Lessons I Learned While Working With The Homeless
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Student Life

I Served Food At A Homeless Shelter And Learned Some Valuable Life Lessons

Maybe it's time we take a step back from the things that stand in our way of living meaningful lives and consider what we truly need in order to be happy.

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I Served Food At A Homeless Shelter And Learned Some Valuable Life Lessons

According to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly .17% of the United States population faces homelessness. Of those people, about 2,000 reside in Washtenaw County, home to the University of Michigan that rolls in millions of dollars every year.

For the entire month of January, my campus church decided to open its doors to the homeless as a warming shelter so that they could have a place to find refuge during the harsh Michigan winter. As a volunteer, I was apprehensive about stepping into this experience and feared I wouldn't be able to meet these people where they were at in their struggles. After all, I have a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to keep me warm - I kept wondering how someone like myself could possibly understand the daily hardships these people endured on a level that would make an impact in their lives.

As it turns out, finding a way to reach out to the people I served was not as hard as I anticipated. I expected these visitors to be reserved, shut off from the world, or even resentful, but as it turns out, they opened up an opportunity for me to listen to new perspectives. With an optimism I didn't know possible in people who had gone through so much, a variety of people opened up to me with sincere gratitude and appreciation.

While these people were grateful for the food we served and the shelter given to them, what I found they appreciated most was to be seen and heard. These are the people we pass on the street without a second glance when they reach out and ask for help, the ones we pin down with stereotypes and accusations that hardly apply to most. With every dish I handed out, I was given a story in return.

I heard lots of stories about unfortunate situations and decisions to make, stories about how a person can wind up on the streets with nothing but the clothes on their back. But I also heard a lot of stories about joy and hope. All my life, I assumed that losing your home and all of your possessions is the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, and although such a situation is not ideal, it does not mean that happiness is completely lost.

A man with the biggest smile on his face told me that he found work for the next day and a woman cheerfully explained how she was close to buying a house with some of her friends. Another man told me how he used to be a scientist, and he let me read his past papers while retelling some of his stories from his college days. He told me about the struggles of being an immigrant in America, about the time he learned Russian just to impress a girl he liked, and he told me that despite its struggles, being homeless was the best thing that ever happened to him. Upon hearing this, I was struck by his humility.

He then proceeded to explain how the years leading up to his tragic cancer diagnosis (that would ultimately take everything he had to pay the bills) were times of too much investment in materialism and not enough focus on what it means to be human. He told me how losing everything he had has helped him regain a piece of himself that was lost in the midst of scholarship and wealth.

Walking home from the shelter that day, I realized there is a lot to be learned from just a few hours of working with these people and that there is a lot I should be ashamed of. Although society stigmatizes the homeless as criminals, misfits, or people who don't work hard enough to make ends meet, the truth is that they are just as human as those with homes and possessions. I am embarrassed about all the times I've turned a blind eye to those who need attention the most. Even though we may not always have something to give, just extending a smile and acknowledging their existence as humans is one of the most charitable things we can do. Moreover, there's a lot to be learned from their ways of living. Like the man at the shelter, maybe it's time we take a step back from the things that stand in our way of living meaningful lives and consider what we truly need in order to be happy.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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