Your Turn: The view from a volunteer at the city-run Winter Emergency Shelter for the homeless
photo by: Submitted photo
We were scared. We were scared we would get beat up or catch a disease. We were scared we would not know what to say, do, or how to act. Despite this fear churning in our hearts, we walked through the door and up the stairs into the darkened gym. As our eyes adjusted, we could make out figures sleeping in the shadows on mats across the floor- sixty-five of them. This was the beginning of our very first volunteer discharge shift at the Lawrence Winter Emergency Shelter in the Community Building.
The volunteer training is straightforward and simple: watch the volunteer orientation videos, read the handbook, sign a volunteer agreement, and show up for your shift. Our discharge shift duties consisted of making coffee, putting out water bottles and snacks, greeting guests as they woke up, sanitizing sleeping mats and pillows, sweeping the gym and taking out the trash.
Our 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift relieved a city worker and some overnight volunteers. A university professor who had volunteered throughout the winter and a city employee showed us where to plug in the coffee and find the morning snacks and water bottles for the guest cart.
Looking across the darkened room, I had a sudden flashback to church youth group trips I had participated in; the gentle snoring, the hum of the furnace, the hushed voices, the sight of so many people collectively sleeping in a large gym — kids on a journey with a common cause. Shaking off this memory, I realized these 65 souls sleeping in the Community Building had a contrasting common cause — the cause of staying warm, staying safe, staying off the street to stay alive.
I was wrong to be afraid to volunteer. However, fear is neither right nor wrong, so a better thought is my gratitude for the opportunity to volunteer. I’m so grateful to live in Lawrence where resources are put into helping those who need assistance and shelter. One night’s shelter in a gym is not going to solve the complex challenges of homelessness in our community. Our city government, local businesses, non-profits, and many volunteer groups continue to tirelessly work on this public health issue. There is no one answer, no single solution to the many causes of homelessness — substance abuse, mental health issues, lack of affordable housing and income inequality. The benevolence of the city of Lawrence and the well-organized teamwork at the Winter Emergency Shelter are collaborative movements in the right direction to help the homeless.
As we walked out into the sunshine after our shift, I was no longer afraid. My fear was replaced with a determination to volunteer again and a realization — Lawrence love, it’s real.
Carla Moore is a Lawrence resident who recently volunteered at the city of Lawrence’s Winter Emergency Shelter.