About a week ago I had a unique opportunity to get involved with a great event called Project Connect. The point of Project Connect is to not only connect people in need with services (food, housing, medical care, clothes, haircuts, etc), but also to establish a genuine human connection. Asking for services and going through service agencies’ processes can sometimes be demoralizing. This event humanizes the process of asking for and receiving help.
I signed up to be a Guest Guide through the Phoenix Philanthropists. I was familiar with how Project Connect works, because I was the Volunteer Coordinator for the first ever Project Connect in Flagstaff Arizona almost four years ago. I jumped right in as a guest guide, getting oriented to the room and the services available and then getting in line to be matched with two individuals who had come for help.
The church building was packed with people. The turn out was huge and they did not have enough volunteer guest guides to match with all of the guests. When I was matched with two people, Samantha and Jess, we headed outside to find a quiet place to talk. As a guest guide I was responsible for getting to know Samantha and Jess and finding out what their needs were. I had an intake form for each person and filled it out on their behalf after asking them questions. Most of these questions are very personal. You have to ask where they slept last night and if they have housing you ask how stable it is. The form asks if they are transgender and you go on to ask about if they are interested in having an STD test or talking to a mental health counselor. Even trying to act more like a friendly neighbor and less like a social worker, it was uncomfortable to ask someone I just met very personal questions. Of course, since both Samantha and Jess were on long term disability, they had been in the social work system for a long time and were used to disclosing all of this information to perfect strangers.
I found it ironic that out of the three of us, I was the only one who was technically homeless and unemployed. In fact, before I walked into the event I tried to open up my mind to who I might meet by reminding myself that I qualified to get in line as a guest instead of a guide.
Once I had gotten to know Samantha and Jess a little better, I led them inside to meet with some of the agencies who were available to offer them assistance. It was great to see the times when they actually got tangible help. Samantha was able to fill out everything she needed to have a copy of her birth certificate sent to her residence. She also got reading glasses. Jess was able to be checked out by a doctor and speak to a representative from the VA.
The most touching moment for me was when Samantha and I went to wait for her to get an HIV test. We sat next to each other on couches in the waiting room and shared stories. I lightened the mood with my ridiculous tales of fainting at the sight of my own blood and she told me about how she used to work in construction in Colorado Springs before she went on disability. She was very open about how she had been homeless for years and was finally in an apartment of her own. She was curious about my lifestyle, how I slept in a tent most nights and traveled from town to town. She asked if I preferred to sleep outside under the stars or inside a home. I said that I liked both, and then realized that what I really liked and was grateful for was that I had the choice.
Samantha’s face lit up as she came out of the nurses office and announced that the test was negative and as a bonus they had given her a $5 Sams Club gift card. She had confided in me earlier that she had already run out of food stamps for the month and was concerned about not having a way to pay for milk and meat (items you can rarely get at a food bank). I was both impressed and saddened by her in depth knowledge of the social welfare system and what services she could get.
One thing that disturbed me was how pervasive the us and them behavior is. This event is intended to breakdown the divide between those who came for help and those who are offering it. I noticed how the volunteers were almost always standing while the guests were sitting. The volunteers often kept a distance from the service tables and were unlikely to sit down with the guests to eat or sit next to them at a service provider table. I found myself standing in the corner in the room in the clothing area until I realized that was ridiculous. I am the queen of thrift store shopping! I should be in there searching for sizes and the best brands. I left the safe corner next to the other volunteers and jumped in the fray, searching for the best deal for Samantha, just as I would any other friend I had gone to the thrift store with.
At the end of the day we were exchanging hugs and wishing each other well. I was really glad I had come. It was alarming to see such a high turnout of guests and such a low turnout of volunteer guest guides, but I felt that I had made a difference in two people’s lives, and I know they made a difference in mine.
Find out about upcoming Project Connect events in Phoenix.