Today, I want to share a personal story. And as I tell the story, I’m going to be as honest as possible with what I was truly thinking throughout the process because it captures the entire essence of the evening. I’m sharing this because for a brief moment last night, I got to experience how broken are homeless system is in this country and I’m not sure how to fix it.
Last night, I headed to Whole Foods to do grocery shopping as we have family coming into town this weekend. My husband and I had just gotten back from a once-in-a-lifetime, two-week trip in Southeast Asia and of course had nothing in our house to eat. So I went to my overpriced Whole Foods to purchase my overpriced organic food. As I was driving, a major rainstorm began but I was able to park, slip out of my car and run into the store just in time before the rain starting really pounding. By the time I leave, it’s still pouring but I’m in a time crunch. I’m planning to attend a food and wine charity event that evening so instead of waiting, I ask the bag boy to help me with my groceries. Since it’s raining, I ask the bag boy to watch my groceries under the awning while I get my car. I pull up and there is the bag boy waiting with my groceries and a massive umbrella. I get out of the car to help unload the groceries and he keeps telling me to please stay dry and that he’d take care of it. Although I continued to help him, I had the thought of what wonderful service Whole Foods offers to it customers. To be truly honest, I thought what an over-privileged service they offer, but I relished in it. I share this part of the story, because as I reflected on the evening last night, I realized how snooty all of it was and how life sometimes gives you perspective.
At this time, the rain is coming down so hard I can barely see. As I leave the parking lot and turn onto the main road, there is a women and what looks like her teenage son on the corner holding up a sign that reads, “Please help. I’m homeless and lost my job and apartment. Anything you can do to help with food or money.” As she holds the sign in the God-awful pouring rain, her son is holding up a tiny umbrella to cover her and has his light blue jacket covering his head to attempt to keep him dry, which was impossible with the storm.
And while on a daily basis I pass numerous homeless individuals who stand on the corner of major intersections, at that moment as I was passing her I had what I call a “God moment.” That moment when something in your body tells you you need to help – some people call it a gut feeling, but I like to call them God moments. But at the same time, I was thinking how could I help her in the pouring rain? I couldn’t take her in my car because I kept hearing how my mother and husband would kill me if I put someone in my vehicle. Because of my fear of safety, I continued driving trying to think how I could help her.
For those of you who are reading this and do not know me, I’m in the corporate philanthropy field so I have many contacts in the nonprofit arena. I make a call to a friend who works for a homeless charity and ask her if they do a pick up of homeless individuals. She informs me that all homeless cases have to be refereed to her charity through “the system.” Because I’ve lived an almost too perfect life, I really wasn’t sure what she was talking about. What was “the system?” The courthouse? The government? What? She recommends that I call 211.
If you’re not familiar with 211 it’s a hotline for crisis help such as suicide cases or homeless assistance. We all have 911 for emergency help, 511 (in Florida) for traffic/accident assistance and 211 for crisis help. 211 connects individuals with all of the different agencies a city/county has to offer. However, 211 is not a Florida state funded initiative like in other states. 211 in different counties in Florida have to fundraise to stay funded and help those in need. It is a wonderful resource that most middle to upper income people would never know about because fortunately they may not have to use it.
I call 211 while I continue to drive home. The rain continues to pound my car; the traffic is awful as it’s 5:30 p.m. I’m put on hold until someone can service me. I explain to the call specialist the situation and the urgent response I feel this woman needs to get picked up and taken to a shelter. I’m informed that for this process to take place, this woman would need to register in their “system.” There’s that word again. I ask for clarity. “Does she need to go to the library and register online? (because I had the thought that I’d pick up this woman and take her to the library). The operator explains she could also call and register over the phone. But at the minimum, she has to be registered so they can help her. By this time, I’m shocked. This woman and child, who have nothing to their name, are somehow supposed to have a cell phone to call and register them into a system? I become flustered. I’m still driving, the traffic gets worse, the rain is pounding and I know this woman is still in the rain.
I call another contact who is the president of the board of directors for another homeless charity. I explain the situation asking if their nonprofit did emergency pickup for the homeless. She explains that the police sometimes do pick ups. When I clarified where the police would take them? She states another homeless center. I inform her that that homeless center couldn’t take them because they had to be in “the system” to get placed there.
I’m almost to my house and feeling helpless. I pull over and Google homeless shelters in Broward. A slew come up and I see a well-known charity that helps the homeless. I call and explain again the situation and the operator tells me that they have to be registered in “the system” and that they had no room at their facility. I’m admitting that I’m fuming at this point. In one last desperate attempt, I call another contact in the charity world to see what I should do. She tells me to go back and give this woman my phone so she can register into “the system.”
I decide to turn around and go help this woman and son. For my safety, I thought I’ll drive back and if she’s still there, I’ll go and either get a calling card that she can use to get registered in the system or I’ll have her walk into Whole Foods with me and she can use my phone. It takes me another 20 minutes to get back to Whole Foods as the traffic is still awful. While I’m hoping someone else who was more courageous than me helped her, I want her to be there so that she knows that someone cared. But I wanted to go back so God would know that I listened.
By the time I arrive at the corner where she was originally standing, she and her son were gone. I drive through the Whole Food parking lot looking for them. I drive another mile down the road to see if I see them walking. I drive in a different direction to see if I could find them and I didn’t. While I pray that some better citizen was brave enough to help, I feel that I had failed as a good citizen and Samaritan to this world. I feel that “the system” failed this woman and son and despite my efforts on my part, I couldn’t help. The system couldn’t help.
While I know the statistics about the homeless population – many of them suffer from mental and/or addiction related diseases – I felt that this case was different. This was a family that seemed like they had had a stroke of bad luck.
I share this story to give you a tiny glimpse of what some people are dealing with. While we are at home watching Homeland, Modern Family and ESPN complaining about our obnoxious co-workers, people are struggling. Some may ask, what I want out of this piece….to begin another discussion about our broken system? No. I don’t want a discussion. I want action. Action by all of you who read this to help out more in the communities you live and work. To do more. To do good. To trust your gut when you see someone in need.