SALT LAKE CITY — Daniel Pitts, 20, is setting out Christmas stockings filled with hygiene items and treats for a group of teens and young adults at the Youth Resource Center run by Volunteers of America, where he has been staying for several months.
It's the week before Christmas, and the youths are a flurry of activity as they pass through the lobby, but to a person, they stop to snag a stocking. Donations here go fast because there often aren't enough to go around. Many of these teens and young adults have lived with deprivation that makes them hoard any good that comes their way.
Pitts is helping Ed Snoddy, medical outreach coordinator for Volunteers of America. The two men are in a large open area of the center, which feeds three meals a day to homeless and otherwise struggling youths ages 15 to 22. The center also provides legal help if it’s needed, and it has room to sleep about 30 people who would otherwise be on the streets. Pitts is one of those, but he has been trying to get a job. He wants one day “to have a good house and be stable — to not be out here,” he says quietly.
Right now, the place has a shimmer of lights with greens and reds and silvery touches. The youths made ornaments for a small tree, including toilet-paper tube reindeer and penguins shaped from light bulbs. There are hand-decorated cards and ribbon boughs — evidence of the volunteers who helped the youths participate in Christmas traditions. So many people from the community have dropped off clothing and goods in recent days that VOA blocked off a section of the parking strip specifically as a receiving area.
That won’t be needed in a few days, though. The center, like many other organizations that serve people with dire needs, sees a surge in charity between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. It’s a glut of goodness that will likely slow to a trickle mere days from now.
Pitts and the others, though, will still be there. Still eating. Still looking for jobs — and food and clothing and a helping hand.
An unplanned detour
Homelessness touches most demographics, including newborn babies and school-age kids. It requires a strong corps of professionals and volunteers to provide services throughout the year, which may vary depending on the recipient's age.
Teens at the Youth Resource Center, for example, have the resilience and vigor of their youth to help them in their struggles to figure things out. The situation is very different for people about a mile away at the Inn Between, which provides residential hospice care for individuals who are homeless and dying, making for a holiday season that's both festive and especially sad. If there's room, the Inn Between also takes in homeless people with medical issues that can't be managed on the street or in a traditional shelter.
Monterra Buckner, 55, is in that group, building her strength for surgery to remove a tumor on her pancreas. So is Kathy Conway, 58, who is worried about losing her foot to a terrible spider bite ulceration that stubbornly resists healing. For most of her life, Conway was typically middle class: She worked several decades for the same small company in her native Michigan and bought a home. Then came the plot twist: a series of events related to the recent sour economy left her homeless in a city 1,663 miles from where she started. She used to be a volunteer but now benefits from services provided by volunteers, which are crucial to the Inn Between.
A couple of years ago, when the Inn Between first opened, its management invited the community to an informal open house at Christmas. They hoped to fix the hospice in the community's mind as a needed service — and in its heart — as a place where people could help.
But the event was too busy. So many strangers all at once created a kind of sensory overload, primarily because of the frailty of the residents and the somewhat solitary lives many had led. They've tried for quieter Christmases since then. But they also learned something about the volunteer corps they would need.
The Inn Between can best use volunteers who are consistent and form relationships. A resident who is dying often asks a specific volunteer who became a dear friend to sit vigil with them at the end of his or her life. That's not a holiday volunteer kind of duty.
But the bustle and giving of the holidays are still vital for helping with funding and supplies, and to provide a sense of holiday tradition and love. Donors this year gave pajamas for each resident, and they got slippers, too — a lovely, homey Christmas gift.
The Inn Between director Kim Correa says they set aside some of the items that come in during the holidays for later in the year, such as extra toilet paper, socks and other items. She stockpiles sundries because she knows the supply will dry up while the need will likely grow. And by mid-year, the Inn Between will hope fervently for more of everything: The donors who provide some much-needed funding for a program that longs to expand to help more people who are homeless and desperately ill or dying, the businesses and individuals who gather supplies that are needed throughout the year, and the volunteers who can be counted on to keep a scheduled shift to clean or help with dishes and laundry. The Inn Between's staff is small, and there's a lot to do.
Certainly not all their volunteers are seasonal. People like John Dutcher show up again and again. He makes the place feel especially bright when he walks in with his yellow labradors, Leno, 6 months old, and Oswald, 4 years. Oswald is a therapy animal, placid and sweet, and Leno is training to be a service dog. Dutcher is friendly, but not pushy, a calm presence who fits in well with hospice patients, as do his dogs, which Conway is showering with love, cooing as she stoops to play with them.
Matilda Lindgren, client services director at the Inn Between, wants others to know that residents’ stories could be anyone’s.
“People living here are exactly the same as others they’ve met," she said. "They are just people that have different events that occurred in their lives that led them to where they are. They are still worthy of everything that anybody else is given — and they crave it.” Year-round.
Correa says not everyone is suited to work among those who are homeless. The population is not well understood and some people are very uncomfortable. She was.
“My heart would race if I passed someone on the street. I wouldn’t make eye contact. I wouldn’t dream of having a conversation” with someone who's homeless, she says. Now she laughs and cries with people in some of their most trying circumstances, many at the end of life. She loves them. And she loves the volunteers who befriend them and stick around, month after month.
It takes a special kind of person to work among the sick and dying, Conway says. “This is the most amazing place I’ve ever been. If you’re having a bad meltdown day, they will just sit with you and let you cry. Everyone here has big shoulders.”
In-kind — and being kind
In December, many people are friendlier to those who seem needy. That’s not always the case in other months. Matt Melville, director of homeless services at St. Vincent de Paul Center, just east of the Road Home shelters downtown, doesn’t see clothing drives in summer. People react to news reports about panhandlers and there’s a chill in interactions. (It’s a myth, he adds, that all homeless people panhandle. Nor are all panhandlers homeless.)
Conway says some former co-workers and friends avoid her now, possibly fearful she’ll ask them for money or help because she's homeless: “I just want them to still be my friend,” she says.
Melville reminds people to be pleasant, even if they’re saying no. “If you don’t want to give, at least talk to them. Acknowledge them as people. Wish them happy holidays and better luck.”
One shelter volunteer told of offering an obviously needy woman a pair of gloves. “Thanks,” the woman said. “You know what I really want? A hug.”
Melville and Snoddy think people genuinely want to help year-round, but it's easy to get sidetracked or they don’t know how to start or who to ask. One benefit of the holidays is it’s easy to find opportunities to give.
The Christmas Day dinner Pamela Atkinson first organized 14 years ago with steaks, pies and other treats provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now serves nearly 1,000 needy folks. As need has grown, so has the size of the volunteer corps that comes to serve. Close to 100 will help, and there’s a waiting list to serve. Anyone who randomly shows up to assist, though, is turned away with thanks. It’s well-planned and roles are already assigned. Some serve food; others will hand out coats and socks and toys for the kids.
Atkinson, a homeless advocate loved by benefactors and beneficiaries alike, said people repeatedly ask her how they can help during the holidays. She’s asked less often the rest of the year.
She encourages the good-hearted to stretch out their giving. There’s less going on in January or February, but people need help then, too. If one adopts a Sub for Santa family, she suggests getting permission to call them later.
“I suggest that the second or third day of January, call and ask, ‘How was Christmas? How did the kids like their toys? What do you need in January?’ In February, do the same.”
Year-long aid can be scaled to fit what a volunteer can manage. But a consistent caring connection matters. With a year of that, “it’s amazing how much progress that (needy) family can make. Not enough people do that,” Atkinson said.
There’s enough need to go around — and around and around again. Numbers spike at the end of each month at St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room as people run out of money and have to decide between food and next month’s rent.
“I say if you have to choose, pay your rent and we will feed you to help prevent you from becoming homeless,” Melville said.
And that’s just among programs serving the homeless. All agencies that serve others have year-round needs.
A good volunteer
Back at the Youth Resource Center, Sara Strang, a social worker who directs VOA’s homeless services, says they try to make the season bright.
“The whole city is lit up," she said. "We don’t want them to feel shunned or left out.”
At the same time, VOA must focus more on all those other days because they’ll have plenty of needs to meet and bellies to fill, but resources will likely thin out. The program has endless need for ear buds and new socks and hand wipes, among other things. And they'd delight in giving the young people entertainment opportunities, like movie passes or a day at Lagoon. Those are simply out of reach without outside help.
Like Correa at the Inn Between, Strang sets some donations aside for later, when the need will be great and supplies more sparse. Melville wants people to consider putting service on their monthly calendars as a firm commitment, as in “two hours the third Tuesday of each month.”5 comments on this story
It’s also important to be a good volunteer, which VOA’s Snoddy notes mildly is not everybody’s strength. Some volunteers sign up for a four-hour event and disappear after one hour. Some commit and don’t show up. And some can’t resist trying to take over, though they may have no idea what’s actually needed. At the youth center, for example, the staff has been feeding hungry, destitute youths three times a day. They’ve skinned their knees enough to know what works. They need people willing to wipe tables, not drop-in drill sergeants who make a guest appearance to run the show.
Service, Snoddy notes with a smile, is actually a pretty humble task. And volunteers who are willing to provide it are “worth more than their weight in gold.” They are the best of all mankind, he says.