Craig's Place Volunteer
What does it mean for a person to be “homeless?” The implied definition of the word “homeless” refers to a person who does not have a home. But what does the word “homeless” really mean to us, to society? By the general American public’s standards, a homeless person is dirty or filthy. A homeless person is needy or weak. A homeless person is good for nothing, useless. A hobo. A drunk. A druggie. A bum. This attitude is a stigmatic paradigm that exists throughout communities here in Western Massachusetts and really, in communities throughout the United States. The American society’s view on homelessness translates to a prejudicial behaviour based solely on the assumptions associated with socioeconomic divisions. The institutionalized barriers formulated by our class-based country prevent the homeless from reintegrating into society. The homeless population represents a class of people that are pushed aside, forgotten, and deliberately ignored. Odds are inevitably against them; discrimination and deprivation of opportunity lie behind every corner, blocking people’s paths to escape. The American upper class look down on the lower classes of society, failing to realize the nearly unconquerable number of problems that the homeless face in reintegration to society.
I have dealt first-hand with the homeless in Western Massachusetts communities, specifically in Amherst and other surrounding towns in Hampshire County. I want to dispel any negative biases of the homeless population in Western Massachusetts communities. I must emphasize, even with how easily it is forgotten, that each homeless person within the greater Pioneer Valley, no matter how “dirty,” “crazy,” or “worthless,” is a person. I have spent nearly three hours a day, six days every week, for the last four months volunteering at the Craig’s Doors Homeless Shelter, a shelter located in Amherst, Massachusetts. In this time, I have encountered over 200 individuals, and I am both
confident and proud in saying that each individual, despite their societal labels,
has the potential to contribute to their community.
Every individual that I have interacted with has a
unique and interesting
personality that makes them human.
Each individual experiences the grief and sadness of loss and disappointment, the pain and frustration of life and futility, and the happiness and comfort of love and friendship. This is the same grief, the same frustration, and the same happiness that I experience, that each of us experiences, at any given moment. Despite the connectedness of emotions between all persons, many of the guests that come to the shelter still face the looming possibilities of harassment and alienation that dehumanize their very existence. Each and every day it happens. The people of Amherst bully, shun, and terrorize the homeless, but it is from these homeless individuals, the people that come into Craig’s Place every night, that I learn what it means to be human. For every tear that has been shed, every punch that has been thrown, and every profanity that has been screamed across the room, a laugh echoes louder, a smile shines brighter, and a passionate resilience, gratitude, and hope burn stronger. The sum of these emotions, the emotions that make these people human, pushes me to see past the negative connotations of homelessness: the dirtiness, the drunkenness and the worthlessness. Through these interactions, I am able to see potential in each and every individual who walks through the doors of Craig’s Place. The people. They are, not “what,” but, who I volunteer for, who I write for, and who I fight for.
Craig’s Place is a wet shelter, meaning guests are permitted to stay at the shelter even while intoxicated. Because many of the guests at Craig’s Place are under the influence of alcohol and drugs each night, the adverse effects of substance abuse are immediately apparent; the environment becomes conducive to bringing out the worst in people. Despite people’s aggressive attitudes and actions, Craig’s Place, being the only wet shelter for Amherst and its surrounding communities, plays an important role in housing people who may otherwise perish on the streets. The homeless are people. They are human.
I have seen individuals resist the urge to give up on a system that has already given up on them.
To see their efforts squandered by these institutionalized barriers is simultaneously infuriating and heart-breaking. Yet, I have seen their desires to succeed and their potential for change and growth. I have experienced their humanity. While it easy to view the homeless population as a drunken, disorderly, lazy, and uneducated group of people, in reality, most of the people I have encountered have been given no opportunity to succeed. As a volunteer at Craig’s Doors, I don’t just volunteer my time. I give them my ears, so that I may listen to their stories. I give them my eyes, so that I may share their tears. I give them my words, so that I may speak for their silenced voices. I give them my heart, so that I may ensure them that they are, really and truly, human. It is crucial that people understand the entirety of what it means to be a “homeless” person, because it is from this understanding that we, as Americans and as fellow people, can change the way system works and truly see each other as equals.