Homeless shelter visit: Basketball, baseball and the gift of apples
I cleared my throat nervously as I maneuvered our minivan
down the streets of one of Houston’s most hard-scrabble neighborhoods.
I have become fairly comfortable in neighborhoods
where I am one of very few white or middle class people. It comes with the territory when you take an interest in issues of social and educational justice.
But this was the kids’ first time visiting a homeless
shelter that served people who have been homeless long-term, and whose faces,
bodies and outlooks may reflect the hard times they have endured.
I struggled with words to prepare the kids, without rattling
them too much: “You guys need to know this shelter is a little different from
others you have seen,” I said. “Some of the people here have spent most of
their lives living on the street and going from shelter to shelter. The people
may look different. Some of them may look way older than they really are. Some
may have disabilities – not be able to walk well. And some may have brains that
don’t work quite the way ours do. They may say things to you that don’t make
sense to you. Or some may not smile a lot. All of that is totally normal – and
it’s OK, got it?”
Both Hannah and Hunter sat quietly, taking in my words.
“Will there be kids here?” Hunter wanted to know. “I like
playing with the kids who are homeless the most. They come up with really cool
I explained this was a shelter that only served men and that
they might be the only kids in the building on this particular day.
Hunter thought some more, “That’s OK. Grown up guys can be
really fun, too.”
I had to appreciate Hunter’s focus on fun. (I like to think he gets that from me, but I’m not so sure ….)
We walked up to the sprawling shelter, which was once an
elementary school, and got information on where to drop off the water and other
supplies we were bringing down. We were soon paired up with a shelter resident
Melvin was quick with a smile and a firm but warm handshake. He also was
quite passionate about the shelter and the work done there.
“This place saves people’s lives,” he said. “They help you
with what you need right away, and then they help you learn and do what you
need to do to get back on your feet for good.”
I asked Melvin a lot of questions about the shelter, which
he happily answered. While we talked, Hannah and Hunter slipped off quietly to
watch a group of men playing basketball nearby.
Soon, the men asked the kids if they wanted to join the
The residents coached both of the kids on their shot-making,
while commending them for their endurance in the one hundred-plus degree heat.
Pretty soon, all of us were smiling, despite the heat.
Connections were being made – and they were the kinds of connections that don’t
always get made easily in a society that is so divided by race and class.
The guys invited us to stay for dinner – something that just
didn’t feel quite right to me. Eating their food seemed wrong, somehow.
“But we always have enough to share,” Melvin said. “That’s
one of the things you find with people that have been through a lot. They don’t
mind sharing. If you need help, you are more willing to give it.”
I compromised and agreed to stay and help get beverages
ready for everyone. The guys insisted that the kids needed a snack for the
30-minute drive home. I gave in – partly because it seemed rude to keep
resisting their generosity.
Back in the car, I was quite curious about what the kids
learned from Melvin and the other guys. I’d come to the shelter hoping to show
them that long-term homelessness and extreme poverty can be ugly – that it
takes its toll and is a serious problem in our society.
I asked a few questions as we drove away.
Hunter gnawed thoughtfully on the apple Melvin gave him and
then quietly said, “Those homeless guys do look different but they are really
nice. I want to go back and play baseball with ‘em next time.”
We talked some about the logistics of our next visit –
important things like where there was room to throw a baseball around and which
of the homeless residents might enjoy it – assuming they were still there.
Once again, Hunter and Hannah learned a lesson different
from the one I planned. Instead of focusing on the differences of the
residents, they chose once again to focus on the ways we are all alike.
Maybe that is what I should have been focusing on the entire
time, anyway. Lesson learned ….