I’d like to challenge the term “homeless people.” Instead of thinking of them as homeless people, I ask you to think about them as people who are currently homeless. As long as we continue to define people by their current situation rather than their potential we will mistakenly attribute blanket stereotypes and erode their hope for something better.
The Hospitality Hub is in the core of downtown Memphis. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven past that building 100 times and never noticed it. If you’re homeless in downtown Memphis, you know exactly where it is and how long it will take you to get there.
Kelcey Johnson met me in the back parking lot, walked me to the front of the building, and pushed the bell next to the door. We entered the small lobby and made our way through the narrow halls to the back room where the counseling intake happens. I studied Kelcey and noted that he could probably keep order pretty easily. He seems formidable…until he smiles. I bet Kelcey is full of surprises.
As Kelcey showed me around the Hospitality Hub, he talked about the services they provide for their clients. He said that they connect people with housing and job training to help people prepare for and find jobs so that they can get out of their current cycle. He mentioned several of the organizations they work with to place their clients and I was surprised to learn that one such group is Trident Seafood in Alaska. If you’ve ever watched the show Deadliest Catch, you’ve probably heard of Dutch Harbor where the fishing boats offload their crab catch. So far, Hospitality Hub has placed two of their clients at this location and it seems to be a great match – on top of good money, the employees receive room and board plus clothing from their employer.
As Kelcey showed me around, he pointed out the lockers they offer for the guests explaining that you can’t show up to a job interview carrying all of your worldly possessions. You’d either have to take it in with you, which I would imagine definitely hurts your chances of landing a job or you’d have to hide it somewhere and hope that no one steals it in the mean time. It seems to me like it would be pretty hard to be confident during the interview if you’re carrying trashbags full of your clothes. If you decide to go the route where you hide your belongings, for me it would be really hard to concentrate knowing that the last of my worldly life might be stolen while I’m trying to plead my case for a job.
If your home is like mine, you’ve got a lot of stuff. What of that is really important to you? If you could only keep what you could carry, what would you take? Important papers like birth certificates and passports? Would you hold onto pictures? How much clothing would you carry around? It must be cumbersome to lug your winter coat through Memphis when it’s 100 degrees outside. Would your guitar make the list?
During my time at the Hospitality Hub, I shadowed volunteer intake counselor Sandra Chandler, which is how I met the very interesting man with a voice made for radio – Mr. Marcus Clark. According to Marcus, he was laid off from his job in October, which was enough to force him out of his apartment. As Sandra walked him through the intake process, he “yes ma’am’d” and “no ma’am’d” his way through the interview questions. When she asked his birthday, I noticed that he was only a few years older than me, which made me feel inexplicably sad. I still harbor my own stereotypes even though I try not to. But little by little, like today with Marcus, those perceptions are slowly changed.
After Marcus answered Sandra’s questions I had an opportunity to talk with him and learn more. Marcus has had a hard life in many ways and he talks about all the loved ones he’s lost over the years. He told me that he’s working on a degree in computer technology and that he eventually wants to open his own business. He also talked about why material possessions are not important and how crazy it is to see people trampling each other on Black Friday to get “stuff.” Marcus had a great idea “I’d love to see ‘Black Friday’ commercial about helping others. ‘Hurry hurry hurry! Today only! Here’s your opportunity to get up early and go help someone else! Don’t miss out on your chance to be part of something important.‘ That’s what I’d like to see,” he told me. I’d like to see that too! Maybe I can get Marcus to lend his booming voice for the commercial. I loved talking with Marcus. I wish you could meet him too.
Kelcey and I talked about reasons that people become homeless and he said, “People are homeless for as many different reasons as there are flavors of candy, but ultimately many people end up in this situation because they’ve made bad long term decisions and burned all their bridges. If you [Kelcey was talking about me specifically] lost your job, had your house burn to the ground and had your car break down, you still wouldn’t end up on the street. Even if the same thing happened to your parents at the same time, you’d still be ok. Many of us have 20 layers of support – lots of safety nets – so that we don’t end up here, but many of these people have long since lost their relationships.” Kelcey explained that as part of the intake process they always ask for an emergency contact number “and you’d be amazed at the number of people who can’t give me a single name.” He said that he’d try to clarify and explain that they’ll only reach out to their emergency contact if it’s a true emergency like being hospitalized. He said that many people still say there’s no one to call. They’ll respond, “I can’t think of anyone who could care if I was in the hospital.” I stopped writing. “Can you imagine that?” Kelcey asked me. I can’t. I can’t even begin to imagine how lonely it must be to believe that there’s not a soul in the world who cares if you live or die.
After Marcus left, I talked with Kelcey and told him about the gift bags my family made on Thanksgiving Day, which he said was a great idea. I asked if they could put them to good use and as I’d hoped he said, “Ya we can!” I marveled at his enthusiasm for a few bags filled with socks and food. I stopped for a second to reflect on how much I’d learned this morning and how much Kelcey sees day in and day out. I wondered about his work and asked if it was hard to do this job. Kelcey said, “Job’s easy. Sleeping at night is the hard part.” For the second time that day I stopped writing and looked up at Kelcey.
Kelcey walked out with me to pick up the gift bags from my car and on the way I complimented him on not only the range of programs, but also that many of their services are designed to help people create better lives. He nodded and said, “Our goal is to help people permanently exit homelessness.” I’d never heard it put that way before, but I think it’s the perfect explanation and should be something that we all strive to achieve.
How to Help
- You can sign up to be an intake counselor, where you get the opportunity to interact with the homeless of Memphis – connect them with housing, employment services and provide hope.
- Create gift bags for the homeless. See their wish list for idea
- Participate during “clean up” weekends throughout the year to keep the facility clean and functional
- Set up fundraising drives
- Make a financial contribution. Your money goes a long way!
- $35 Pays for 8 night-time shelter vouchers
- $50 Pays for 2 pairs of work shoes for 2 Job Program participants
- $75 Pays for 50 MATA bus passes
- $100 Pays for 11 Tennessee State I.D.s for our guests
- $450 Pays for a day of services at the HUB
- $1800 Pays for a week of services at the HUB
- Donate items for the guests (like reading glasses and socks), donate items for the jobs program (like black pants) or give items for the Hub (like hand sanitizer and pens)
Give something from their big wish list:
- All day bus passes for MATA
- Video surveillance system
- Controlled entry system
- A women’s shelter (While I was there, a woman and her son came in and did not have a place to stay. It’s incredibly difficult to find a shelter that will accept a female and a teenage male child. The few shelters were full and unless a church or individual would donate the funds for night, this woman and her son are sleeping on the streets tonight).
If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thinking about helping is the first step!
What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis? Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!