Until April 22.
That Thursday morning, I started my day with a 7 a.m. breakfast at a homeless shelter, joined by 13 others from the community — all part of the daylong event Walking in Their Shoes. Hosted by Homeward, an organization that works to prevent homelessness and educate the community about the problem, the event was taking place for the second time, with the goal of giving members of the community insight into the lives of Richmond’s homeless.
As I sipped my coffee, Homeward executive director Kelly King Horne informed us that on any given day, there are 1,012 homeless people in our area (down 12 percent from last year). She added that "131 children will sleep in shelters tonight.” The thought of more than 100 children having to use shelters that very night quickly engaged me.
To make it more personal, we were each handed a packet that contained an alias and a personal history we had to adopt throughout the day as we accomplished a serious of missions in groups of three. My name? Monika Smith. My mission? To find financial help for housing, then furniture for me and my middle-school-aged daughter; we had been evicted from our apartment off of Chamberlayne Avenue and were currently living at a shelter on East Main Street.
To truly play the part, we had to empty our pockets of everything but our driver’s license (which I ended up forgetfully leaving behind), one-way bus fare, our cell phones (as a safety precaution) and $5 in emergency cash. Then we hit the streets.
Navigating the System
Traversing the city with my two teammates, an enthusiastic youth pastor from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a VCU psychology senior seeking a bit of extra credit, we found ourselves seated on a crate-style sofa in the main office of HomeAgain. The shelter was surprisingly homey — though I still found it slightly distressing to think of the adorable children waving and making faces at us through the window having to sleep there.
The exercise started to hit a little deeper as I answered a series of personal questions about Monika Smith. On the practical side, things looked good — my income as a fast-food employee made me eligible for St. Joseph’s Villa’s Flagler program. If I chose to apply and was accepted, I would be assigned a staff member to assist me in finding housing, supplying funds for after-school care for my daughter, sticking to a budget and providing me with free clothing as often as needed. The federally funded program invloves a two-year commitment on both sides. “Our goal is to break the patterns … so you will never be homeless again,” the case manager explained.
During the conversation, it became clear to me that if I was ever truly in that position — with no family or network in the area — I’m not sure I would know how to even begin to navigate the system to find out about Flagler. Should I head to social services or visit a church like St. Paul’s and talk with their social worker? Or should I start at a homeless shelter? And even if I had the personal gumption to do so, would I have enough emotional resilience to answer intensely personal questions?
Free Lunch, New Friends at St. Paul’s
At lunchtime, my counterparts and I hurried to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (we were told that if you don’t get there by 11:30 a.m., you are often too late) and waited in a long line of hungry men and women. Once inside, I was given a ticket with a number and a small bag of chips, which I nibbled on as I made a few new friends.
Chuck was one of the first. Dressed in a white shirt layered with a jacket, he said he’d been grabbing lunch at St. Paul’s for about three months. He held up a pretty impressive airplane that he’d crafted out of recycled Coca-Cola cans and ran his finger through the plane's propellers, which spun smoothly. He said he’d been making them since he was a young boy and could craft them in about 30 minutes with just staples, cardboard and scissors.
Chuck and I became fast friends — right before I left, he said to me with a grin, “Bethany, I’ll tell you what to do. You leave your boyfriend — you leave your husband, and in 20 years, I’ll support ya!” I laughingly agreed, to which he responded: “It will take me 20 years to save enough money to support a woman like you!” I had tried to dress appropriately as to the event, but I realized that my black flats and cardigan somehow must have given away my suburban roots.
Once our numbers were called and I was munching on chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and salad, a friendly fellow diner told me that St. Paul’s Thursday lunches are by far the best free meals offered in the city.
To Commerce Road and Back
The afternoon consisted of a trek to Commerce Road and the Caritas Furniture Bank to inquire about the program. (Our bus fare got us partway there; we hoofed it the rest of the way.) The furniture bank is incredibly organized; the mammoth space is filled with everything a home could need — electronics, beds, mattresses, sofas, dishes and more. More impressive to me was that it all began with one woman — out of her garage — just five years ago. The furniture is offered to those in need for free, and about 14 families per week are serviced there.
The trek back to St. Paul’s on foot was about two and a half miles, and it left me with the thought of how something like transportation can be a huge obstacle — and how intensely my feet were killing me.
In a moderated panel discussion that wrapped up the event, one woman’s insight was along the same lines: “If you cannot get there, it’s like that service does not exist to you,” she said.
I left with two thoughts: First, that there are an incredible number of resources for the homeless in our area, from Goodwill Employment Services, which offers daily sessions for free to those without jobs, to free lunches and a variety of financial-assistance programs. However, in spite of that, it truly is a complicated task to navigate the system, and there are often multiple steps and days or weeks of waiting to find a place to stay or to get into the appropriate program.
Now when I pass the homeless couple on my way to work, I think of my day with Homeward and know where to point them if asked for help.
“Does a simulation make a difference?” one person asked as we left, before adding: “It already is.”
WTVR filed its own report on Walking in Their Shoes. The video is embedded below.