This is why I’m a COTS Walker — Whitney’s Story
As COTS celebrated its 30th Anniversary Gala, keynote speaker and Vermont author, Stephen Kiernan, asked the audience to remember their first meeting with a person experiencing homelessness. Growing up in a small rural town in Maine, I had no memorable experiences with homelessness until I took a trip, at age 13, with my best friends to Queens, New York.
I remember the experience with incredible clarity. My friends, my friend’s mother, and I sat on the subway traveling to Times Square. Being my very first trip in a city I was excited and overwhelmed by the sounds and feeling of traveling in a subway car. I was fascinated by all the different people getting on and off at each stop. I had only seen commuters on TV and I was amazed by the wide spectrum of skin colors, clothing, music, ages and languages. It was a lot for a girl from Maine to take in!
Not long into our trip a woman in her early 30s stepped into our car. She had a split lip, black and blue cheek and slightly weepy eye. She wore a soiled white shirt with small drops of blood at the bottom hem. It was clear that this woman was in tremendous pain and that someone out there caused it. She stood in the center of the car and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sorry to bother you. I realize I am not a pretty sight right now, but if you could be so kind to help me out a little today, I would really appreciate it. I am homeless and could use some money for a meal. Thank you.”
She slowly walked around the car, pleading with her eyes. I had $10 in my fanny pack (yes, it was the 90s!) and waited for her to walk closer to me. My friends and my friend’s mother sat quietly with their eyes looking down. When she came up to us, I handed her the only money I had brought with me to Times Square. She thanked me profusely and continued on.
My friend’s mother leaned over and whispered, “You’re not supposed to give her money.” Not being a seasoned city traveler, I didn’t realize there were rules about handing money out. I mean, how could anyone not want to help someone who so clearly needed it? I believed her situation and didn’t question her motives or what she actually planned to do with all the money. All I knew was, that I wanted someone to help me if I was in her shoes.
I never regretted giving that woman all my cash for the day. Never questioned whether I was helping or perpetuating her problems. While I no longer directly give money out, I put all my energy into helping those clients COTS serves. We make sure all their needs are met. Case Managers help clients get access to health care, develop savings plans, apply for benefits, search and apply for jobs, pursue higher education, search for housing. Shelter staff help clients adjust to shelter life, help care for kids in shelter, and provide a safe, clean and comfortable place to call home. The Housing Resource Center helps people at risk for homelessness get into affordable housing, or help pay for owed rent. Administration helps ensure that the organization runs like a well-oiled machine, and that COTS will always be here to lend a helping hand, regardless of how someone finds themselves in homelessness.
So I am asking my friends; “What was your first experience with a homeless person and how did you react?” Consider making a donation to COTS and help us provide sustainable solutions to end homelessness. Everybody deserves a home.
Register today and join us at the COTS Walk on Sunday, May 5!