On Stealing Coats

My buddy Paul and I volunteering at Tent City 2012.

My buddy Paul and I volunteering at Tent City 2012.

It was a chilly Saturday, but that’s to be expected on the third of November. I was surrounded by a crowd of loosely organized chaos, but that’s to be expected at Tent City. I was completely out of my element, but that’s to be expected for an introverted first-timer.

That was back in 2007, and this year would be my seventh Tent City, if I could make it there (which I can’t). In that time, Tent City has become more and more organized. But 2007 was the year it picked back up after a six-year hiatus, it was the year I had just started getting involved in volunteering, it was the year John Mellencamp first got involved too, and it was the year I “helped” steal a coat.

This “homelessness” thing was still rather new, and I was struggling with being a guide. I felt as confused as most of the guests must feel, and though I had attended several planning meetings and helped with the organization’s website, I didn’t know many of those in authority and was intimidated by each section of Tent City. I was even intimidated by the guest I was supposed to be guiding, John, who was fairly soft-spoken and patient. I’d make several awkward attempts at conversation, which has never been my strong point. He must’ve been a saint to put up with me. At one point, I waited in line in his place while he went to the clothing line. He received several items, but they had no coats in his size. We made plans to try again.

The best laid plans…

Later, he went back to try and get a coat while I waited in line for him again. He returned, visibly upset. The person running the tent, a volunteer who’d spent several months running the clothing donation collection and sorting, threw him out of the tent, yelling accusations of being a thief because he’d already been through the tent once. Even I couldn’t advocate on his behalf. It felt wrong to let a guest leave Tent City without something we could otherwise easily give him. After all we tried to provide – medical and dental care, food, IDs, so many other services – John was most set on upgrading his thin windbreaker for a coat that could see him through the winter. That had been his priority for the entire weekend. Now it was ours.

Stop putting a fence around the “thing” that matters most… Your heart.

I say ours because, though I felt powerless myself, I knew the highest authority in Tent City: Ken Leslie. I told him about John’s encounter and need. Now we had a mission. As it turned out, even Ken had to fight to get John a coat, resorting to swiping one. In the end, John got his coat – and we learned an important lesson.

Too often in charity work, volunteers get burned. They see a small handful of people who try to get as much as possible, edging out others in need. They get angry, and rightly so – to an extent. But they forget two important things, especially if they’re giving in a place like Tent City or Food For Thought:

  1. The “thing” being given away, whether it’s food, clothing or services, is secondary to why it’s being given away. That “why” is dignity. It’s relationship. It’s hope that this pair of socks or this sandwich is just the start of bend in the road to something better. The why always trumps the thing. Always.
  2. People become takers because they don’t understand generosity. All they’ve had beaten into them is scarcity. They are afraid.

The ironic thing is that fear is shared by the volunteers. The takers are afraid there won’t be enough for them and their family. The volunteers are afraid of being taken advantage of. Both tell themselves they’re looking out for others, but both are trying to protect their own interests.

The further ironic thing is that Tent City is about building bridges between have and have-not. It’s about a weekend of immersing yourself in compassion and being open to giving and receiving whatever you need, wherever you come from. It’s come a long way from 2007, but the call to everyone is still the same: Stop putting a fence around the “thing” that matters most… Your heart.