17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In Pursuit of Happiness - Helping the Homeless

I grew up in an affluent town 20 minutes outside of Washington DC. My formative years were fairly sheltered and I can honestly say I never wanted for anything. I remember seeing my first homeless person in the city when I was about 11 years old, looking out the window of my warm comfortable car. For me, the homeless were people on the news, extras in movies - I knew little about them and didn't care to learn more.

Fast forward to my early 20's. My husband and I moved to NYC and lived there nearly 7 years. There were so many homeless that in time they simply faded into the background. We had one homeless man who took to laying spread eagle on the sidewalk outside our 25th Street Grammercy park apartment - we simply walked around him. I would occasionally give money to people on the subway and one Christmas we brought a bag full of blankets and food to some homeless people that lived in the bank lobby on our corner.

Fast forward to now. We moved to the Bay Area 2 1/2 years ago and again, were confronted with homelessness. San Francisco is well known for its homeless problem..but I was completely unprepared for all of the homeless in the suburbs. In my sheltered naivitee I assumed it was a city problem but of course it is not. The town we live in is the county seat...which we later found out means all of the homeless shelters, rehab programs and food banks are right HERE. As had happened many times before, however, I eventually stopped noticing and these men and women without homes simply faded into my background.

About a month ago I saw the new Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness. It's a good movie, a true story but for some reason it struck me to my core. I cried and cried so hard in the theater that I had a headache afterwards. What hit me for the first time was that there are families living on the street, young children, mothers and fathers who are doing their best but have been dealt a series of hardships and heartaches...and they have become homeless. I remember closing my eyes at the credits and vowing to do something...

A week or so after the movie, I was driving down the main street in our town on the way to Target with my two kids. As we drove past a strip mall with a large parking lot I noticed a man and a woman, the man standing holding a sign, the woman bent over holding something. I immediately assumed they were homeless. Then I noticed the stroller next to the woman. My first thought was, Well they're probably using it to haul stuff, there's no WAY there's a baby with them. I looked back over my shoulder as we drove past...and saw that the woman was holding a baby.

A homeless woman holding a beautiful baby.

My heart started racing and I said outloud "There's a baby. There's a baby." I immediately felt prompted to turn the car around, go back and ask them what they need. I started arguing with myself. "That's crazy! I have two little kids in the car. What if they're junkies? I've never done this before! What do I say? What can I possibly do?"

I turned the car around. I pulled into the parking lot, drove up to them, rolled down the window and said, "Hi. What do you need for you and your baby? I'm going to Target right now." The man and woman looked at each other and the woman said without hesitation, "Diapers. And some baby food". I asked what size diapers and what kind of food the baby liked, how old she was. Then I asked what I could get for them and they asked for food. They looked to be in their late 40's and were clearly beaten down and hammered from living on the streets. But the baby...she was beautiful. She looked so much like Carrie's daughter Pumpkin that I could feel my eyes welling up with tears. I told the family I would be back in one hour with everything they needed and to please stay put.

I raced to Target feeling like it was Christmas morning. I abandoned my other errands and went crazy with assembling things for the family. My 4 year old son even helped: "The baby would like this blanket, mom". Toss it in the cart. I bought a large backpack and crammed as much in there as I could. Getting ready to check out I felt prompted to by infant Motrin for the baby - again, my eyes welled up.

Driving up and giving them those bags was a high. They kept saying "God bless you" over and over. A few days later I saw the woman, wearing the backpack, pushing the stroller with the baby wrapped up in the blanket. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I was SO happy.

Over the last month I have met with them half a dozen times. Usually I bring diapers and things for the baby, always food. I have gotten to know Dana, Cherrie and baby Ajianna (who is 14 months) and their story. They are a family in a terrible situation, down on their luck, doing their best to take care of this baby, who is their granddaughter. I told them one day that they are doing such a good job with the baby because she is happy, smilely, healthy and always dressed warmly. They are doing everything they can for this little girl. They are not junkies or criminals - they are people, a family, with few options and no place to call home.

I wish that there was more I could do for them but I know that I am doing exactly what I should be doing right now. I've started keeping extra snacks in my car to hand out to the guys standing at intersections holding signs - they just want food, never ask for money. After years and years of not doing enough, I'm now trying to do my part. By doing my part, I have also created amazing teaching opportunities for my kids. My son asked me one day why I am always taking bags to those people in the parking lot. I told him that we are very lucky, very blessed and so it is our job to help other people who are not as fortunate. He sat quietly for awhile and then said, "I like to help other people, mom". I am learning...and they are learning.

I'm writing this post to encourage all of you to take a look around your street corner, your neighborhood, your town. Take 5 extra minutes and see if there's something you can do to help out, bridge the gap a little. As much as I'd love to take these people into my home, adopt that baby I can't...but I can bring them diapers and food and get them in contact with the shelter down the street. I can do my part. We can all do our part.


  • Wow babe... that is great! You made me tear up. I have a few stories that are not nearly as great as yours, but one in particular, there were two young guys, homeless outside of taco bell. I walked up and told them to order whatever they wanted... they said to me 5 times are you sure? I said yes... so they did, they were so grateful and they did order about six items each. It was awesome. At Taco Bell it was all of about 15 bucks... and I felt so great! I wish I would do this more... but it is easy to forget. Thanks for the reminder and HEARTWARMING story. You big hearted mama!!! Love you!
    posted by Blogger Zinone at 2/19/2007 09:11:00 PM  

  • That made me cry. In a good way. I occasionally see people outside Wal mart, but I don't see that many people in my town. In my hometown, I would see them all the time, but I never did anything. Your post makes me want to drive 7 hours home to help someone out. Although, I'm sure there are places closer I could go to help out.
    posted by Blogger Erin Marie at 2/19/2007 10:57:00 PM  

  • FABULOUS story. I think you're really making a difference in someone's life. What a priveledge.
    posted by Blogger Corinne at 2/20/2007 03:30:00 AM  

  • I have mixed feelings about this because of the whole teach a man to fish, or give him fish principle.

    When I see homeless people I usually automatically assume that they have betrayed their entire support system in one way or another and have no where to turn, but the streets. Even the Pursuit of Happyness did not change my pov on this. I'm not jaded, it's just from personal experience.

    I totally commend you for your efforts, but maybe you could add a few job applications with the food drop-offs...or maybe you could adopt the baby, if you feel that compelled to care for her.

    I have (on and off) carried an extra granola bar in my purse, for the sole purpose of giving it out to a begger on the train...and if there is a musician working for coins, I always let my kids contribute...but I confess that is mostly b/c they helped me with the subway ride, b/c that really holds their attention when there is a performance for a few stops.

    Chloe, we undoubtedly need more people like you in the world, those who sincerely ask themselves: What would Jesus Do? I have a feeling the backpack you picked out was a little more stylish than what he might have picked though... ; )
    posted by Blogger Kage at 2/20/2007 04:38:00 AM  

  • I cried with this post!!! I haven't seen that movie yet- but the previews have left me almost completely a wreck- so I know the movie is going to make me bawl.

    I will say that although I feel some sympathy for the homeless men standing with signs by the road, it's women and children that hit me the hardest. The idea of a baby being homeless is just sickening to me.

    I met a family once that would take their older children a serve at shelters and soup kitchens, and it made such an impact on me. I have always "wanted" to do more but haven't done it.

    Your post reminded me of that! THANK YOU!!
    posted by Blogger Rachel H at 2/20/2007 06:11:00 AM  

  • p.s. Has anyone seen the made for TV movie "Homeless to Harvard"? I felt very touched and inspired by that true story as well.
    posted by Blogger Rachel H at 2/20/2007 06:13:00 AM  

  • Thanks for the inspiration, Chloe! And good for you for taking that initial risk to reach out.... I've actually found that since I've had kids, so much of my focus is on taking care of their needs that I haven't been as good about reaching out. That needs to change!
    posted by Blogger Jen at 2/20/2007 07:09:00 AM  

  • Wonderful story. When we were living in the bay area I was overwhelmed by the number of homeless people that were in the city, I felt helpless. My SIL came to live with us and made me realize that there are things you can do. She would grab a box of granola bars and put them in her car. Everytime she saw a homeless person driving around she would offer them one. It was a small, simple ,but needed gesture.
    posted by Blogger trimama at 2/20/2007 07:52:00 AM  

  • Kage,

    I understand what you are saying about the "fish" principle...but sometimes it simply doesn't apply. There are exceptions in every case and this is one family that is certainly an exception.

    As far as the baby, there is no way I can adopt her- she has loving caregivers who would never part with her. The only thing I can do is to try and alleviate some of the strain they feel living on the streets and in this situation, I can help with food and baby supplies.

    I am not advocating taking homeless people into your home (although the idea briefly crossed my mind...) or simply "moneying" away the situation. I do feel, however, that I am in a forunate position where I need nothing and want for little - it is my responsibility to DO something for others who are not so fortunate.

    In my opinion, it becomes a waste of time to argue with myself about what these people did to land themselves on the street and why should I help them. Instead, I take the risk, hand over a banana and tell them to have a good day. There is no harm in that...and I truly feel it is my responsibility.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/20/2007 08:41:00 AM  

  • Z, I love your Taco Bell story. Sometimes I think that service can be a selfish thing only in that it makes me feel SO good when I have done something to help someone else!
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/20/2007 08:42:00 AM  

  • What a beautiful story of following your prompting to reach out. ONe of my very favorite posts about reaching out is here (I think I have even spoken to you about this article before). It really got me thinking about the times when my premeditated selfishness precluded me from feeling prompted to help those who might really have needed it.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 2/20/2007 10:29:00 AM  

  • Beautiful post. It came as a small part of an answer to my recent prayers. Thank you.

    P.S. The movie was great but skip the book. "Based on a true story" means we got a better version on the big screen than the actual events laid out in the book.
    posted by Blogger rebecca at 2/20/2007 10:53:00 AM  

  • Wow, wow, wow. This story is amazing! I haven't been to this blog in a while but I'm glad I stopped by to read this one. Here in Madison County (I live in Rexburg, Idaho) it is actually illegal to be homeless. That's right...ridiculous. They actually bus homeless people to the county lines and just drop them off. I first learned about this in my Social Problems class. Even though I took that class last semester, I heard of a group of kids working to petition against the bill. I think I might join them. Lastly, regarding Kage's comment.....I totally agree with what you are saying but I have come to find that instead of guessing "What would Jesus do?" we can easily turn to the scriptures and ask "What DID Jesus do?" Jesus helped everyone even if they were at fault. You never know what that person has been through. I think adding job applications is an AWESOME idea. I know I need to work on helping EVERYONE and thinking of more EFFECTIVE ways to help the homeless.
    posted by Blogger Maria Tortilla at 2/20/2007 11:00:00 AM  

  • Handing out job applications is really not that helpful as most businesses won't employ someone who doesn't have a home address (and there are usually other issues that need to be dealt with before regular employment is an option). What might be more helpful is to put together a list of local missions and shelters to hand out along with food or other goods.

    My calling in the ward (Humaitarian aid and Service specialist) has been the exact encouragement I needed to seek out these places, get to know the great work they are doing, and get involved. Not only are there large shelters and soup kitchens, there are smaller homes that take in families (just like the one in the story) and work with them to develop skills, get jobs, live on a budget and then transition to living on their own. They believe in teaching a man to fish but also in giving of their fish freely.

    Also, in researching information to help me in my calling a while back, I ran across this great list of ways to help the homeless (I believe creating a "shelter" info list is on there).
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 2/20/2007 11:28:00 AM  

  • I can't see the screen through my tears, Chloe. Thank you, deeply thank you, for giving us this.
    posted by Blogger tracy m at 2/20/2007 11:43:00 AM  

  • Thanks for that list, Carrie. I always thought "Street News" was a Portland thing, because there were lots of spots in the city where people were always selling it and I had never seen it anywhere else. I have to admit that I was a little unsure about what they were selling until a friend explained...and now I ALWAYS try to buy a paper....so easy and it is a more meaningful exchange than a handout of spare change.

    Has anyone had any experiences with Habitat? My dad and I joined when I was in high school, but we never felt "welcomed" by the church group who sponsored our local chapter. We always had a lot of trouble figuring out where we were supposed to be and what we should be doing whenever we went to events. I hope that ours was an isolated experience, because I LOVE the idea of the organization...
    posted by Blogger Jen at 2/20/2007 12:27:00 PM  

  • Thanks for sharing! It's very motivating. I have to commend Chloe and TfTCarrie for addressing Kage's comments. I just think it sometimes ruins the "good" in the posts to always drive in the negative. Yes, just my opinion. I agree with Carrie, job applications are NOT a good idea. I think there is a stat somewhere I've read that claims a HUGE amount of the homeless cannot even read! Keep giving! :)
    posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 2/20/2007 12:45:00 PM  

  • Thanks for this post and reminder Chloe. I think that perhaps your love and friendship to this family is equally, if not more sustaining as the diapers and food you are giving them.
    I think I have mentioned this story on the blog before, but it really impacted me so I will tell it again. Every year my extended family does a service project at Christmas time. When I was 10 years old we made backpacks for the homeless and filled them with food and supplies. When we drove down toward the shelter I started to get a little uncomfortable. We stopped the car and I got nervous. They were so close. As I hesitated my grandmother jumped out of the car and started handing out the backpacks. We all followed. She gave each person a hug and a warm smile and TALKED to them. She truly showed love toward them. She was such an example to me.
    Thanks Chloe, for being another great example.
    posted by Blogger Melissa at 2/20/2007 12:54:00 PM  

  • Thank you Carrie for that list on ways to help the homeless (link embedded in her last comment) - So helpful and good for all of us to read.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/20/2007 01:13:00 PM  

  • My DH told me once when I had rationalized why I shouldn’t give to a certain homeless person (although sometimes I think I have enough legitimate, traumatizing experiences that somehow should classify me as exempt) that “It’s not your place to judge whether they deserve help or not.”

    That said, and not to focus on the negative, please remember to make sure you are safe and smart when interacting with those who are homeless (or anyone who you really don’t know). It’s not wise to give a stranger a ride without someone else in the car. Also, make sure you set some boundaries. I only say this because I have definitely put myself in some unsafe situations, both emotionally and physically with some homeless people who I was really just trying to help and do the right thing.

    The suggestions everyone has given are really good. Definitely give food or needed items before money. Don’t give out your phone number or address (or even maybe your full name). Consider bringing someone with you if you want to stay and visit and talk with them. Be open and understanding but make sure you have some boundaries. Helping people is wonderful; just make sure you do it in a way that doesn’t put yourself at unnecessary risk.
    posted by Blogger tamrobot at 2/20/2007 03:49:00 PM  

  • Tamrobot, well said and good advice. My husband cautioned me just yesterday about this very thing. He knows that I'm being safe and responsible (mainly because I usually have my kids with me) but wanted to remind me again.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/20/2007 03:58:00 PM  

  • I thought this was a very uplifting post of selflessness and generousity. I admire Chloe for offering her time and love to this family in need. It sounds like it was a special circumstance in which she was being safe and teaching her children the joy of giving. I didn't think Kage's comments were negative, but rather just expressing how we may need to help the homeless people find a better support system by community outreach programs, job services, and homeless clinics. It is important to be firm and teach others to help themselves. There are unfortunately those people out there who are wrongly taking advantage of others. However, giving freely in small ways to anyone as it teaches in the scriptures will hopefully help teach us AND them the joy of giving. I had an experience working with homeless clients at a mental health center and discovered that there are so many different ways of helping those less fortunate people change their living situations by taking advantage of the support systems that are available to them. I know that being generous in my fast offerings at church always helps me feel like I'm helping the church help others. If we all find some small way to contribute while staying safe and smart about it, I think it could make a world of difference. Thanks for this inspiring post and everyone's comments.
    posted by Anonymous LJ at 2/20/2007 05:01:00 PM  

  • Chloe - I read this last night before bed and was truly touched. That movie has made me a lot more grateful for what I have as well. I always think about those characters when I'm complaining that my apartment is too small. There is not much I can say since everyone has commented so well. Very inspiring... thank you. I am going to look over that link that Carrie posted.
    posted by Anonymous Beth at 2/20/2007 05:49:00 PM  

  • Mosiah 4: 16-19

    “Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

    Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

    But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

    For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”

    My personal interpretation of that scripture is that we have no place to judge why it is that a person is in the position they are in. Nor should we condition our assistance to them based on their willingness to change their situation. We are commanded only to give.
    posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 2/20/2007 06:24:00 PM  

  • Yeah, the whole job application thing is probably not a good idea now that I think about it. I've heard of homeless shelters that help the homeless find jobs, teach them skills, and by staying at the shelter give them an address and phone number which of course helps them when they are finding a job. I wish there were more of these, although I'm not sure how effective they are.
    posted by Blogger Maria Tortilla at 2/20/2007 07:37:00 PM  

  • I was thinking about this today and I think that there are a lot of different kinds of help you can give. One would be immediate help (like if someone needs diapers for their child, or food, water, a baby blanket, etc.). Another would be helping them to become more stable (shelters, job opportunities, teaching job skills, integrating them back into society/stable home life, etc.). One type of help isn't any better than another. They have needs and if you have an opportunity to help, why wouldn't you.
    posted by Blogger Beth at 2/20/2007 10:47:00 PM  

  • This is an interesting post and discussion. Personally, I think most of us are quite oblivious to poverty issues. Next time you read the scriptures, however, (especially the BoM) I challenge you to read it with the poor in mind. I think you will find that caring for the poor is not only a central charge, but probably something modern Church members are largely not in compliance with.

    Frankly, it is overwhelming. I hope everyone can keep this and similar stories in mind and just do something, anything, when you get the chance.

    In my opinion, this will be a much bigger issue on judgement day than your temple attendance or adherance to the WoW.bm
    posted by Blogger Mama Aketch at 2/23/2007 10:56:00 AM  

  • Thanks everyone for your wonderful, thoughtful comments. I originally intended this post to be an inspiring call to do more and I think it has succeeded. Thank you.

    As a follow up, today I dropped off another bag to our family (I had "lost" them for a week and was beginning to get panicky). As we drove away my son asked about "those people". I explained again that it was our job to help them because they didn't have very much. Then I told him that they were homeless. I have specifically avoided telling him this for the past month because I knew it would upset him. But he's come to recognize these people and it's time he knew why they were on a street corner. He surprised me - he didn't say A WORD. I think the shock of it took all his words away. I'm sure it's a lot to take in, but I'd rather that he start thinking about it now and having service become a part of his vocabulary than start mentioning these things when he's older.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/23/2007 07:05:00 PM  

  • I read this post yesterday and it touched me. Then, coming to work today, there was a man on the intersection where I get off the freeway and it just about broke my heart. I had nothing in the car to give him. Nothing at all. There are no grocery stores near my job I could even run to if I had time to grab something.

    My husband has been unemployed on and off for the past year and it's been a hard time. I've been terrified of ending up in a worst case scenario - but I realize that even if the worst happens we have family nearby who obviously would not let us live on the street.

    I'm crossing my fingers on this, but my husband was offered a job last night and accepted, so hopefully that works out. I would like to know what things - other than granola - you keep on hand to give out. Blankets? scarves? cereal? Dried fruit? I don't want to just give out junk food, though obviously if you're hungry, anything is better than nothing.
    posted by Blogger MJK at 2/27/2007 09:05:00 AM  

  • I enjoyed your post and applaud your initiative and willingness to act. I went to see Pursuit of Happyness this last weekend and was particularly affected because this issue of how to help the homeless and needy I see each day is weighing heavily on me right now. We recently moved to Nigeria and I deal daily with the question "what can I do to help ease the suffering around me?" The magnitude of the need and poverty and suffering are so overwhelming that it's difficult to know what to do. We give more in our fast offering - but church members seem in pretty good shape compared to many of the beggars that approach me in my car. Issues of personal security have to take precedence here. Our driver doesn't want us to hand out money from the car because the beggars remember who gives and the car is marked and even more beseiged. Many of the most desperate appearing cases are beggars that are pimped and don't get to keep much if any of what they receive-- though I've considered the possibility of keeping food in the car to hand out. I try to look them in the eye through the car window and smile and acknowledge their humanity, but that doesn't give them what they want. I don't want to get hardened to their need and lose empathetic feelings.

    We were in a traffic backup today and for long minutes I had a young boy with a withered arm at my window putting his fingers to his mouth asking me to give him something, repeating "mama, help me" over and over. I was aching with wanting to help him, but afraid to open my window for fear of being beseiged by the other beggars in the area. I have huge means compared to most of the population here. But I could give away everything I have and not make much of a dent in the need. How much should I give and where should I give it?

    I'm planning to help more with church members and also get involved with the charities that the American women's organization supports. And I'm hoping to get to the point where I can feel comfortable helping strangers when the spirit prompts me. But I don't know if that will ease my guilty conscience when I think about how much more I have than they and how much easier my life is than theirs. But I think acting on those feelings of empathy is very important. This reminded me of a favorite C.S. Lewis quote: "The more often we feel without acting, the less often we will act and, in the long run, the less often we will feel."
    posted by Blogger Carolee at 2/27/2007 09:06:00 AM  

  • This was a great post. I'm so impressed that you have found such a significant way to help this family. I've found myself trying to tread the line between helping others less fortunate, and giving money that might be used to feed addictions, and I've rarely found any solution as great as this. One thing I do is to carry McDonalds gift certificates in the glovebox of my car. They're easy to hand out to the men on streetcorners asking for money, but they can only be used for food (even if it isn't the healthiest food). And there are tons of McDonalds around, so I know they can use them.
    posted by Anonymous Vada at 2/27/2007 04:13:00 PM  

  • mjk, I will keep my fingers crossed for you and your husband that the job works out. To answer your question about what to keep in the car, since I have kids I always seem to have decent snacks on hand. Pretzels, fruit chews, fruit roll ups, any kind of cracker and of course granola or power bars. I always keep juiceboxes and bottled water in the car too - those are good to hand out. The little containers of Goldfish they have in bins at Target? Also great. Just stash a few of these things in your car and they'll be there the next time you need them for someone.

    Carolee, your comment really touched me. I can't imagine living in Nigeria and witnessing what you see everyday. In the face of wondering if you can make a dent, this is what popped into my mind: "Pray to know how you can help". Heavenly Father will guide you to help in a way that is safe and makes sense for your circumstances AND will make a difference. Pray...

    Vada, thanks for your comments. Thanks everyone - I'm glad to see that this post has lots of visitors and comments!
    posted by Blogger chloe at 2/27/2007 05:26:00 PM  

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