In the midst of this heat wave I will talk about some volunteer work that I do in the cold, dead of winter.
I do this work with the guidance of Felix Adler, the founder of our Ethical Movement. He advised us to accept diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed.
For this purpose, I became a participant in a group called Winter Outreach that helps people living outside in St. Louis on the coldest nights. Although this volunteer group is non-religious, it is inspired by the catholic worker philosophy, which values human contact in lieu of bureaucratic or commercial structures. Teka Childress, a member of the catholic workers, is one of the founders of Winter Outreach. She spoke on homelessness at platform in February.
I joined the Winter Outreach shuttle team whose members transport the homeless from a location downtown to the emergency overnight shelters. The team members, about eight of us, have each other’s backs, making sure that there are sufficient vehicles and drivers for the needs on each night. We transport from 10 to 40 people in an evening. Many of the shuttle team members are Methodists, which may explain why the team works so well. My usual job is to transport homeless guests in an eight-person van graciously made available to Winter Outreach by the Salvation Army.
The central location for the homeless to be picked up is by a small park on Chestnut Street between Tucker and 13 th . There a bus provided by the City of St. Louis is stationed from 5:30 PM to 7 PM to allow homeless to get out of the cold. The city personnel on the bus record the names of the individuals and check them for COVID symptoms. They guide guests to our vehicles so that we can take them to the buildings that are opened that night as shelters. Police protection is usually provided at the park.
Some anecdotes from my experience:
After doing the driving work for some years I recognize some of the homeless people. At the beginning of one winter, I saw some folks from the previous winter and said, “Hey good to see you again.” But I thought, “Maybe it was not so good to see them, after all they were are still homeless 9 months later.”
When I was driving the van one night, a young woman guest told me that she had been living with her mother in Cape Girardeau and decided that she would try being homeless. I didn’t say anything, but thought, “Lady, do you know how much volunteer work it is to open a shelter, get a cot with linens, provide food, etc? You are taking up a shelter space but you have an alternative place to sleep.” I said nothing, heeding the counsel of St. Vincent de Paul; to serve and not to judge.
This last winter there was a terrible snowy night when we were advised to stay off the treacherous roads. But I knew the team of drivers would need me that night. I took the risk and drove from my home in Maryland Heights. I was on the interstates for 14 miles to get to the Salvation Army building on Hampton where the van was parked. With much effort, I chipped all the snow and ice off the large vehicle and drove it to the Chestnut and 13th downtown. And oh, was I a hero that night – when the city bus didn’t show up. Those homeless people in the park had only the van to get warm. One man with cold hands held them curled in pain as he warmed them in front of the heating vent in the van.
The homeless help each other. A Black man of slight build and uncertain gait indicated in the park that he had to urinate. Okay, it’s dark, go near a tree. He bungled the process and urinated on his pants. Okay, get in the van anyway; it isn’t my van after all. When we got to the shelter, I opened the door to the van, but neglected to point him in the right direction. On bandy legs his walked into the middle of the street and fell down. I got him up part way, but a homeless woman took over from me and held him under the arms while exhorting him to put one foot in front of the other till he got to the door of the shelter.
So, our work helps some homeless people who often express their gratitude. I will leave you, however, with this depressing image. In the park downtown there are those homeless people who do not seek our help. They cluster on benches around a statue of a fireman holding a child he has rescued. The contrast is strong: Around the statue of the rescuer there are homeless people who seem to need a rescuer.