Sunday, January 25th, 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments
“Cold Hands, Warm Hearts: Lessons Learned”
On Thursday, January 15, I participated in Oak Ridge’s first “Sleep-Out,” an event to raise awareness of homelessness issues in our community. All Thursday, I was challenged by friends and contacts. They questioned the wisdom of my sleeping outdoors on such a cold night. Afterall, I was still recovering from a nasty respiratory virus. When a wet snow started spewing around 5 p.m., even I began to question the wisdom of my plan to sleep out. I had also managed to double book myself for the early evening, so I went to the first Citizen’s Police Academy from 6 – 9 p.m. and then returned to the front lawn of the First United Methodist Church to gather with my “Sleep-Out” comrades and decide whether I would join them or take to my own warm, soft bed at home.
When I was offered a piece of cardboard to sit on, and we circled up around a camp lantern to talk, I knew, in a matter of minutes, I was in, or perhaps I should say “out,” for the night. We sat around swapping tales and watching the traffic on the turnpike. The night was cold, but I and the others had donned lots of layers. Other than the fact that Charlotte could not feel her feet, we were feeling pretty good and enjoying each other’s company. As nine turned to ten and then eleven o’clock, the traffic dwindled. Every now and then one of us would walk over to the gas station across the street to use the bathroom. The length of these visits to the gas station grew longer, in direct proportion to the drop in temperature. The station offered not only a place to use the bathroom, but also warmth and light on a cold, dark night. I had not previously thought of the ministry that 24-hour establishments offer to those in our community who are homeless. While the doors to our churches and non-profit offices and local mom and pop shops are locked, the buildings dark and empty at night, the quick stops and Walmarts and gas stations provide people a place to come in from the cold. Lesson #1: 24-hour establishments are part of the caring/safety network of those who are homeless.
As we sat together in the dark, I realized how pleasant it was, how good it felt to be outside on a cold, damp night. I knew that, had I not volunteered for this event, I would most certainly not have spent any time outside that night. I vowed to make a habit of putting on the layers and spending more time outside at night in the cold. I could feel how good it was for my mental and physical health. Many of those of us who have the luxury of choosing whether to be inside or outside, spend too much time indoors. Our homes are most certainly our refuges, but they can also be our prisons. Lesson #2: Get outside more, at all hours of the day and night, and in all types of weather. Too much shelter can be a bad thing.
Around 11, we all turned in, or perhaps I should say “out” for the night. I chose to join Charlotte in the back of the Habitat truck. I had borrowed my son’s cold weather sleeping bag and blow-up mat, so I was well-supplied. I had also brought my own pillow from home and I availed myself of some of the blankets donated to TORCH that were stacked in the truck. I spent the night in relative comfort. I will say that a bright street light was shining straight into the back of the open truck, and the noise of the turnpike traffic was loud in comparison to what I hear at home. (I live on a street that gets very little traffic and what it does get goes very slowly around the sharp curve where our house sits.)
It took a while to fall asleep, but I did sleep, and not too poorly. I woke up a number of times to turn over, but I fell back asleep fairly readily. A couple of times, it occurred to me that someone could just walk over and climb into the back of the truck where Charlotte and I were sleeping, but I generally felt safe. Afterall, Charlotte was right there in the truck with me, and four others were sleeping within earshot. And, I had permission to be there. I wondered how it would feel, had I been alone, or in a place where I knew I was not supposed to be sleeping.
My biggest lesson came the following morning. We had all agreed to sleep out until at least 6 a.m. When Charlotte informed me it was after 6, I began to pack my things and take them to my car. The temperature was down in the 20s, and now I was cold. As I turned on my car to let it warm up and get all of the frost off the windshield, I thought about how someone with limited funds, even if they did have a car, would likely not chose to waste the gasoline to warm up the car, as I was choosing to do. I said “goodbye” to my comrades and returned to my warm car. I wondered; what if, instead of heading home to a warm house, a big breakfast, a long, hot shower, and a day with plenty of time to rest, I was heading to a long day of manual work, no shower and no breakfast? What if, instead of heading home to food and comfort, I was having to walk down the turnpike so I could move my belongings to wherever I kept them during the day, so I could go in search of something I could afford or find for breakfast? What if I was having to hide my belongings and hope they would be there when I got back? What if I was having to go out in search of odd jobs or whatever income I might be able to find that day? What if the past night had been just any other night, like all the other nights…no big deal, just the way my life is? What if tonight I returned to find the truck gone, or my belongings missing, or, or, or? Lesson #3: To get up and begin each day, without a home to leave or to come home to, takes strength of body, mind, and spirit that those of us who have not faced homelessness cannot begin to imagine.
I believe that having a safe place to sleep is a basic human right. I believe we live in a time and in a country that has the capability to make safe shelter available for every person who wants it. It is time to make ending homelessness a priority in our community and to work together to realize it.
Rev. Tandy Scheffler, Minister of Faith Formation, Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church
January 18, 2015