BLOGGER’S NOTE: Regarding the children in this story, I am glad to report that I have rarely seen children on the street in about the last three years. This is purely subjective, but our city seems to be doing a better job of getting them into shelters. I am printing this story to show what children sometimes go through. KS
I went to help crew the mobile soup kitchen truck at the last minute today, as some volunteers had cancelled. I didn’t need to buy the prenatal vitamins for Robin after all, as she and her husband, Sean, had left for the Gulf Coast last night. I didn’t meet Sean last week, but the director told me he is movie-star handsome and is in fact an actor. He was in a soap opera in Los Angeles, then came out to Dallas for an acting job that fell through, which is how he and Robin ended up on the street. He just procured a job on an oil rig at the coast, so they’re headed south.
I worked ‘on the ground’ for the first time tonight, which means standing outside the truck receiving the food from the passthrough at the rear of the truck and handing it to people — sort of crowd control, although there’s nothing to control — our customers are usually very polite. There are most often male volunteers out front, but it was a ‘girl group’ of workers this time. I like the closer contact with people that being on the ground provides, getting to reach out and touch them and talk to them for a minute.
We gave away all the socks I’d bought at the dollar store at the first stop. There was one young man at the City Hall Plaza, dressed in a single light shirt, who asked for a blanket, but we didn’t have any. Blankets will be my focus this week at thrift stores.
One of the people that touched my heart especially tonight was a young man who couldn’t speak — though he could make sounds, I couldn’t understand him, and I hated that I couldn’t. He was asking for something and pointing, perhaps another sandwich, but we had run out.
It was a pretty upbeat run because it wasn’t too cold, and at most stops we had enough food for people to go through the line several times. Then at the third stop came a stomach punch. A mother and two daughters, ages about eight and ten, came through the line and got their food. The director made a special effort to get off the truck and visit with the little girls, giving them some extra cookies.
When we’d finished handing out food, I noticed the family of three sitting together under a tree across the park. I walked over to talk to them and saw that they’d made a bed on the ground out of one thin sleeping bag, so I asked if they had a place to stay for the night. The mother said they’d been kicked out of two shelters. I asked her why, but couldn’t understand her answer; then she told me the shelter said she didn’t do her chores. Privately, I questioned her story, but didn’t confront her about it. I have not known the shelters to kick out children.
For the first time since I’ve been doing this, I thought I was going to start sobbing: those beautiful, trusting little girls with their brilliant smiles were looking up at me from the ground. I asked the mother what she needed. ‘Blankets,’ she said, but we didn’t have any, so I went back to the truck and got a heavy plastic bag for them to put under their sleeping bag and also gave them two thick sweaters I had brought along. ‘Will you be safe here?’ I asked her. She said she hoped so.
The director and I wondered aloud if in fact the shelter did kick out this mother with kids, but just before we left the stop, the mother told me she might be able to get into Austin Street Centre tonight after all.
I continue to be really shaken up by this experience, finding it devastating, and I’m haunted by the thought that I should have done something more to help them. But what? Call 911? Would that have made their situation better or worse? Bring them home to stay at my house? Although the latter may be the answer in my heart, it’s almost certainly not realistic and brings up all sorts of questions. But don’t radical problems require radical solutions?
In retrospect, I believe I made a mistake in not calling 911. I had never encountered such a situation before, and we left the scene before I could think it through. One thing I know: little girls sleeping under a tree in the cold in a park in downtown Dallas is not acceptable.