Walking past Bethesda Cares’ Drop-In Center’s check-in desk earlier today, I saw a brightly-colored notice seated among the baskets of toiletries and donated Hallowe’en candy. Pausing, I skimmed the new message: it was a sign-up sheet for a “holiday dinner.” I glanced at the list, and felt my heart sink. I saw some names now familiar to me, and others that I don’t know. Each attendee had carefully printed his first and last name, but that’s all there was to list. No blank spaces for addresses or contact information.
It was the saddest sign-up sheet I’ve ever seen.
It was sad not just because the clients signing up for the dinner are living “with no fixed address,” in anxious, miserable, life-threatening states. It was sad because I bet that the act of signing up for a holiday dinner must feel like a rather clinical way of finding a seat at a holiday table.
And I don’t think, for any of them, that it was always thus. That sign-up sheet makes me wonder what friends and families each client once had, at whose table he used to sit, with whom she used to break bread. As I looked at that list, I imagined all the estrangements stacked up behind those sign-ups.
I don’t know the statistics of how the people who come through Bethesda Cares ended up living on the streets. I just know stories that clients or colleagues have shared with me. While each person’s experience is unique to him or her, though, certain painful catalysts appear pretty regularly: Childhood abuse. Mental illness. Substance abuse. Victim of trauma. Maybe a mix of any or all.
Many of our clients do have families, but they are families to whom they can’t or don’t turn. Our clients have children who are growing up — graduating, reaching milestones — but with whom they are not in touch. Yet among these individuals, personal rifts have been so severe that they have left their participants with shattered connections. That must hurt.
Whatever one’s religion, the sheer noise of this season must scratch open those wounds. The outpouring of holiday offerings from kind-hearted souls are much-needed band-aids, but our clients have injuries that need stitches or surgery.
Yet I know that there is hope, possibility and need driving each sign-up. I know that each person who pens his name on that list is still looking for, and is open to, human connections.
I hope that what we offer is enough.
I’ll go to Bethesda Cares’ holiday events this season. I’ll greet our clients by name, shake their hands and exchange holiday greetings. The events will be lovely and warm, the outpouring of support and affection sincere. But when the events have finished and the volunteers have cleaned up, I’ll go back to my warm Bethesda home and my family. Our clients will head back to their park benches, alone.