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Cockroaches and Cold Showers in DC

**this post is really long. feel free to scroll down to the pictures.

It’s strange not to have to worry about cockroaches in my bed.

I’m back after spending my spring break in Washington DC at a homeless shelter, volunteering at a soup kitchen and working at a crisis stabilization recovery house. Our group of 12 included 10 participants, two site leaders, and one staff advisor. The only person I knew beforehand was Gabe, and consequently I befriended 10 amazing people.

Believe me, I’m no saint, nor will I pretend to be. I haven’t done real community service since high school. I took this trip, funded entirely by the pay from my two part-time summer jobs, to prove to myself that I can recognize how fortunate I am, and remind myself not to take it for granted. That, in itself, is selfish. I also, obviously, wanted to help people. I want to benefit someone other than myself, and maybe impact, if only for one day, the life of someone who is trying to get his/her life together. It can’t hurt to contradict some stereotypes we have about each other. Blah, blah, cliche.

My mom keeps prodding, as good mothers do, “Did you have fun?” I hesitate. She worries. I did have fun, in a sense. I would consider it more of a learning experience, however much I hate the expression.

I encountered two extremes of DC; the bright, crowded city where elephantine stone buildings have shot up from the paved earth, among honking horns and the bustle of the diligently employed and fervent consumers. I also witnessed the poverty-stricken street corners where abandoned building are background to stolen shopping carts and plastic milk crate-chairs littered with the displaced and hungry.

The 12 of us slept and (barely) showered at a shelter called the Center for Creative Non-Violence, on the same floor as the men’s ward (unbeknown to us until the last two days). Our beds were our sleeping bags over thin mats on the floor in a big room, where other volunteers slept in clusters next to us. Our belongings were heaped next to our beds on the floor. Cockroaches scurried under the worn couch during group talks, and I drew my knees to my chest. Gabe found herself spooning with a cuddly cockroach in her sleeping bag after a nap. At 5:45 a.m. the shower-head launched icicles at my miserably tired eyes. ‘Get over it,’ I reprimanded myself.

The first two days consisted of waking at 5:30, walking a mile to SOME’s soup kitchen (So Other Might Eat), setting tables, preparing food, serving two rounds of breakfast and two of lunch, pouring coffee, cleaning tables and chairs, mopping, and resetting for the next round. SOME’s staff was (for the most part) courteous and professional. I was told that they “serve the poor, but do not serve poorly,” and I found this strikingly respectful. I donned my little green apron and smiled while asking each customer how many sugar packets he wanted.

Things the ASB (Alternative Spring Break) DC group did/saw at the soup kitchen:

EXTREME mopping

EXTREME  coffee pouring

EXTREME vases

EXTREME skylights

EXTREME sugar

EXTREME oranges

EXTREME spring break flashing

EXTREME forks

EXTREME pb&j

…. among other EXTREME things.

One does not have to be homeless to go to a soup kitchen. Some were obviously homeless, rolling suitcases behind them to the table, yet others had styled hair and decent clothing. The customers were hispanic, black, white, russian, polish, & other races, with about 80% men and 20% women. I was constantly complimented with appreciative thanks from the customers, and came to recognize and converse with them. Though surprisingly quiet, the mood was usually cheerful and upbeat.

I lost my cool once. A woman refused my Sweet’N Low sugar packets because it “makes food taste nasty.”  That’s fine, more for the next person. The hot topic at her table was the new bill passed on stem cell research. She asked me, “Do you know who that stem cell stuff helps?”

“Everyone?” A seemly obvious answer to me.

“No, it helps you white people, you and your little friends and white people!”

“No,” I answered, “that doesn’t even make sense. It helps everyone.”

“No, it ONLY helps you white people!”

“NO IT DOESNT!” I stormed off to refill my coffee pot. Did this woman not understand I was there to help her? Did she not appreciate what I was doing? Did she resent me for my race, could she not comprehend the degree to which I resented her racial stereotype? This woman was clearly uneducated on the matter, and I wanted to set her straight.

A moment later that same woman shot up from her seat in the heat of another argument with a fellow diner, yelling about monkeys and her food being poisoned. And then I learned that 40% of DC’s homeless are mentally ill.

Another 40% of homeless have substance/drug abuse issues. To complicate it further, 40% of these two barriers (mental illness and substance abuse) overlap, according to SOME’s organization. This was apparent when an extremely drunk man threw up on the diner across from him at the table. This scared the shit out of me. He was shaking and could not talk, so I ran to the director of SOME. He asked the man if he was ok, and he nodded slowly. The man threw up again, stood after a few minutes, and Gabe guided his stumbling body to the exit. I stood by idly and powerless.

These two negative experiences have the potential to overshadow the kindness I saw in many people. Don’t let that happen.

The following two days were spent at the Jordan and Mary Claire houses. SOME uses Jordan House to allow for short term crisis stabilization, where patients with mental illness or psychological issues are referred to live there for a period of time to find a job and recover from trauma. Mary Claire House is yet to receive funding, but is meant to allow for longer term stabilization.

Marco, director of the house, and the coolest guy everrr, delegated and joined in on our tasks. The Best Cleaning Crew on Earth consisted of Gabe, Sarah, Tiffany & I. Day One: we cleaned the largest bedroom for three from top to bottom. It was gross. Especially after Marco reminded us that something like 90% of dust is skin. Thanks for that, Marco. We scooted down hallways, stairwells and across room cleaning every inch of the wood baseboard in the Jordan House. Day Two: we deep-cleaned two kitchens in the Mary Claire house. Each day we worked for 7 hours.

The outdoor crew built a path in the beginnings of a Japanese Zen garden. While they worked outside in the cool, fresh air, the cleaning crew got high off oven cleaner and Fantabuloso (purple foreign cleaning product?). Not that either job was more fun 🙂

Things that happen when you’re high on cleaning fumes:

-people remark that they’ve never heard so much laughter from people cleaning a kitchen

-you discover no foods start with the letter U (revision: a week later Gabe came up with “upside-down cake”…)

-do you ever just think about space?

-strange men with recent traumatic relationship problems write down your full name and the state you live in (Sarah Thomas – Michigan)

-you realize how dirty your own apartment must be

-you realize you don’t really care how dirty you own apartment must be

-you find out you have a lot in common with strangers

-you say Tiff-ah-knee a lot

-24 spiders watch you in the closet

During the week we visited all the monuments (twice), and went to the Holocaust Museum, The Museum of Natural History, and the International Spy Museum. We  ate at Matchbox, went to a couple bars,  heard some live music, and got lost going to the White House (arguably the most famous address in the US). I found out Gabe and I are a comedic team with potential to go on tour when I read the notes everyone wrote to each other at the end of the week.

Thursday afternoon, Markia, Tiff, Gabe, Sarah, Dan, Kelly & I were allowed into the men’s ward at CCNV, which we discovered was across the hall from our room. Mark, who runs CCNV, told us that every employee at the shelter was once living in the shelter, including him. The guard announced our entrance over the loudspeaker, and we were escorted through the sleeping quarters, where over 300 men sleep every night. In the living area about 20 men were magnetized to a tiny TV playing an old movie about slavery. Fifteen others were eating or animatedly playing dominos. One 20-something man yelled, “Where you guys from?” I pointed to my shirt that read Michigan State University, and he waved us off and turned back to the TV. So, obviously, I obnoxiously sat down next to him and started talking.

After a minute of introduction he uncrossed his arms and we told me about his college days and asked a lot of questions about me. Midway through he quizzed me on his name (which was ATN), and apologized for his initial rudeness. He said I should get to know some of the people in here. Honestly, I was afraid of the people in there, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.

I sat with Gabe and Dan, who were talking to a man who hitchhiked from Florida to DC to protest Bush’s presidency. As soon as I sat down he serenaded me with a song and kissed my hand, which was creepy. He told us about his ex-wife, his dead girlfriend, compared every social issue to the Biblical Solomon, talked about his blog, how he had found his siblings on facebook, and showed us the editorial he had written for a small newspaper about how the government should solve the problem of homelessness. The article was well written, and while it was not without grammatical error, I was impressed. One man excused himself for a work meeting, which bewildered some of us, including me. Another worked at the McDonald’s down the street. Many of these people had jobs. Some were clearly mentally ill. These people cannot afford the cost of living.

After Tiffany and I watched a dominos game, they insisted we learn how to play. Eric, Mario, and Dave treated us like anyone else, taught us the game, and proceeded to loose the next three games to Tiffany. They told us we were hilarious. Gabe wanted to learn, and that took a little more effort on their part. Guys were standing behind Gabe yelling, “Play the 3/2, no, play the 3/6!” A little old man named Charles timed Gabe’s slow decisions on his wristwatch. “That took two minutes!” he would yell when she decided on a play. Gabe won that game to Tiffany’s and the guys’ dismay.

We lost track of time and missed our group’s dinner. I quickly stopped myself from complaining of hunger pains. We excused ourselves to leave, and they insisted we come back later. One man wanted to make me a present… which was weird. Unfortunately we could never go back in because we always got back too late. I will not forget the people I met.

ASB in DC taught me so much, and is the most recent reminder of how absolutely lucky I am. Homelessness and hunger are issues that needs to be addressed. I dealt with it on a small scale, but hopefully my time benefited someone, even for just a day. I used every resource I have to serve others for a week. Walking to the car with my jacket in hand, a man cried out to ask if I’m passing out coats… my heart broke. Can I make an impact? It’s hard to feel like one person can make a difference – maybe I did not – but the things I saw I will pass on to others. Maybe that will lead to change. Maybe you can help.

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