Layers of Awareness

February 16, 2016

Last month, our community completed the annual Point in Time Count Survey. Over 150 volunteers spread out across the community to conduct a survey with people who spent the night outside. Tricia Sistrunk was one of those volunteers. This was her second year volunteering. She also serves as a regular volunteer with the outreach team.

On the morning of the survey, I took my dog out around 5:00 a.m. before heading Uptown to meet up with the other volunteers in my group. It was a cold morning and I could feel the chill, even through all of the layers I had put on in preparation for my morning out. My dog ran around the frost tipped grass seemingly oblivious to the cold, while I stood there hurrying him along so I could go back inside my warm house. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to trouncing around in the cold in search of homeless camps.

It was still dark when I met up with my group and we drove off to our first campsite. We parked in an empty parking lot and trekked off into the woods, my feet slipping on the muddy ground still drenched from the melt of the prior week’s snow and ice storm. Eventually, our flashlights stumbled upon a camp marked by tents, and trash, and silence. We called out and announced our presence to the neighbors. Slowly they opened their small tent doors and we asked if they would mind taking our survey. They kindly agreed.

The gentleman I interviewed got out of his tent and we stood around the burnt out ashes from the previous night’s fire. I shivered as I tried to hold my flashlight and clipboard in one hand and my pen in the other. I went through the survey pretty quickly. In all honesty, I wanted to get back to the warmth of my car.  I asked the gentleman if he rode out the snowstorm in his tent last week. “Oh ya. I was here. That’s when I burned my boots,” he said.

I shined my flashlight down on his worn out work boots, now with small, charred openings at the tips–direct access for the cold.  “How’d you manage that?” I said.

“Trying to warm my feet up by the fire when it got so cold last week. I got too close and my boots caught on fire,” he said. He laughed and showed me how he jumped up and stomped around in the snow to put the flames out.

I laughed with him, but felt an uncomfortable sadness mixed in with my laughter. It wasn’t really funny. Not like it would be if one of my friends were telling a similar story. A friend who, after lighting his shoes on fire, could throw his shoes out the next day, laugh at his mistake, and go buy some new shoes.

Many of my friends are curious about the outreach volunteer work I do with Urban Ministry Center, but they can’t imagine going out to the camps or walking up to a homeless person on the streets of Uptown. I tell them it’s not for everyone and that’s ok. It certainly takes me out of my comfort zone at times, but I walk away each time with another layer of awareness for the issues facing these often easily forgotten members of our society.  It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in my suburban life and it’s easy for me to forget there are people living outside, through sweltering heat, heavy rain, sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures. They are out there year round, whether we think about them or not. No bathrooms, no electricity, no basic comforts that many of us take for granted.

I’m glad I got up out of my comfort and stepped into the cold. It hasn’t stopped me from complaining about being cold. I still dread getting up and taking my dog out on these chilly mornings. This morning, however, while my dog ran around in the backyard, I looked up at the stars in the clear, winter sky and tried to imagine spending the night, every night, outside. My ten-minute interaction with the gentleman who burned his boots brought the plight of the homeless in our community to life for me, and that is why I volunteer. I hope his story brings it to life for you.