Names

When the boys were little we had a tag sale one fall and they sold pumpkins and brownies. We decided to call the homeless shelter in Burlington to see what the people there needed, that's what we decided to do with the money they made. The homeless shelter people said that they needed toiletries, so we went to the drug store and bought a bunch of shampoo and soap and toothpaste and took it the the shelter on Main Street. 

We hung out there for a little while, talked to some people, got a little tour, gave them the things we had brought, then headed out.

I'm hungry.

I'm hungry.

"What did you guys think, how did that make you feel?" I asked the boys on the way back to Charlotte.

"It was hard," Nate said.

"Why?" I asked him.

"Because we get to leave," he said. "They have to stay there, but we get to leave."

That was exactly how I felt yesterday evening when I got in my car and drove away from the folks who were sitting on the porch of the First Congregational Church in Burlington.

I met a couple of them last Thursday after I left a meeting inside the building. I sat on the porch with them and asked them the usual questions people ask each other: how are you doing? What's going on? Do you need anything?

What a stupid fucking question to ask a person living on the streets, do you need anything?

One woman needed a tent and a sleeping bag. She said her stuff had been stolen. She had really beautiful eyes and soft hands. I know because I held them for a while when we were talking.

They really didn't want much, the folks sitting there. A venison dinner was what one man was dreaming of. 

Two blocks away, at City Market, there weren't enough parking spaces to accommodate all of the people who were buying food that night. Inside one finds every imaginable offering: hot soup, oysters, organic shampoo, elderberries, sixteen kinds of coffee beans. 

But this isn't a soapbox moment about the disparities in our communities. There is absolutely no reason why, in a world in which most of us have too much, some have absolutely nothing. There is no reason why anyone should ever have to sleep on a concrete porch in this land of milk and honey. None. Unless they prefer concrete to blankets and a pillow.

Here is what I want you to know about the people who congregate every day on the porch of the First Congregational Church in Burlington, Vermont: they have names. They have stories. I know some of them now. 

I want you to know this, too: during the time I have spent with them, last Thursday and last night, they asked me questions about myself, and they listened, and they remembered my name. They called me by my name. They invited me into their circle. Not only were they good listeners and hospitable people, but they were kind to each other, too. 

Believe me when I tell you, I've met far scarier people and seen far worse behavior at some of the cocktail parties I've been to in my lifetime. 

I asked them about the homeless population in Burlington. They told me about the kids. One of the men told me a story about a blanket. How he had gotten a blanket and was happy to have the extra warmth, and then one night a woman came along and asked him if she could borrow it.

"I gave it to her, " he said. "And then she wrapped her little daughter in the blanket and they laid down together right over there," he told me, pointing to the corner of the porch.

"Some are worse off than me," he said, "I guess I'm doing pretty good."

"Pretty good, " said the man who has everything he owns in a backpack and a piece of cardboard for a bed.

I brought a tent for the woman who needed a tent, but she wasn't there. Everyone who was there last evening knew her, though, and knew she needed a tent and they quickly made a plan to connect her with me so I could get the tent to her. No one considered taking the tent to steal or sell. 

I also brought a sleeping bag, some coats and the venison stew that my mom had spent all night making. Literally. My former husband Scott happened to have two packages of venison in his freezer, which he let me have. Then Mom set about making a stew, late at night, so it could cook in the crockpot all night long.

So that the gentleman and his friends sitting on the porch could have something special for dinner. I brought homemade gingerbread, too, leftover from our last church dinner. 

They were deeply grateful, for all of it. They shared it with each other, took turns eating from the two containers I brought. I hung out with them while they ate and talked to each other and asked me questions about my life. 

And then I got in my car and left. And burst into tears and cried the whole way home. 

The Homeless. They have names. Amen.