estimated 14,000-15,000 men, women, and children each day sleep on the streets of Chicago, yet the city provides only 140 beds for the homeless. With the high price of real estate in the city, and more and more middle- and upper-middle class professionals paying high rents to gentrify previously poor neighborhoods, there’s no economic incentive to convert Chicago property into shelters.
Homelessness should not be balanced on the backs of people like Betty and Elizabeth alone. How is homeless everyone’s problem? And how can the solution be the result of everyone’s work? So grab a cookie and let’s discuss.