PERRY, Maine — This week, I hugged a homeless person for the first time ever.
How many people can say they hugged a homeless person this Thanksgiving week, or any week for that matter?
Hugging a homeless person doesn’t make me special, just blessed I had that moment. But it took me 68 years to get there.
Homeless people are a familiar sight to all of us. They are the people we ignore on the street.
They sleep on steam-grates in Washington, D.C. They curl up in front of store fronts in Los Angeles. They live in cities and towns in Maine and other places in America. While some stay hidden, others sit on street corners jiggling paper cups, hoping to get a dime or a quarter until the police chase them away.
Others come out only at night to scavenge through dumpsters looking for clothes and food. Some live in shelters, others in back alleys. They are the disenfranchised, the mentally ill, the drunk, the drug addicts and the people who’ve lost their homes for one reason or another.
They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. They are old and they are young. They are loners and families, single mothers and children — they are a microcosm of America, only they are poor and homeless. They are the discarded few.
A few months ago, my friend Rob Wyatt of Robbinston, Maine, talked about the Thanksgiving meal he was helping plan for the homeless with his partner, Jeanne Newman of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. He enlisted my help and that of a few other friends to spend a couple of days before Thanksgiving in White Plains, N.Y., to help out with the project.
During those days, he was the gofer, troubleshooter and chef at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y., where the dinner was prepared and served two days before Thanksgiving.
Newman, a former Hastings High School teacher, started S.H.A.R.E. the Project in 1989. That year, the project served 125 homeless; on Tuesday, they served more than 500 people. The project is affiliated with a group called Midnight Run Inc., which serves as an outreach organization based in Westchester. They were responsible for getting the hundreds of homeless from New York City and parts of Westchester County to White Plains for the dinner.
Socially conscious herself, for more than 20 years Newman has helped high school and college students understand that community service is a “choice,” not a requirement. Since the beginning, thousands of students have been involved with helping the homeless over the years.
Everything began at 9 a.m. Monday. Volunteers unloaded all of the donated food from the back of a van. Other friends of Wyatt’s, Randy and Elizabeth Dickinson of Downingtown, Penn., and Nan Sepik of Perry, Maine, carried bags of potatoes and apples into the kitchen while friends of Newman’s unpacked cases and cases of flour, sugar and packaged turkey dressing. Women from the American Muslim Women’s Association of New York helped slice and dice apples for the 60 apple pies that needed to be cooked, while cans of pumpkin pie filling were opened. Liz Dickinson oversaw the preparation of the 60 pumpkin pies that had to be made and baked.
People from area businesses showed up in teams to wash and cut lettuce, green peppers, carrots and cucumbers for the 500 salads that would be put together in individual bowls. Sepik and another volunteer, using huge pots, mixed enough packaged stuffing to serve everyone.
Then it was time to wash the dishes and around 7 p.m. to call it a day.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, six core volunteers showed up to assemble various fruits for the fruit salads and open all of the cans of cranberries. Other volunteers came later. There was a slight glitch in the operation when the chef, feeling unappreciated, picked up his knives and walked out. Wyatt stepped in and the remaining volunteers continued to work as a team.
Employees of the synagogue set up tables in the multipurpose room of Congregation Kol Ami — lots of tables.
While some volunteers were assembling the food in the kitchen, others set the tables, placing a colorful bouquet of paper flowers in the center. Christians, Jews and Muslims worked side by side.
At 3 p.m., nearly 100 high school and college students arrived from Westchester, the Bronx, Queens and Long Island, among other areas. They cut the pies into slices and finished setting the tables. Newman’s son Jeremy and his girlfriend Bridget Reaney of Boston, using a nitrous oxide gas cylinder, blew up 1,000 balloons, tied them to strings and anchored them in the center of the tables. Chefs from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, dressed in white chef coats and toques and carrying their own carving knives, arrived to serve the food. More students arrived.
At 5 p.m. Newman addressed the group and talked about how important it was for the students to not only greet the homeless, but to interact with them to learn who they are.
Then it was time for the guests to arrive. They were brought in buses from the streets and from shelters all around Westchester County and New York City. Those who lived on the streets carried their belongings with them. One woman walked through the door carrying two battered canvas suitcases. A man walked in carrying an empty metal salad bowl with a plastic cover clutched to his chest, others had plastic grocery store bags at the ready to take food with them. A man dragged two green garbage bags, stuffed with who knows what, behind him as he headed into the dining room.
In came women and men, old and young, some carrying babies. Several women were pregnant. A lot of the homeless were elderly. But there also were toddlers and teens. An elderly Asian couple nodded to the students who yelled Happy Thanksgiving to all who arrived. One homeless woman had a badge stuck on her hat that said “Tax the Rich.”
The youngsters who entered were taken aside and given armloads of stuffed toys and books before going into the dining room. Newman stood in front of the dining room hugging and greeting everyone who entered. They were old friends, people she has fed for years and new friends met on Tuesday night.
The last through the door were two women who I will call Grace and Sandy — even the homeless have a right to privacy.
I was standing in the dining room greeting people as they arrived when I heard a woman yell, “I can’t find Grace. She was supposed to be in the bathroom.” I walked over and introduced myself. Sandy was dressed in layers of coats with a white wool-knit cap pulled down over her steel-gray hair. Her hands were brown from dirt. Sandy became progressively agitated. I talked quietly to her and told her I would find Grace. She kept saying, “Grace is my friend, I can’t go in there without her, I don’t know any of those people,” she said referring to the dining room.
We found Grace near the stuffed toys, picking through them and putting them into the shopping cart she was pushing.
Grace, who said she is 81-years-old, is a victim of osteoporosis. Her back was stooped, her face pointed toward the ground. She was dressed in a blue baseball cap, winter coat and pants. She turned her face to me and smiled. “I am getting these for my friends,” she said, her Austrian accent pronounced. We let her pick through some more toys. I asked Sandy if she wanted some stuffed animals, and she replied, “Toys, I don’t need toys, I need a roof over my head.”
I stayed close in case they needed help. Students were scurrying back and forth serving and carrying plates of hot food to the guests — from the beginning, Newman insisted there be no food-kitchen, cafeteria-style serving lines.
Sandy became anxious again when she realized the hot food was turkey and not chicken. “I’m allergic to turkey,” she said. I got her more potatoes and an extra piece of pie. She wanted milk, not apple juice, so I got that for her.
At the front of the dining room, a band made up of more volunteers played some lively music. A young woman who was one of the homeless got up on the stage and sang the most touching rendition of “Silent Night.”
“She sings like an angel,” one man commented. The assembly erupted in applause. Another homeless teen got up and did a rap number. An older homeless woman then got up on the stage and talked about being HIV positive. She held up a pamphlet and talked about getting tested.
People continued to eat.
Grace ate everything, except the salad. “I have no teeth,” she said, pulling aside her cheek to show me. She asked me who I was and where I was from. There was a keen interest in her eyes. She told me she was born in Austria, had been an Olympic skier, an opera singer, a nurse — somewhere in there was the truth. Sandy said she had been an actress for 41 years.
Later I learned that Sandy had been diagnosed as schizophrenic — like so many homeless — and is a hard-core street person who refuses any and all social services. Grace is what is called a “food-poor” person who lives in a one-room tenement apartment. Other volunteers who have been with S.H.A.R.E. the Project for years told me Grace is considered to be one of the kindest and most giving women on the streets. She is a hoarder, her apartment crammed with stuff. She refuses to sleep in her bed for fear she will die there.
When the meal was over, I noticed Sandy clutching something in her hand. It looked like food wrapped in a napkin, she kept it hidden near her side. I asked her if she wanted a plastic bag. She did. I went to the kitchen and got an unopened box of one gallon plastic bags and gave it to her. She clutched the box to her chest and thanked me. Students were bringing out large containers filled with food and giving them to those guests who wanted to take leftovers with them. No one refused, except Sandy.
Grace got up and started rummaging through her shopping cart. She pulled out a small plastic container and gave it to me. It contained various packets of nonsugar sweeteners.
“This is a gift, don’t use sugar,” she warned me as she pressed the plastic container into my hand. I started to give it back — “This is yours,” she said. Then she dug around some more and came up with a bracelet of plastic beads and pressed that into my hand. I again protested — “No, this is my gift to you,” she said. She placed it on my wrist. I hugged her and told her it was the nicest gift I had ever received. She smiled. I hugged Sandy and said my goodbyes.
There were more hugs and then it was back to the buses for the homeless, back to their street corners and their shelters. I left to go back into the kitchen to wash dishes and scrub the floor.
Now back in Perry, I’m still wearing the bracelet on my wrist.