For the purposes of this post, I am going to talk mainly about homeless women, because I think our expectations of homeless women is more different than the reality than it is with men.
We have this idea of helping the poor. A PB&J sandwich made with love. A warmly knitted hat. A few quarters in a tin can that were only going to find their way to the bottom of the your sock drawer. Then we get the warm and fuzzies and think to ourselves, I want to do more.
So we decide to volunteer at the local women’s shelter. And it’s different than we thought it would be. Can’t quite put my finger on it at first. Sure, we expected it would be hard to see the struggles and torments of some of these women’s lives, but that’s not it. We think about it and mull it over and suddenly realize it. We feel awful for thinking it but the truth is, I don’t always like the clients.
In some ways, we have idolized the poor, picturing them not as individual humans in need, but as a potential object for our charity. We first think their role is to be served, and second think of them as actors in a world that has created their life situation.
So when we come bearing gifts of time, food, money, clothing, the reaction can easily be disappointing.
“These clothes are ugly.”
“I’m sick of spaghetti for dinner.”
The people I know who have dedicated significant portions of their time to working with low-income and homeless women, good, knowledgeable, and well-intentioned people, often express this disenchantment when first starting to work with homeless women.
Maybe they are brash and crude, not the kind, silent “battered women” victims of television. Maybe they didn’t say thank you for the homemade cookies. Maybe they yell at their kids more than makes you feel comfortable. Maybe you question their judgment about buying a new cellphone when they could’ve spent that money on getting groceries instead of going to the food bank that week. Maybe they struggle with drugs and alcohol and other problems besides abuse and poverty.
The truth is, poverty isn’t pretty. We picture people’s lives being so empty and barren that we think even this small glimpse of kindness will make a difference, make them smile, make them grateful. But think back to the lowest, most difficult, absolute worst time in your life. Were your words gracious? Was your demeanor sunny and full of hope? Were you grateful for everything that came your way or did you ever just want to scream, I don’t need another casserole! I need a Valium!!
The stress of abject poverty can put a toll on a person, and as we all know from experience, chronic stress can make us not so fun to be around. But remember, although we are called to treat everyone we serve as if they were Jesus, they aren’t required to act like Jesus to be served. So if you are considering volunteering with homeless or low income women, don’t be surprised if your experiences don’t line up with a Lifetime movie or Chicken Soup for the Soul excerpt. It will still be worth it.