One night at the end of December, I went with a neighbor and her son to a tent city to feed the homeless. It is within walking distance of my house, but it’s hidden so well that I never noticed it before. And it’s an amazing place.
First of all, it’s not some conglomeration of drug addicts and the mentally ill. This is a family place. Children were running everywhere. It’s a community with a security tent, a communal storage area and kitchen, and even a place to gather to watch movies and have meetings. It’s not the ideal place to live, by any means, but if you’re down on your luck and have limited options, it’s much better than many of the available alternatives.
Aside from my neighbor, I didn’t know any of the other volunteers who had gathered to bring food on this bitterly cold night. And that made the experience all the more interesting, because in most cases, I could not distinguish the residents from the volunteers. What a concept.
These were good people, just like you or me. Most of them have jobs. They have the love of family. They are doing the best they can with whatever unfortunate cards they have been dealt. Having spent part of my childhood living in a tent, I know what that’s like. And I know how frustrating it is to have people make assumptions about you based on that tent.
And yet, through it all, they remain grateful. One charming gentleman said to me, “You know, they say that if you do good things at the beginning of the year, it sets the tone for the rest of the year. So if you are being this kind at the very end of the year, I would have loved to be around at the beginning of the year to see what you were doing then.”
That brought tears to my eyes.
At the end of the evening I went back to my warm house with my fully stocked refrigerator and my empty guest room, and I felt really, really guilty. What makes me so special that I get to spend this cold night with a solid roof over my head? What sets me apart from those people, shivering in their tents?