Years in Learning but only the Beginning

Homelessness and Hunger from a Volunteer View

When I first volunteered at Broad Street Ministry I went with far more preconceptions than I realized. Most of all I thought we would just serve a meal, the exchange would be one way but with all the serving finished the volunteers began to sit with our guests, and I did too. This was the first time I sat down, talked to, and had a meal with the homeless and hungry. As we sat and talked, my further preconceptions that there was one, or even a few reasons, how one ends up homeless fell away quickly. The folks I sat with came from many walks of life and some even had homes at the time but were in-between various levels of government and nonprofit support.

I’ve continued volunteering for nearly 8 years and still have only a basic understanding of how people become housing or food insecure, the regular challenges they go through, and what kind of support they can get through various government and nonprofit services. Almost all of my knowledge comes from my time at Broad Street but with a few key experiences outside as well.

While volunteering at Broad Street Ministry, the organization has adapted nearly every month to meet growing and changing needs. The Ministry began with a Sunday after church service meal and then started advocacy around key issues such as Supplemental Security Income (a topic of its own.) Soon after, a Thursday meal called Breaking Bread was added as well, but the biggest shift came when the Sunday meal ended and more meals were added during the week.

By shifting to weekday meals, Broad Street could begin building regular and comprehensive services for guests around these dedicated times. These services include clothing and toiletries, mail services and ID cards, committing to a trauma-informed harm reduction model, each element added thoughtfully as needs arose. For example, the trauma-informed method is essential to creating a welcoming environment that supports the services. This comprehensive structure forms a path that the guests navigated through rather than simply being placed at the back of a line. Getting through different service levels and back into regular housing and work is a job of its own and one that needs coworkers.

Seeing Broad Street adapt their services was educational but, just as my first experience volunteering at a meal, my view was widened again when volunteering at MANNA. MANNA focuses directly on people with AIDS or other nutrition-related illnesses and delivers meals right to them. In this case, we went in and helped prepare the meals to be sent out but didn’t have any interaction with guests. Although I’ve helped serve dozens of meals, we helped prepare hundreds of meals just in one day of one week where preparation is going on continuously, and these meals likely went to completely different guests than those at Broad Street (needs further study.) Both Broad Street and MANNA provide meals but with a different focus and scope.

Between these two experiences, I was starting to see just how complex care is; both the issues that need tackling and how responses have taken shape. It’s difficult to keep volunteering at Broad Street consistent, but I’m keeping it more consistent and starting to learn more. I’ve started to learn some of the policy, history, and politics, that are just beyond the day-to-day work. As a personal education, I’ve begun looking at the history of hunger and homelessness as well as the responses to it. The goal of these posts is to build a firm understanding of the various responses and how they’ve taken shape. Right now, I’m starting with some research of “The Task Force on Homelessness.”

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