January 2013. Kensington, Pennsylvania. The heroin needles thrown in the sideyard of the women’s center go with the stripped bare rooms inside, where the women crow and steal things and shoot up in rooms upstairs (they’re not supposed to). We sit on threadbare couches. It’s recovery group, and everyone’s coughing because it’s winter, the whirring rasps of smokers. One calls herself a fallen angel. They talk to erase the streets, talk about rape, talk about God, talk about drugs. I won’t be beat to get out on the corner anymore. I won’t. There’s a lock bar in the steering wheel of our car parked outside. We walked through cigarette butts to get here, past the pink doorframe where someone scrawled in sharpie: Don’t ash the walls. Respect the pink.
Every night at the Inn someone’s cursing and fighting outside our window. One time, my sister Alicia stood against the shade to listen. Can you hear what they’re saying? Just F words. A man strangled two cats the day before and someone called the cops and a social worker; only, it was three homeless men who chased the culprit away. We all tried to keep the killings a secret a little while so the woman who fed the cats and loved them wouldn’t hurt. Not yet, not right away. Protection. I think about a new Kensington strangler. We prepare hot meals here, so the men on the mattresses and doorsteps watch out for the place. One man calls himself the professor. The children come in for food, cake, crying, laughing. The favorite nun with her stern love plays peek-a-boo with the little ones and I’ve never seen such light.
Taxi drivers refuse to come here. Yet, in a time where kindness sometimes only seems like an Internet sensation, Kensington is filled with undocumented grace. I see it around me in an austere and raw way as I sleep and live in the shelter for a week, visit with the women’s group, hand out bowls of soup. It’s January. Imagine putting boots on three hundred homeless men, women, and children, not to mention gloves, warm jackets, a blanket, handing out food every day… 365 days a year. It happens in the part of town where Philly taxi drivers refuse to drop off volunteers.
One day, I am going to the local grocery stores and factories for the extra food they would otherwise throw away. Day olds. It’s a chain of giving here. We show up at one factory, pick up boxes of cakes. Then, at the meat-packing factory, Father gives one of the cakes to the man who helps us load the van. We stop at the elderly home that gets too many food donations, and we collect their untouched leftovers. The bakery gives us more donuts than we can use. Kevin drops a dozen off at the construction zone that he happens to drive by during pick-ups. The construction workers seem suspicious. Giving. My sister and I are giving out thermals and blankets in a hallways upstairs late Monday night. Men and women tromp up the stairs from the winter cold to get their set. A visitor stops in for a moment and asks us, Do you need more winter coats? “We’ll use one,” we say. She strips her own off. We say, stop, stop, stop, keep your coat. “I have another one in the car,” she says. “Seriously. I have another one,” and she gives us her coat. Still warm.
People do this every day. Wake up. Serve. Give away their jacket. Not so unusual around here.
Another day, I’m sitting on the floor of the kitchen with my sister, bagging bread for the evening meal when a volunteer asks us about our mom. She is the one we are here with: My mother who spends nights in shelters in New York City, who gets on a bus from New York several times a year, trucks out to Philly, and works in Kensington with the other volunteers at the Inn. She cries on the phone the first time she tells me about the women’s center and asks me if I want to come with her sometime. I do. It’s winter break and I am here. “What’s it like being her daughter?” the volunteer asks. This inspiring, humble, simple, wonderful woman? She’s an amazing woman, says my little sister. I think: Chain of giving. She’s been bringing us to homeless shelters since we were this high, I hold my hand up to show how small. Since I was old enough to know how to make a sandwich, I say, I’ve been making them for the homeless.
Alicia and I still talk about the men in downtown Raleigh: Men with broad shoulders and laughs bigger than addictions. We’d give them lemonade and bologna and cheese sandwiches every Saturday. We had pigtail braids, and they had such a kind way of taking paper cups from our hands. Later, when my mom started the WIHN program at our church, we spent less time at the park downtown and more time with families in the program. I became friends with girls my age; my mom took in children during the week sometimes, an informal daycare; when we said goodbye to families, it was goodbye. Homeless doesn’t have a return address. So many people drifted in and out of our lives, many onward to success, a steady job, apartments; they had our number and sometimes the phone would ring again, months later, with the good news. Help for a moment and imagine what’s possible in the aftermath. My dad always said, ‘these kids can go to Harvard,’ knowing that the chances were better if only, if only enough people could give enough to get them there. My parents taught us to give what we could. Amazing, says my sister. A description of all I could ever aspire to.