Doing Good: Reflections on volunteer work, charity, and assisting the needy
Policy Arena Reflection: Poverty, Homelessness, Emergency Assistance, and Public Welfare by Gregory Kowalski (Warwick, RI, USA)
Providence most Friday nights is infamously chaotic, noisy, bright, and busy. Cars dart through the streets on the fringes of speed limits, through slim back alleys barely wide enough for a mid-sized sedan, and some tourists even get caught up in the confusing system of one-ways and single-car streets that are secretly integrated into the city’s metropolitan web. This night, November 4, is a very frigid freezing one. Even wearing a heavy coat and gloves I can feel the cold, and my feet are numb in a matter of minutes.
Abbot Park Place is situated halfway between PPAC and Beneficent Church on Weybosset Street in the Jewelry District of Downtown Providence, and about three blocks down is Crossroads RI, one of three homeless shelters run by the organization in the state. Harrington House, or also known as House of Hope, is an all-male homeless shelter for temporary one night stays located off of Pontiac Avenue in Cranston, settled in a massive campus of prisons and correctional facilities.
My night began at Abbot Park Place. When I arrived the only person there was a woman named Julie who was distributing donated clothing. The situation was disorderly and confusing, as people stood in a vague queue to look through the pile of clothing on the table. I introduced myself to Julie and asked if there was anything I could do, but I wasn’t given any particular task, so I supposed I would just do whatever. Many people waited in the area for free food and clothing. The people who approached the table had very particular demands, sought specific items in specific sizes, which was a nearly impossible demand to meet given the massive pile of clothing in front of me made up of many different kinds of clothing in various sizes. Despite this, many managed to find something they could use.
While speaking to Julie, I found out that she had graduated from URI, and unsurprisingly that she was buried in student loan debt. Despite this, Julie was out here in the freezing cold sacrificing her time. But it also made me consider the connection student loan debt has to poverty, income inequality, welfare, and so forth. While student loan debt has become normalized in a sense by its pervasiveness, it has the potential to cripple former students financially for decades. Loan debt is intimately tied to poverty: inability to pay off loans due to unemployment and/or low wages could put the current cohort of students in the crosshairs of dire circumstances. Former college graduates who enter the (hypothetical) workforce immediately after graduating are finding it harder to find a job within six months, a year, and two years. Consequently college graduates may find themselves utilizing public assistance and other forms of emergency services if they are unsuccessful. (Student loan debt amnesty is an option being considered by some congressman, which could null the theory.)
When the food arrived and tables were set, the line began to move along. I offered coffee and milk to everyone who passed. The group I helped were middle-aged adults, who asked if I was from Providence College (and they were surprised to find that I was not). Every person received at least a cup of pasta and meatballs, a banana, a sandwich, a bag of cheese puffs, a water bottle, a soda, and a cup of milk or hot coffee. We served about 50 people at this particular location. Many were regulars, and the senior volunteers were familiar with at least some of the people. The make-up of the group was mostly older adults, at least one veteran of war, at least two families (one with a child), older couples, and a few with overtly untreated mental health problems. But in the end I found the particulars of their situations and persons to be irrelevant. They all needed something we could provide without much consequence to our personal lives, and they were grateful.
Leaving to go to Crossroads was punctuated by stragglers, who were given everything they asked for despite lateness. Forgiveness seemed to be a central theme. It was humbling.
Anne Pari, the main coordinator of the emergency food and clothing donation project, found me and thanked me for coming. She didn’t seem to expect me to come for the next two stops, but I felt obligated to finish the process because of the good we had done. It was inspiring, and again, very humbling.
At the next two stops we did the same thing we had done at Abbot Park. All in all, the entire thing took about three hours, and I was home in time to continue my research on welfare reform and poverty for the remainder of the night. Our last stop at House of Hope was particularly striking to me because it was my first time inside of a homeless shelter. The building seemed to be a former mess hall for the prison facilities, although I am unable to say for sure what it was. It was basically a massive warehouse with shiny weathered wood floors, and along each wall were four tall windows. Along the floor were hundreds of beds, mostly singles with two roads of two man bunks. The homeless men living inside for the night also varied widely in composition – young (close to my age), to very old (60-80 years old), non-Hispanic whites (majority) and black (very few). Out of the 200 or so that lived inside, we served half of them or more a hot meal for the night and a lunch for tomorrow. Many seemed very comfortable, as if they had been there before. But overall, I am not in a place to judge. Nobody really is…
What this experience has taught me is that there is still a substantive need for emergency programs of the type Anne Pari helps run. Along with their program, I learned that there are several others that go on other nights and distribute food and clothing. As I greatly admire their efforts, I am also troubled to learn that homeless shelters often fill up, and people are forced to live on the streets some nights. While the qualities of poverty in RI and the United States as a whole may not be as severe as the situation in other countries such as Bulgaria and Yugoslavia (as my friend Florent, who was born in Yugoslavia, pointed out), it does not preclude efforts to improve the situation here.
The current program to reduce poverty and aid the severely impoverished in RI do not seem to be helping these folks achieve upward mobility, but they do help them survive. However, a free meal and some clothes does not address the myriad other aspects of social success, such as attaining quality education and achieving stable and secure well-paying work. These folks rely on the assistance people from charity organizations provide as well as public welfare programs in order to simply survive, yet are not given the resources to improve their lot and aggregate wealth in the form of assets. The current policy instituted to reduce poverty was created with a poor understanding of what types of aid actually address the problem directly. Instead current policies promote marriage, discourage parenthood, discourage higher education, and promote working 30-40 hours per week in order to receive minimum public assistance. This strategy has not succeeded.