As a woman, if I had to count each time a man grabbed something out of my hands, or wouldn’t let me pick something up because it is “too heavy” for me, I would need more than twenty hands to tally it up on my fingers. It happens so fast that I end up feeling hot and embarrassed, like a child who was just chastised for disobeying the household rules. I don’t think about the fact that I lift very heavy boxes everyday for shower service, or that I go to the gym and lift weights, all I do is hand over the box and smile, thank them politely, and feel less gratified than if I had said no and carried the box myself.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with helping the unhoused. I think quite a bit. We often think of the unhoused population singularly as people who need to be helped, and although people do need assistance, we rarely flip the script and ask what this group can assist us with or what skills they already have. When I first started with the shower bus, I did not want anyone receiving services to lend me a hand with unloading the bus and organizing the supplies. This wasn’t because I didn’t trust these people, but because I wanted them to enjoy our services without conditions (and also was unable to separate my own experiences from the ones unfolding in front of me). Now, however, I realize I was infantilizing our folks and negating their autonomy.
What I didn’t understand was that people who come to shower service already know that there are no conditions or barriers to our service. They don’t feel obligated to help because they think they have to in order to get showers. They help because they want to. What I realize now is that I had a big ego. I was only acknowledging how good I was for letting people relax, and how noble it was not to ask for help from them. What I was dismissing was our folks’ ability to do good. Doing good deeds makes us feel dignified, it gives us that warm fuzzy feeling like a blanket fresh out of the dryer. The whole notion that I didn’t think unhoused folks needed that feeling too was ignorant.
I think this perspective stems from focusing on people’s present situation rather than who they are and where they’ve been. Lots of my friends on the streets were in the military, contractors, chefs, etc., and have extremely specialized and capable skills to offer. These people are homeless, not helpless; they want to offer up their time to us as a gift, especially if they feel like it’s the only thing they have left to give.
I used to feel weird when our friends would offer me small tokens or gifts; again I thought I shouldn’t take anything, abstract or concrete, from people who need more than I do. Then I realized that assuming that they couldn’t afford to or shouldn’t offer me gifts came from a place of superiority, and that the work we do is incredibly relational- it needs to be a mutual concession of generosity. So, I want to leave you with a few things my friends have given (or offered) me throughout my time here, because I’ve never met a more generous group of people. They’re gracious in ways I did not previously understand.
- Once, a man at shower service offered me an extremely expensive and detailed pocket knife to defend myself. He was worried about my safety as a young woman who travels around Nashville alone a lot.
- One of my friends on the street pulled out a bottle of semi-permanent red hair dye for me (for context, my hair is already slightly red). She wanted me to take it because I “would look so sexy in this color”. She was going to use it herself, but was offering for me to take it instead. I don’t dye my hair, but almost took this one because, in all honesty, I would have looked great in that color.
- Another one of my friends gave me and a coworker Six Flags memorabilia cups to drink Dr. Pepper he also bought for us. I still have the cup and wonder where he got them.
- One friend goes dumpster diving to find jewelry to refurbish and sell. I had previously told him I had gotten into studying mushrooms. He had found a mushroom necklace and given it to me.
- Someone painted me a beautiful picture of my Dalmatian, Leila. It was quite accurate.
- My friend Matt bought us cherry slushies for doing his VI-SPDAT, a governmental tool that would help him get into permanent housing. He passed away two weeks later. I found out after that his slushies were never actually full slushies, but a 64oz cup filled with vanilla ice cream and a bit of slushie on top to conceal it. Thinking about that always makes me smile.