Nadim Khan Memorial Homeless Resource Day, Montgomery County DHHS
I know this event is officially called a "resource day" but it is truly THE ultimate county fair! Montgomery County's Nadim Khan Memorial Homeless Resource Day is a one-day, one-stop opportunity for individuals and families experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness to access services, resources and information. This fair has absolutely EVERYTHING a homeless or at-risk person could need and was executed with the upmost of thoughtfulness, dignity, and personal attention. The county really knocks this out of the park - Bohrer Park, that is!
When I entered the Activity Center and saw that I was one of 300 volunteers, I couldn't imagine that I would be needed or get value from the experience. That was not the case at all! An army of volunteers was needed to make this experience personal, dignified, and successful for the over 400 guests who attended and I was honored to be part of it all. It was to be 1:1 service 4 gymnasiums packed with resources would be navigated. One gym hosted government and legal services such as housing assistance, Legal Aid, MVA, cell phones. The second focused on healthcare, transportation, and wellness. The third was filled with cosmetology students from Gaithersburg H.S. who gave haircuts and manicures, as well as banks, educators, and more. The last gym was transformed into pop-up store offering winter jackets, socks, toiletries, diapers, long johns, scarves, hats, gloves, and more. Tables not only lined the perimeters, but filled the inside rows as well. There were over 63 service vendors!
Let me introduce you to the 3 people I helped today. They each taught me much I hope not to soon forget. First, is Tony who you will see made quite an impression on me. Tony is handsome, dressed nicely, and gives me a big smile as he shakes my hand. He is 25 and graduated from a Montgomery County school. Tony sleeps at a men's shelter. Tony needs a state-issued photo ID so that he can collect his paycheck from a job he just started at the mall. I connect with Tony immediately and go into mother-bear-mode, trying to make sure he avails himself to everything offered. Before the crowds get too big, I charge through the crowded gym and get Tony a seat at the MVA table. Before Tony sits down, he extends his hand to shake the hand of the man across the table who will help him. Immediately, there is a computer problem. Others leave and get frustrated; Tony does not. Tony is polite and very patient. Tony sleeps at a men's shelter. Tony gets his receipt and we start through the maze of other vendors. As we pass each table, I explain who the vendor is, what they can do, and look to Tony to see if he is interested. As we approach the Legal Aid and Pro Bono Attorney tables, Tony makes it a point to tell me that he doesn't get in trouble with the law and so doesn't need legal help. After I explain that lawyers don't only handle criminal issues but can help with landlords, debts, and other problems, Tony moves forward with great interest. He is at the table for a long time while I stand back to give him privacy. When he returns, he tells me they will help him to get visitation of his 3 year-old son. Tony is a father! Tony wants to engage with his son! Tony sleeps at a men's shelter! We continue through the other gyms where Tony engages with vendors, fist pumps other patrons, and picks up pamphlets and small giveaways. Next, Tony opts to stop at a health vendor who tests his blood sugar, blood pressure, and answer personal questions. Again, I try to afford him as much privacy as one can get with 800 people around! Tony wants to be healthy. Tony wants to keep his job and to visit with his son. Tony sleeps in a men's shelter. After about an hour, we end at the "store" where he collects long johns, socks, a new winter coat, and a bagged lunch. It's time to say good-bye but I'm already quite attached to this young man. Tony looks at me, extends his hand, and gives me his sincere thanks. He doesn't know that the pleasure was really mine. I respect Tony. Tony is smart, articulate, complex, and wants to do well for himself. I don't know what Tony's story is but what I do know is that Tony sleeps at a men's shelter and that breaks my heart!
My next two guests aren't quite as lovable as Tony is but they too need many of the resources here today. Schwana is introduced to me by a crisis counselor who notices she is getting agitated in the long line and wants me to take her out of turn. This too is my pleasure. Schwana is already tired. Schwana is already frustrated. Schwana needs warm clothes and something to eat. I greet her with a big smile and a cup of coffee in an attempt to disarm her and improve her mood. Though we are instructed to secure services, not just goods, I know that Schwana isn't going to last long and I want to follow her lead. Right out of the gate, we have a problem! Schwana has brought 4 bags in with her that she can't carry and won't leave unattended. It takes a few minutes, but I find a volunteer who can sit and watch her bags while we enter the gym. Despite the fact that she only wanted warm clothes and a backpack, Schwana has big eyes for the other vendors once she is in. She stops to talk to some and collects some information. We then enter the "store" where she fills another bag and gets her lunch. Though my interaction with Schwana was not warm or touchy feely, I appreciate her because she is alone, she is without support, and she isn't able to access help very easily. Then, comes Annette who is there with her daughter. They are not homeless but do need energy and rent assistance as well as clothes for themselves and grandchildren. Annette walks with a cane while I carry her bags. She also has me fill out any needed paperwork as I don't think she reads and writes. Annette is pleasant and appreciative but is reasonably distant. I'm sure she thinks I'm simply a "do-gooder" who shares nothing in common with her. For the most part, she's right but I do feel a sense of responsibility for her and her family. She is, after all, a member of my community!
My Takeaways: (1) No one plans to be homeless, wants to be homeless, or deserves to be homeless. Being homeless and/or at-risk can and does "just happen." You can get sick or lose your job. Your spouse or parent can die leaving you alone, without, or in debt. You can battle drug addiction and/or mental illness or be responsible for someone who does! The reasons are endless and the problem itself just cannot be accepted. I recently heard that for a single mother with an infant and school-age child to live comfortably in Montgomery County, she needs to earn $82,000 - 85,000/year. The poverty level, is half of that! What is one to do? (2) Homeless people are not typically lazy and happy to receive handouts. They'd much more prefer the dignity of being self sufficient, safe, and healthy. Many of the people I served at Shepherd's Table were here today too. It can't be easy to get from Silver Spring to Gaithersburg. (3) Too often, people point fingers and think state or local governments don't do anything. That is simply not the case. The hosts of this fair and government employees worked tirelessly to secure housing, food, and other services for clients (as they do 24/7 with or without a resource fair!) Bottom line: This is not just a government problem; it is a community problem!