by Elaine Taylor
A few years ago, I was whining to my daughter about my imminent crossing of that dreaded Rubicon: the Big Five-O. “The best of my life is behind me. I’m entering the period of throat wattles and colonoscopies every five years … and uselessness. Irrelevance.”
Being both blunt and wise she said, “Ya know … someone who feels as sorry for herself as you do ought to go out and do something for someone who’s got real problems.”
Whoa! A knife to the heart of my pity-party.
But how could I not take her advice? Two weeks later I set out to “do good”— or maybe just to give a little spritz to my ego via an evening emulating Mother Teresa—at Raphael House, a shelter for homeless San Francisco families.
I don’t know what I expected, but Raphael House was not it.
Remarkably, the Raphael House was founded in the 1970s by a woman who was in her eighties (clearly she wasn’t self-absorbed and snivel-y). It occupied a 1940s three-story building—originally constructed as Golden Gate Hospital—at the edge of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.
Every wall was freshly painted; worn carpets vacuumed, toilets crisp with wintergreen disinfectant. Corridors and rooms brightly lit. Children’s art, painted with rich tempera colors, hung straight and proud as in a Soho gallery. The Raphael House philosophy: Every element, every routine, was structured to establish continuity and predictability for traumatized children and their defeated parents.
Families generally stayed at Raphael House for three-to-six months—the goal being to get them firmly back on their feet so they wouldn’t find themselves homeless again.
That first night I met the Davis family, who had arrived at Raphael House just that afternoon.
I introduced myself. Mrs. Davis’ fingers twitched as if counting worry beads. Mr. Davis shook my hand with palms as rough as tree bark. Working-man’s hands. Wiry brick-red eyebrows hooded chocolate eyes that refused to meet mine.
Emily, the size of a second-grader, hugged a heavy-weave red and green sweater that looked as if it might have been hand knitted just for her. Zack, gangly and thin as a French-cut green bean, looked about 13. Two bright red zits spackled the milky way of freckles on his cheeks. Thin, carrot-colored hair fringed a brow creased with anger. He slouched with arms tightly crossed over a SF Giants t-shirt.
At dinner Mr. Davis was rigid against his rocked-back chair, right arm stretched forward, fingers curved into claws on the tablecloth. Gaze focused inward. In an attempt to relieve the tension, I taught Emily how to make corncob art, nibbling and picking a design. When she asked her dad to make one with her the only part of him that moved was his eyes. They flicked toward his daughter, softened with a love and regret that rent my heart. He leaned in. Fished a cob from the bowl.
My years-long volunteer experience at Raphael House was instructive; and heart-changing. Here’s what I learned about Homeless Families:
They are me. The parents wanted for their children the same things I wanted for mine. Safety. Security. Love.
They are me. They worked every day or took vocational training classes or looked for a job. One big difference — they expected to be paid at the bottom of the wage scale.
They are me. They worried about their kids’ education. (Homelessness frequently means uprooting kids from their school routine.) They wished for their children a better future than the present they were able to give them.
Here’s what I learned about myself:
Some part of me went there, to my great liberal surprise, with an unconscious stereotypical expectation: They would be different from me. Less ambitious, comfortable in their dependence, less proud.
I had lived for a number of years as a single mother, one paycheck—one disaster— away from homelessness myself; but I managed to get by “without a handout.” Why hadn’t they? The answer — I had better luck.
The surprise epiphany? Buried within me — even having been so close to walking that mile in their shoes — was a soupçon of arrogant, judgmental superiority.
Certainly I had read stories about individuals who are always working the system — shysters who have no qualms preying on the compassion of people who come to their aid.
My experience at Raphael House taught me that the most unfortunate thing about those scam artists is not that they wrangle a bit of undeserved generosity. It is that they are the bright, shining object that draws attention away from struggling families whose only goal is to survive. Like the families I met at Raphael House.
But what I found was the biggest difference between me and the homeless families I met was this: There but for the grace of God, go I. I never had to bear the burden of their shame, the guilt of “failing my family.” I never had to put aside my pride, hold out my hand and ask for help from a total stranger.
I am embarrassed by my Mother Teresa act. I went to Raphael House thinking I was doing a favor for someone less fortunate. Instead, they did a favor for me. They reminded me of what it is like to live with the constant fear of an uncertain future. They showed me the courage, strength and resilience those “less fortunate” must summon every day, just to survive. I was humbled to be in their presence.
Elaine Taylor is the author of Karma, Deception and a Pair of Red Ferraris. She is a former volunteer, and Board member, of Raphael House. *One Home, Many Hearts was the theme for the 2015 Raphael House Gala.