The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Yield and Overcome February 28, 2008

Filed under: inspiration,Taoism — Karen Shafer @ 9:20 pm

‘Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.

Therefore wise men embrace the one and set an example to all.
Not putting on a display, they shine forth.
Not justifying themselves, they are distinguished.
Not boasting, they receive recognition.
Not bragging, they never falter.
They do not quarrel, so no one quarrels with them.
Therefore the ancients say, ‘Yield and overcome.’
Is that an empty saying?
Be really whole,
And all things will come to you.’

~~Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (22)


Candace and Patrick February 26, 2008

Filed under: homelessness,hunger,Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 9:04 pm

       “For now, we are pilgrims… Do not hurt anyone, in body or in spirit. As far as you are able, help everyone.”

                                                                                                                ~~St. Augustine, The City of God: 14

Journal Archives
Holy Saturday, 3/26/05

It’s a cold night, and raining. When I got up this morning, I looked forward to spending the day curled up on the sofa with a good book, drinking mug after mug of steaming hot tea — it was just the sort of day for it.

It was not to be, however. I had cleaned out my linen closet the previous evening and had come up with a stack of bedspreads I could live without, plus a bag of throw pillows from my daughters’ childhoods which I had been unable to discard because my mother had sewn them. Once a pack-rat decides to part with something, she should get it out of the house as soon as possible.

In the late afternoon, I loaded my car and drove downtown. For weeks I’d been trying to find the ‘Tent City’ under a bridge near downtown where a group of street people had made a stable community. It was there that the Texas Department of Transportation showed up from time to time with bulldozers and dump trucks and scooped up the tents, cardboard shelters and belongings of the residents, depositing them in the city landfill. I decided to look for it once again and take the blankets there.

At an intersection near where I thought the camp might be, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of a row of boarded-up buildings, so I pulled over to ask her for directions. “I’m looking for the homeless camp,” I said out my car window. “I am!” she replied cheerfully, “Me and Patrick have a house we’ve built on this lot,” she said and pointed to a vacant lot next to the buildings, where a set of brick stairs led upward but beyond which there appeared to be nothing. “Do you need any blankets?” I asked her. “Oh, yes! It’s so cold, we could really use them.”

There was something lighthearted in her spirit, and she was nicely dressed, with her hair tidily done. Well-dressed as she was, I wondered if she could really be homeless. “I’m Karen,” I said, and asked, “Is it just you and Patrick?” “I’m Candace! Well, there’s two men that live next to us, have their own place.” She had a look of disdain on her face, didn’t seem to think much of her neighbors. “Will you share this stuff with them?” I asked. “We can use it all,” she said, as I handed her the bedspreads out the window. “I have some small pillows. Do you want them? Some of them are torn, but they’re clean.” “Oh, yes! We’ve built ourselves a house, me and Patrick,” she repeated, “and I can use them to decorate.” I handed her the bag. “Oh, thank you, ma’am, thank you!” She was so enthusiastic, so sweet. We parted company, and I drove away. Little did I know at that time that their house was made of bits of tin, cardboard and peeling plywood.

After I’d driven a couple of blocks, I remembered I’d brought along a bag of Cadbury crisp chocolate Easter eggs, and something prompted me to turn back and offer them to her. I pulled up beside the Stairway Going Nowhere, grabbed the candy, got out of the car and mounted the steps. It was getting dark, and, at the exact moment that I reached the top of the steps and peered out into the gathering gloom, thinking suddenly that this was not the safest part of town to be getting out of my car and roaming around protected only by chocolate, a man rushed at me from the shadows!

In alarm, I turned to bolt, now quite sure I was living in one of those nightmares where your arms and legs flail in slow motion but you don’t actually move. Then Candace appeared beside the man, and I could suddenly breathe again. “This is Patrick!” she said proudly, and I could understand her pride. Patrick was a very nice-looking young man, and quite well-spoken. “Oh, thank you so much, ma’am, for the things you gave us. We can really use them,” he said with genuine warmth. We talked for a few moments, and I returned to my car and drove away, as the wind picked up and a bitter rain set in.

Even then, I felt there was something special in this encounter.

[to be continued]



Wisdom of a Child, Wisdom of the Street February 21, 2008

Filed under: and a little child shall lead them,homelessness,hunger,inspiration — Karen Shafer @ 9:26 pm


“The rewards of compassion are not things to wait for. They are hidden in compassion itself. I know this for sure.”

                                                                                                                        ~~Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

Alternating between past and present journal entries, this happened recently…

Current Journal
Sunday, 1/27/08

My granddaughter, Cora, who is five, had been saving money in her pink piggy bank, and one cold Sunday afternoon recently she decided it was time to part with some of it. She, her mom (my daughter, Rose) and I were going to brunch at Lucky’s, and she was promised that, if she was able to keep herself under control and in her chair during the meal, she could buy a gum ball at the restaurant (nothing like a bribe to elicit cooperation.)

Cora was unnaturally angelic during the meal, concentrating with greater-than-usual focus on her drawing in anticipation of spending her money on something resembling candy. After the meal, she bought her treasured gum ball. In fact, she was allowed to get three, one for each of us.

“Now,” Cora said matter-of-factly and with authority, looking levelly at her mother and me, “I want to take the rest of my money and give it to the people who don’t have houses.” “People who don’t have houses” is a phrase I have sometimes used to describe to my grandchildren my friends who live on the street. Rose and I exchanged surprised glances at an idea that seemed to come from out of the blue, but we knew it was an offer we didn’t want to refuse. “I think I know where we can find some of those people,” I told her.

We left Lucky’s and drove downtown to the spot I had in mind and stopped the car. A handful of people who are homeless were on the sidewalk, and I knew a few of them. When we rolled down the windows, they crowded around the car.

Let me say, by the way: I don’t advocate going downtown, opening your windows and handing out money, for many reasons. When I go downtown to help give away clothing or food, I never take or distribute cash. But neither Rose nor I were about to tell Cora she couldn’t ‘live her dream.’

I told her, “You can just give each person a coin as you wish,” and she did. Chaos briefly ensued as Cora handed out her coins through the back car window, but she was undaunted. When the money was gone, everyone outside the car offered their blessings and their gratitude.

Several people wanted to pray with us, so we held hands through the window and listened while they offered their prayers for bounteous blessings on us, guidance for themselves, and strength to overcome their particular problems.

Then a woman I know, Donna, looked at Cora in her rear car seat and said to her, “Now, I want you to always stay in school! It’s very important. Do you promise?” Cora stared at her with wide eyes, very solemn, and silently nodded assent. Donna continued, “And always, always depend on yourself. Be able to take care of yourself when you’re grown up. Don’t expect anyone else to take care of you.” Again, the solemn and awed assent from the back seat.

“Now I can go to McDonald’s tonight and get a cup of coffee!” Donna told us excitedly. “I’m a hot-drinks person myself,” I told her. “Nothing better in this weather.”

We drove home, blessed by this exchange with these people from the street. I am always awed by their faithfulness and the bounty with which they are able to offer blessings to those who come to see them.

The next day, and many times since that time, Cora has said to her mother or me when the subject of ‘people who don’t have houses’ comes up: “Remember that woman??? Remember what she said to me about ‘stay in school’?” “Yes,” her mom or I will say, “and she also said…” “I know! I know! About taking care of myself!” she says, impatient with us, making it clear that she doesn’t need to be reminded.



Of Supermarket Trollies and Rolex Watches February 19, 2008

Filed under: criminalization of the homeless,homelessness — Karen Shafer @ 8:23 pm

Journal Archives
Wednesday, 12/31/03

I was talking with my friend, Dee, today about homelessness — I asked her for coats for our mobile soup kitchen’s coat drive. She has several well-heeled friends, who are also friends of our current mayor (2003), and they told her recently that the homeless problem in Dallas had been solved! “How,” I asked, “by ignoring it?”

I mentioned a news report I’d heard which said the city was clamping down on crime by toughening the enforcement of the no-panhandling ordinance. With no small bit of sarcasm, I told my friend, “This sort of crackdown is very important to prevent the starving from crawling into our cars at red lights on chilly evenings. Also urgent is the innovative plan to make it a criminal offense to remove shopping carts from grocery store parking lots, as, once out on the street, the damn runaway trollies have been attacking people and stealing their diamond bracelets, Prada handbags and Rolex watches. Really, they must be stopped.” She laughed.

Joking aside, it seems the city wants to sweep the homeless problem under the rug with their no-tents-allowed rule, their no-panhandling ordinance and their intention to further regulate those who feed the homeless. What is the solution to the problem of homelessness? In a word, HOUSING.



Children, Stuffed Animals, Hot Cocoa and Grace February 15, 2008

Journal Archives
Monday, 12/29/03

When the rear door of the mobile soup kitchen slides up and I see the faces of the people lined up outside waiting for food, it’s as if a powerful energy and grace flow from them into me.

Tonight, my daughter, Mandy, sent along two new plush stuffed animals in case there were children in the food lines of the mobile soup kitchen, and at City Hall Plaza, the first two people in line were children. The soup kitchen director asked if she could be the one to give them the toys. A girl, about seven, chose the lion, and her brother, who looked to be around four, embraced the gray monkey and held it tight. Someone in the crowd around him said, “Look, he doesn’t even care about food! He just wants the monkey!” And the homeless people surrounding him laughed in a carefree way and shared for a moment in his joy.

We had enough food so that at the last stop, some people were able to come through the line three or four times. Some of the cookies had gotten wet, and, when the crisp cookies were gone, I scooped up the soggy bits in my plastic-gloved hands to throw them away, but people stopped me, asking for what was now ‘goo,’ so I opened my hands and they scooped it out, eating it eagerly.

Then, as we were closing up the back of the truck — all the sandwiches, soup, bananas, and nearly every cookie crumb having been given away — a man hurried up to the truck, looking as if he’d come from a distance. “Am I too late?” he said. “We’re so sorry, everything’s gone,” we told him. He was very lean and weathered and obviously hungry. He struggled to hide his disappointment, and succeeded. “Well, I just got here too late, it’s OK,” he said, as we apologized again. It was heartbreaking.

It occurred to me while driving to the bookstore for my ritual hot cocoa, a metaphorical foot still in the ‘street’ world but edging back into the reality of north Dallas, that it is dangerous to look out at the faces of the people lined up outside our mobile feeding truck and think that their being homeless is an acceptable and inevitable reality. One must, I think, keep sharp in one’s mind that solutions must always be sought to homelessness and hunger, even if they’re never found. One cannot acquiesce.

Am tired, drained, going home. I am so grateful that I have one.



Waxing Philosophical February 14, 2008

Filed under: Christianity,homelessness,hunger,mobile soup kitchens — Karen Shafer @ 2:33 am

Giving Freely

“…a nun once said to me, ‘Mother Teresa, you are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free.  They are losing their human dignity.’

When everyone was quiet, I said calmly, ‘No one spoils as much as God himself.  See the wonderful gifts he has given us freely.  All of you here have no glasses, yet you all can see.  If God were to take money for your sight, what would happen?  Continually we are breathing and living on oxygen that we do not pay for.  What would happen if God were to say, ‘If you work four hours, you will get sunshine for two hours?’  How many of us would survive then?’

Then I also told them, ‘There are many congregations that spoil the rich;  it is good to have one congregation in the name of the poor, to spoil the poor.’

There was profound silence;  nobody said a word after that.”

                                                                                ~~Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World

Journal Archives

Tuesday, 12/23/03


To my surprise, feeding the homeless is controversial. I did not know this, although, being oppositionally-defined as I can sometimes be, it would only have encouraged me. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that not everyone thinks hungry people should be given food.


‘People should get their needs met through the institutions and organizations we’ve already created to deal with the problems of hunger and homelessness,’ an acquaintance recently told me. But what if they’re not going to? What if the organizations, excellent though they may be, are woefully inadequate to the scale of the task, which is clearly the case in Dallas? What if significant numbers of people fall through the cracks? Some are not going to get their needs met with current resources; some are unable to; some — many — do fall. And for those, another approach is required.


To me, feeding the hungry seems self-evident, especially as a person who calls myself a Christian. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus in John 21. He doesn’t say, “If my sheep are employed, or at least job hunting,” or “If they can conform enough to live in a shelter,” or “If they promise to take their antidepressants and visit their psychotherapists on a regular basis.” Jesus states simply, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Lord…you know that I love you,” Simon Peter replies. Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”


And even more direct is the bit in Matthew 25: “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then follows the horrific fate awaiting those ‘goats at the left [hand]’ who decline to offer these kindnesses to their brothers and sisters — read that passage if you want to tremble!


The argument that feeding street people enables and perpetuates homelessness confuses me. Can you look for a job when you’re starving? Dirty? Freezing? Without an address? Did Mother Teresa perpetuate starvation by going on the streets of Calcutta and feeding the ‘poorest or the poor?’ Did she encourage the sick to get sicker because she tended to their medical needs?


Or does our plenty somehow shame us, that we are willing to let children live cold and hungry on the streets of Dallas while we buy designer tennis shoes and IPods for our own kids? Is this moral? Is it correct human behavior, religion aside? Is it even reasonable?


If rational self-interest is our guiding principle, does the terrible reality of homelessness and poverty in our own city and around the world serve that principle? Sometimes I wonder if our collective anger towards street people has something to do with their reminding us of the ludicrous, wasteful splendor in which most of us live, and perhaps also of the ubiquity of vulnerability all humans share.


True, feeding the homeless is only one part of the puzzle. A comprehensive plan is required to get people off the streets and into housing. Enlightened self-interest tells us that to do everything we can to solve the problems of homelessness and hunger in our city benefits us all. It tells us that that there are many paths to this desirable conclusion, that all kinds of help is needed: shelters, job training, treatment centers, rehabilitation programs, housing — yes, but also, surely, the simple service of alleviating people’s suffering directly, wherever they are, by giving them food when they’re hungry, a smile, a hug and a kind word when they’re lonely, a blanket and clothing when they’re cold.



Paranoia Strikes Deep February 13, 2008

Filed under: homelessness,hunger,mobile soup kitchens — Karen Shafer @ 3:21 am

Journal Archives
Thursday, 12/11/03

I got off the catering truck last night at Dallas City Hall plaza and talked to some of the homeless people who were eating the food we’d passed out from the mobile soup kitchen where I was volunteering. I asked one woman, “Where will you stay tonight?” “Under a bridge,” she replied, but she flinched when she said it. When I didn’t register surprise, she seemed to become more at ease. “Will you be warm enough?” I asked her. “Oh, yeah,” and she seemed proud to say it, “I have plenty of blankets. I sleep on four or five and have four or five over me. If I get cold, I just flip another one over me from underneath.” We both laughed and agreed it was a good system. She said she used to have a tent, but the city won’t allow it any more. How ridiculous, I said.

She can’t stand the homeless shelters, she told me — too many people, she can’t get any sleep there. Crowds makes her very anxious. She confessed to me that her sense of confinement in closed-in places comes from an abusive ex-husband who kept her captive in their basement, tied up for months. I told her I could see how that would do it.

I sometimes feel the same about crowds, I said, and even occasionally get anxious in a grocery store line. Two homeless men standing near us joined in our conversation, saying that they felt the same way. One, a nice-looking and well-spoken man in his twenties, said he used to play baseball in college, and when he was on the field looking up at a crowd of tens of thousands of people, it was fine, but he could never stand to be IN the crowd. The other young man, also attractive and neatly-dressed, said he always wanted to sit at the rear of restaurants with his back to the wall. “Me too!” I told him, “Paranoia strikes deep.” We laughed at our common affliction.



First Night

Filed under: homelessness,hunger,mobile soup kitchens — Karen Shafer @ 3:18 am

[Three and a half months later…]


       “We’re not trying to solve the problem of homelessness in Dallas, because we don’t know how.  We’re  just trying to keep people alive.”       ~~Phil Romano, Restauranteur and HungerBusters Founder


Journal Archives
Wednesday, 12/10/03


I’ve just returned from my first night as a volunteer for a mobile soup kitchen that goes out into the city to feed people who are homeless and am now sitting in a north Dallas Barnes & Noble cafe. Drinking a mug of hot cocoa, I feel as if I’m in a no-man’s land of culture shock. I’m intensely aware of my comfort and am thinking of the misery I’ve just witnessed among the Dallas homeless people out on the streets on this very cold night.


It’s surprising the sorts of people one sees waiting for food in the lines outside the catering truck that serves as the mobile soup kitchen — several were well-dressed and looked middle class, though most seem very poor. The little kids are the ones that break your heart.


I’d like to learn more about the roots and causes of homelessness, but tonight, sitting here getting thawed over my steaming hot cocoa in this comfortable cafe, with my cozy fleece jacket zipped to my chin and a scarf wrapped twice around my neck, I’m aware of feeling angry — and sad. I look around at my fellow middle-class Dallasites, and all I can think is that they surely don’t know about the four-year-old child in the very long line of homeless people at City Hall Plaza tonight where, an hour ago, I and seven other soup kitchen volunteers gave away the last of our sandwiches, soup, cookies and bananas. None of us can really be aware of the number of people who will sleep on the ground in downtown Dallas tonight, I tell myself, or we wouldn’t let it happen. It seems impossible that it does happen in the midst of such prosperity.


My next thought is that it’s easy to get self-righteous after just a little bit of ‘helping.’ And my next: that my optimistic view of human nature — that people would help if they were aware — is probably naive. Nonetheless, I think some would if they only knew how. It is not helpful to blame either society or the homeless themselves for these terrible circumstances. The causes of homelessness matter, but if one gets hung up there, it’s all too easy not to take action. I like the approach of the mobile soup kitchens because it goes straight to the solution and simply feeds the hungry — no questions, no analysis, no red tape. To me, this seems like the most Christlike solution.




Resisting the Call

Filed under: Christianity,homelessness — Karen Shafer @ 3:15 am

       “Today I stand before you to make a just, useful, and suitable intercession, I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles.”
                                                                                                            ~~St. John Chrysostom

Journal Archives
Wednesday, 8/27/03

I walked out of church last night and came face to face with a stained glass window I’d been passing for years but hadn’t noticed. “Feed my sheep!” it fairly shouted. Felt it was an Executive Order — that I was meant to begin volunteering again — this time with people who live on the street, the homeless people in Dallas.

Talk of ‘callings’ often sounds pompous, but I’d been feeling this prompting for some time, (though maybe not in such a clear way as a church window jumping out at me.) Then, tonight, I passed a shelf in the bookstore where I often go to write, and I was arrested by a book entitled The Heart of Henri Nouwen. When I took it from the shelf, it fell open to this passage:

       “Jesus did not say: ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor,’ but ‘Blessed are the poor.’… Here lies the great mystery of Christian service. Those who serve Jesus in the poor will be fed by him whom they serve… We so much need a blessing. The poor are waiting to bless us.”
                                                                                                             ~~Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

Serendipity. Time to act.