Transparent: A Day in the Life of the Veterans Surge
by Brenda K. Colter, Surge Volunteer
How many times I have driven down that road to go to work and recall seeing a person pushing a shopping cart out of the woods or someone who was dirty, wearing raggedy clothes and carrying a beat up backpack? How many times did I actually see them? Or was I merely seeing an outline of someone and then choosing to look the other way and move on for fear I might actually need to take some type of action?
I would drive on listening to my music and pondering the many items on my “to do” list upon arrival at the office. Or perhaps maximizing every spare minute of my commute by responding to emails at a stop light, completely oblivious to the woman sitting on the wall with a plastic bag of her belongings who probably slept behind that very wall the night before.
Sure, I’m like anyone else. I cared. I felt bad for people like this who were down on their luck. But did I really SEE those people? Did I really SEE what their stories were? Did I SEE if they really did need something to eat? Was I even sure what they needed? Did I REALLY care? Were my eyes ever really capable of seeing the hard truth or would I continue driving around in my own little world seeing life through rose-colored glasses. Would a population of displaced mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters teach me to see and no longer BE TRANSPARENT?
WEEK 1 – SURGE Training
I don’t know anyone here. I’ll sit up front at a table and hopefully meet someone I can talk to.
15 minutes later, six men have joined me. All ages and walks of life. We’re there for a common purpose. We’re here to find out how we can help put an end to chronic homelessness in our Veteran community. I saw the ad for this on Facebook and thought…I want to give back to my community. I want to help others. Why not me? So here I sit for 90 minutes learning about scripts and surveys and resources. This is exciting. Go me! I come home and immediately sign up for the first 3 days of the initiative with no clue where or what I’ll be doing.
WEEK 2 – Deployed
Day 1 – Organized Chaos
We’re tripping over one another at the Christian Sharing Center but I have lots of questions and I want to know more about what they do for people. I’m shocked and impressed all at once. Too many of us.
As my luck would have it, one of the three other people I’m on a Team with was at my table. DM is quick as well to want to do more and be involved. We go rogue and the next thing I know, I’m partnered with my new (Veteran) volunteer and we are heading into unknown territory.
Wait…I know this place. I used to drive this area every day to work. Wait! We’re going here??? I meet Lou in the woods, Ryan at the Library, Marty at the bargain store, and Wayne at the bus depot. He’s a veteran and in two days will be in housing thanks to someone finding him and truly putting the resources to work. Yeah! I like the sound of this.
I don’t like what I’m seeing though. I’m looking behind dumpsters. I’m walking into camps made up of cardboard and plastic tarps for protection. Wet sleeping bags and trash… oh my. My eyes are starting to open. I’m hot, sweaty, eaten by bugs, and tired. Unlike the “Transparents”, I get to go home and close my eyes in the comfort of my air-conditioned home. L
Day 2 – Momentum
DM and I find another man for our Team! Super stoked! While I can hold my own in most situations, it is nice to have two men to kill snakes and hit the cobwebs first when walking through the woods.
I brought some bars of hotel soaps I have and leave them behind a store where I know some of them use the hose to shower early in the morning. The business knows about it but they don’t mind. Cool, right?
After we drop off soaps and some other toiletries, we head into the woods. I am looking for Lou. I want to check on him. I have a backpack with some granola bars and such and he might be willing to share more with us about other homeless people and veterans and where we can find them.
Gut is right! Lou is up and appreciative of the food. I learn he’s from Czech and make a mental note to learn how to say hello in his language next time. Also he tells me about a guy they call “Sarge” around there and he believes he is a Vet. I no longer care about the bugs and if a snake ran over my foot at that point I didn’t notice. I do see something in Lou’s eyes. I also could probably tell you in detail what he wore, what his hair looked like, the layout of his camp, and the color of his shoes.
Moving on we meet Ricky, Shawn, and Wanda but are still looking for George and “Sarge”. We introduce ourselves and our purpose to the folks at Waffle House and they are welcoming and helpful and willing to give our names out to anyone they see so we can help them. The waitress has blue and pink eyeshadow and her voice was soft and kind. The manager is a veteran himself. Mental note: Must go eat at WH more often.
Things learned so far: 1. Need to get out before sun comes up. 2. Some of these people need help mentally. There are real needs out here beyond food and shelter. We make a plan to gather at same place in two days but at 6am. Wow, is it hot out here. I get it why they sit in libraries, ride public transportation, or wander through stores. A.C. Air Conditioning.
Day 3 – Early bird catches the worm
Up before sunrise. Cup of coffee in my hand. Anxious how this is going to go. DM and I are on our own today. I have extra copies of all our intake forms and surveys. We take off walking. We come from different worlds and time which makes for great conversation. I forgot my camo hat he gave me and am bummed. We both are passionate about this initiative and his goes beyond what we are doing, I learn.
First person we meet is a young man, dreadlocks, wants nothing to do with us. We move on. Then stop to chat with Spike and Rocco. Did you ever think you would start your morning chats by the water cooler or coffee maker in the office breakroom with “Can I ask you where you slept last night?” Yeah, me neither. Rocco is a self-proclaimed sociopath. Spike was fired for giving food to the homeless at the restaurant he worked. Stealing is never right for the record but his heart was in the right place. They are not veterans and one has been homeless for more than 15 years. Reminded me of my very first conversation with Ryan in the library. He was close in age to my daughter and had been homeless 8 years. WHAT? Make note to hug my daughter extra hard tonight when I get home.
We move on to the bus depot. Talk to many of the drivers and give them our information. They, as everyone we are coming in contact with, are very receiving and willing to pass our names along. We’re the ones walking around in blue t-shirts with “Rethink Homelessness” logos. We make our way back and best online casino find “Nick,” who the convenience store clerk told me about. He cannot get his lighter to work for anything. I feel bad I don’t have one and… Mental Note: get lighter even though don’t smoke.
Walk over and finally find George sleeping under an abandoned drive through. I give him water. He gives us his information. He tells us about John and Sue. John’s now in rehab and Sue needs mental help. DM and I are great partners. We usually go back and forth with our questions and the “script” is flowing easily and no longer sounds “script-ish”.
We check back on Lou. I say hello in my best/worst Czech way. He smiles and congratulates me on trying. Tells us more about the people there. He has a green card but not his ID or driver’s license. This is starting to sound familiar. He likes computers and taking pictures and reading. He wants a job working with computers again. I’m sure there is more to this story I will learn. I give him more food and let him know about the soap by the hose.
Through the woods we go. The sun is up and it is H.O.T.! Two more people…Grace and Eli. Eli has a job he’s getting ready to go to and they slept on the concrete behind the building. I give her water and she’s thankful. I have shampoo but she has that and could really use conditioner (she misses her hair being soft). Mental Note: Bring the conditioner with me next time in case I see her. Check behind a dumpster I saw fresh activity on the other day and then we head for our vehicles.
That’s when I see it. A head below the bushes. He heard me earlier but I just saw him. Wait…its Shawn! We sit, talk, get information (he cannot believe I remembered his name). As it turns out…THIS IS SARGE! DM does an awesome job gaining trust and during our conversation we get his story and information. He’s not a morning person and laughingly tells me if I sing my “Good Morning Birdy” song, he might use his pepper spray on me! Hahaha! Mental Note: Buy pepper spray. J My boots are heavy, I’m sweaty, and I’m sure I look the worse for wear but I am awake, alive and seeing things through a new set of eyes. Next week the journey continues.
WEEK 3- Planning Week
This week additional meetings and discussions are occurring from last week’s progress. Next week will provide more direction and collaboration.
I’ve washed my t-shirt and my boots are more than ready to go back out. It’s been a very rainy week. My thoughts continue to go to Shawn and Lou. I put my bug spray and wrist bands in my bag and am ready to go at a moment’s notice. I learn there might also be an opportunity to be a part of the Sanford Task Force! Eager to continue this initiative. Every day I see someone I want to help. I need more education on the resources and how I can quickly deploy them when needed.
Friday – Unexpected Lunch Plans
So earlier this week, DM found our Vet and dropped off a VA form he needs to complete. Asks me if I would check on Shawn and pick it up. I have a few appointments in the morning but as soon as they are done I head out.
I truly believe God is in control. Today is an example. I was alone this time. I was hoping to find Shawn near where I have met him two other times. As I pulled into the area, I spotted him as well as another homeless man, Ricky, I had met. YEAH!!! As many of my family and friends would attest, when I get excited about something, it’s hard to tame my enthusiasm. So I park, jump out and walk over to them with my biggest smile. They both recognize me but Ricky is taken back when I call him by name. I try diligently to remember and call people by name. It’s respectful. Poor guy still thinks I’m an undercover cop. I tried to convince him I’m just a crazy, under-employed, coal miner’s daughter from map-dot WV who wanted to help. Still not sure he believes me.
Shawn, on the other hand, is learning to trust us and smiled as I approached. I sat down beside him on the sidewalk and the two of us chatted for quite a while. He likes reading sci-fi, would like a pork chop, and is educated. He started working on the form (it’s 13 pages long apparently) and will contact me if he needs help over the weekend but would have it for me on Monday. I notice his new backpack. It was a gift from a family member. I recalled how beat up his black one was and smile as he shows it to me.
We continue to talk and I told him he could tell me to leave any time. I can talk a lot (after reading this, I’m sure you figured that out). If I get too annoying, I’d leave. He reminds me he still has pepper spray and we both laugh! He hasn’t eaten anything today so I leave and bring back Chik-fil-A.
As I leave, I remind him he still has a lot of lives to touch and things to do in this world. I’m grateful to meet him and I believe there is help for him. Until next week…I’ll keep believing.