[Image description: The photograph shows ten open brown paper bags — five in the front and five in the back.]
Hey, Lunch Lady! Over here!
In Santa Cruz, I’m known as The Lunch Lady. Since last August, I have been distributing bag lunches to homeless and hungry people living on the street and in one of the city parks. What began as an experiment giving out nine lunches on a single afternoon has now become an ongoing commitment to provide over 100 lunches per week to those without homes or sufficient food.
Three days each week, I load up a wagon with brown paper bags containing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies and fruit. Most of the people who take the lunches are homeless; many of them sleep in the park or places nearby. In my work, I’ve come to understand that homelessness is a disability issue. Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of research for the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, writes that “nearly all of the long-term homeless have tenuous family ties and some kind of disability, whether it is a drug or alcohol addiction, a mental illness or a physical handicap” (Culhane 2010). My experience serving homeless people has shown me the truth of Culhane’s assertion. The vast majority of people to whom I deliver food have disabilities.
Some disabilities are invisible; I’ve found out about them only by talking with people. There are homeless people with neurological conditions: a young man with autism sleeps in the park and under a bridge. Others have mental illness: an older man with schizophrenia spends much of the time talking to the voices in his mind and studying his hand. Veterans of war – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam – live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Women who have been sexually assaulted labor under severe depression; one woman I serve was sexually assaulted twice on her first night on the street.
There are physical disabilities that one cannot see with the naked eye. There are women with sciatica and other back ailments who cannot work. There are men with heart conditions and swollen legs and backs injured in work-related accidents. Others have lost everything because of drug and alcohol addiction – or have become addicted in order to cope with the exhaustion and vulnerability of living on the street.
And of course, sometimes, the disabilities are visible. I see people who use wheelchairs and walkers – or who need them and can’t get them. One man crawls in the meadow when he can no longer balance himself well enough to walk. Another pushes his wheelchair by shuffling his feet. Still another uses a scooter that he found second-hand. Others are blind and use canes. Some do not even have that.
No matter what their disabilities, the vulnerability that people face is extreme. In Santa Cruz, a city ordinance prohibits sleeping outdoors between 11 pm and 8:30 am, so people with disabilities of all kinds – physical and mental, visible and invisible, genetic and acquired – suffer from sleep deprivation. Given the lack of shelter, the locked bathrooms, the inability to sleep, the hunger and the constant vulnerability to assault, anyone who didn’t have a disability before they became homeless stands a very good chance of acquiring one in the process.
And yet, there is so little will to solve the problem of homelessness. In my city, homelessness is largely a police matter. People are given tickets for sleeping in public places during the night, but few people discuss how to get people off the street and into affordable housing. In fact, because homelessness is not on the radar as a disability issue, many questions are left unanswered: How do we create more accessible housing for people who have mobility issues and other disabilities? How do we create more accessible workplaces for people who need accommodations? How do we make sure that employers provide accommodations? How do we give people the support they need to live independently and with dignity? Until we answer these questions, the problem of homelessness will persist.
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I know that distributing lunches will not solve the systemic issues that lead to homelessness. So why do I do it? The most basic reason is that people are hungry and I want to help ease their hunger. I love everything I do in the service of that goal: planning the meals, buying the ingredients, making the sandwiches, putting together bags of cookies, keeping track of finances – all of it. I look forward to every step of the process, and distributing the lunches is the highlight of my week.
What I have learned, though, is that people are not just hungry for food, but for respect, for kindness and for care. People without shelter are treated in such degrading ways – from listening to passersby who shout, “Get a job, you bum!” (as though one could possibly find work with no place to live, no place to shower and no place to sleep), to being assaulted, to being treated as though they are invisible and do not matter at all. So I always take care to be kind, respectful and courteous. And in return, I receive friendliness and respect in abundance. I am constantly amazed by the warmth, the kindness, the courtesy and the generosity of so many of the people I serve. Some have donated peanut butter and bread. Others have donated a few dollars from what little they have.
And I am blessed. Every day, I experience the blessing of doing right for the sake of doing right. There is something very satisfying about feeding people. There is something very strengthening about treating people with unconditional kindness, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done.
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But make no mistake: I do what I do out of a passion for justice, not a desire to give charity. It is unjust that people are living on the street. It is unjust that people are going hungry in the midst of abundance. It is unjust that people are demeaned and spat upon. So until we find the political will to solve the problems of homelessness and hunger for our fellow human beings, I will continue to provide a port in a storm. I will continue to pull my wagon filled with bag lunches, and I will continue to greet people with a smile and a kind word.
In a world of suffering, living out of love and concern is the only way I know to make the injustice bearable.
Culhane, Dennis. 2010. “Five Myths About America’s Homeless.” The Washington Post, July 11. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902357.html.
This article first appeared on Disability.gov and is reprinted here by permission.