Over the course of my year as an intern at the OAC, the idea of meeting people where they are has taken on much more weight and meaning than before. It is no longer an attitude that I take lightly. It is a necessary mindset because every day presents new people and new challenges.
Often when people walk through the lobby door, they are in crisis. Some have just lost their housing, documentation, and contact with relatives. Others are fleeing violence and looking for a place that is stable and safe. Still more are worn down from spending years on the streets and weary from navigating the inhumane systems and institutions that surround them.
If I am not careful, I become overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their needs, but we all have limits, both individually and collectively. Learning to work within those boundaries to meet another’s need in a dignifying way is hard and holy work.
One thing the guests have consistently shown me is that even the smallest gestures can be meaningful blessings even in the midst of great need. Often times these moments of blessing manifest themselves in unexpected ways. As I was completing the intake paperwork with one elderly gentleman, I noticed his date of birth matched the calendar, so I excitedly said, “Happy Birthday, sir”. He replied in a pleasantly surprised tone, “You are the first to wish me a happy birthday.” Even the smallest of sentiments can be dignifying.
Another guest who had been recently injured asked if we had a cane since his last one had been stolen. I unexpectedly found one in the donations, and he replied, “Well, God does provide”. As I listened to one mother of young children who was fleeing domestic violence, I respectfully held space for her pain, knowing that the shelter list and hotline numbers may not be sufficient.
In situations like this I trust that the Spirit works within the smallest blessings and the space we create for each other as people of equal dignity. At the same time, we have to recognize the ways in which intersecting systems perpetuate homelessness and disproportionately affect those of vulnerable populations. The barriers run deeper than referrals for clothing and vouchers for IDs. However, doing what we can on the small scale can bring us closer to the vision of dignity, empowerment, and stability for each other.