Volunteering at Care-A-Van introduced me to a side of Baltimore that even the residents do not see. On Wednesdays I drive with five or six other Loyola students into the city and park on the side of the road. The only places near us are a technology store and a shelter. This location was strategically placed because, although seemingly unsafe, was perfect due to the fact that the shelter is for the homeless. Residents blind themselves to the growing numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore, and refuse to do anything about it. They live among these people and close their eyes to the tragedies before them. As a Loyola student, I wanted to take part in the community and help to the best of my ability.
Once a week I go downtown and distribute necessities to people experiencing homelessness. Loyola students hand out ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, toiletries, snacks, bags, and drinks to every customer until we run out. The people who line up to receive what they might only have for a few days always are eager to start a conversation and share their stories. These stories draw me back to Care-A-Van each time and allow me to grow as a person.
Hearing the lives of people experiencing homelessness and the tragedies they have endured dispel any stereotypes that display them negatively. The media portrays people living on the streets as ex-convicts, uneducated, drug addicts, and in that position solely because of poor choices. Although there are those like this, I know that there are people who live on the streets for other reasons. I know this from the stories they tell me, and I am eternally grateful that they do so that I can educate others to ignore stereotypes.
One day, as I repeated the monotonous “Hello! Would you like shampoo, conditioner, lotion, or body wash?”, a man stopped me and asked if he could talk to me for a little bit. I agreed, handed off my bag to another student, and followed him to the curb. We sat down and then he began telling me of the value of education and how I should always cherish my opportunity as a college student. He then proceeded to tell me about how he got to living on the streets, asking for spare change, and regularly attending soup kitchens. He told me that he grew up in the south, Mississippi I think, and was targeted in schools from an early age. He said he had a bit of an anger problem, but school officials took it to another level and would not allow him to channel that frustration into sports. As a result, he acted out and was then expelled during high school. He never returned to school. This lack of education made it difficult for him to find a job. He did get his GED, and tried to take courses at the community college. He even told me he placed in the 90th percentile on the math placement tests. Unfortunately, because of his minimal amount of money, he could not afford the classes. He is stuck in this rut of being so close to getting out of poverty and homelessness, but cannot do so because he is in that situation. A lot of people experiencing homelessness are on the streets because of problems with their education and then forced into poverty due to the judgment of others.
Another time I was the drink distributer and a man asked if I could add alcohol to the iced tea powder. Despite the fact he was obviously kidding, I could not help but thinking about the addiction stereotypes that are placed on people experiencing homelessness. It made me wonder if he had any alcohol in his bag that he was going to put in the drink after, which would be a shame. People experiencing homelessness are often viewed as drunks or criminals with a lot of problems. This person unfortunately had me stop and question myself and the stereotypes. I felt terrible even thinking about the possibility that he had alcohol because it was an automatic judgment. If someone from the media were to see this, they would twist it to confirm their already negative views on homelessness.
These two men, and their reactions with me, enabled me to learn to see people for who they are and not judge a book by its cover. In class we often discuss breaking down walls we put up against the unfamiliar, and being true to ourselves. Doing Care-A-Van allows me to do this by first realizing the walls, or stereotypes, and then taking steps to get past that, like talking with the people I serve. Continuing to volunteer I know that I will get better at breaking down barriers, but also that I will face more challenges and learn to grow from them.