Helping the Invisible be Seen

Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Homelessness

Miss Sally’s Story. She is 45 years old.

The short article that follows is a compilation of information I gathered after talking with Sally about Street Reach for the Homeless and Dinner and Duds.  Sally’s mission is to serve food and provide essential items for the homeless, the precariously housed, those residing in transitional shelters and the urban poor.  She serves 100-125 people a week in the winter, and in the warmer months, she serves 180-190 people.  Her project is funded by donations and her own pocket, and she has donation sites throughout Fort Wayne, New Haven and Harlan.

Sally began her outreach after participating in the Homeless Count in 2012.  She saw a group of people who fell between the cracks, and she felt the need to step forward.  She asked herself: “how can I help them wherever their life’s journey is? How can I encourage them to find hope, to become a functioning member of the community?”

I will never ask you why you stand in that line.

She started by having a “door-to-door campaign,” explaining, “If you were under the bridge, I went under the bridge.  If you were in the woods, I went in the woods.”

I asked Sally whom she helps—can anyone come?  Her voice is filled with passion, and what seems to be an unstoppable energy.  Her response: “anyone can come to my line.”

She did go on to describe those in line more specifically: they may be “precariously housed, unsheltered – living under a bridge, an abandoned building, part of the downtown urban poor, and in warmer months, an increased number of women and children.”

“I will never ask why you stand in that line.  In the winter, I will only ask where you sleep, in terms of inside or outside, to make sure you get the blanket that best fits your needs.”

Soon after starting what she called Street Reach for the Homeless, she asked one of the gentleman she met what would happen if, instead of coming each week to them with a snack bag,  she brought a full dinner, clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and more to a single site —would they come to her there?

The rest, as they say, is history.  Street Reach for the Homeless turned into Dinner and Duds.  For nearly one year, Sally has been providing a full, hot, balanced dinner every Monday and Thursday night.  She also is known for her white van filled with supplies from tents and tarps, to clothes, to hygiene items, to blankets and comforters.  All gathered to help with their “true test of survival,” living on the streets of Fort Wayne.

My next questions asked Sally about her experience with the men, and what it took to gain their trust (98% of the people in her line are men; in the summer, there are about 95% men and the rates of women and children increase slightly).

About the connection with the men: “the second I get out of the van . . . the number of hugs . . . when I say ‘it’s so good to see you,’ I mean it’s so good to see you.  And their thank-yous are genuine; and I believe that I am in this place for a reason—I never knew anyone in the Fort Wayne homeless count, and why did I do it—if it’s God led, I will be God protected.  I believe these men would do anything to protect me, and I would protect them.  I do not fear for my safety, and I have not ever in the course of a year.  I get nothing but respect from these gentlemen—almost all of them call me Miss Sally.”

About how she earned their trust: “I think the fact that I treat them with respect . . . with dignity, and if I say I’m going to be there, I’m there— for a year, I have been exactly where I said I was going to be. The fact that even though I promote Street Reach for the Homeless on Facebook, I never once reveal what your name is, where you’re staying, or where we are doing the dinner under the stars. Privacy is part of dignity. As the months have gone by, I have seen the issues—and I have become a vocal advocate.  We have people out there who are the most at risk—the most humble of our homeless—who are simply falling between the cracks.  And they deserve our attention.”

I will never ask you why you stand in that line.

About the power of family style: “The whole point of doing the family style dinner is that homelessness is lonely—just to be able to have conversation is important—it now is truly a street family.  When I watch one of them help another, it melts my heart. I only serve one portion of the meal. They help me: someone pours the drink, someone is in charge of the hand sanitizer, it’s letting them “own” something on the streets, it’s them making it happen. They carry it out of the van, they clean it up; they know that women and children go first.  This aspect is teaching them manners, teaching them social skills.”

Sally’s journey with these gentlemen hasn’t ended with food and clothing.  On New Year’s Eve as 2012 turned to 2013, she stood before them and asked if anyone was ready to get off the street.  And for those who raised their hand, Sally will be there—meeting with them at the library, helping them find the resources they need to get off the streets.  For some that means beginning with tasks many of us take for granted: applying for a copy of a birth certificate, a social security card, an identification card, taking the steps to exist on paper.

After hearing this part of Sally’s story, I must have blurted out: “it’s as if they don’t even exist at all.” Sally responded: yes, it is.

Her work is one of true compassion showing the men in her line that they aren’t invisible.

They deserve our attention.

This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Lutheran Social Services and the Office of the Mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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