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In my last blog I left off with wanting to find a way to help after witnessing a family begging in front of the grocery store with their children.  It spurred me on to call our community homeless shelter C.O.T.S. (community of the shelterless).

At first I was nervous, (as well as a few people I know were nervous) I wouldn’t be able to mentally handle it.  I decided to go for a tour and see what they do– facing my emotional sensitivity to this head on.  It might help me find a way to deal with all this emotion I don’t know where to put.  I sent an email.

I was greeted by such kind words of enthusiasm and gratefulness that I immediately felt I was doing the right thing.  I met a woman named Indigo who wanted to give me a tour and some history on the place.  I have lived in my town for 25 years and have never even looked at this building.  Yet, I knew where it was.  I arranged to meet.

I showed up and met her in the lobby.  It’s a nice building with big windows and a lot of light.  There are many people using the facilities as they offer computers for job searching, resume building, etc.  She began to list everything COTS does for people in need.  I was shocked.  I had no idea they offered not only housing, but will allow a family to stay there for up to a year in order to get on their feet.  She told me some of these children have lived in cars, place to place and the families are so thankful to have some stability in their lives.  She also told me the story of how this shelter began…

A woman by the name of Mary Isaac was driving down Hwy 101 one day and had seen individuals and families living under a bridge.  Indigo told me, “It hurt her heart so much to see people living like that. She decided no one should be hungry and homeless.. she decided to do something.  She hurt and felt just like you do.” That hit home for me.  This woman felt so compelled seeing this and she had to do something.  It’s how I felt.  I couldn’t carry this sadness anymore.  I had to find a way I could contribute, which is what led me there.

The building is clean.  The residents have to give a few hours a week in the care and upkeep of the place.  Everyone has chores.  It makes it their place.  They are responsible for it, and everyone seems to respect it.  There is a larger room set aside where the kids can play freely with toys as the rooms the family stay in are pretty small.  I believe she said 12 X 10.  Sometimes a family of four are living in that small space.  But, its a roof over their head, a place to come home to everyday.  It’s nice there is a room just for kids to have some space to play and be kids.  There is also a common kitchen all the families can use.  Outside I saw toys and a play structure.  There are 3 meals a day prepared in the public kitchen with donated items from the local grocery stores.  All the markets seem to contribute food, as well as community members.

They also will help families who aren’t homeless, but don’t have enough money to buy food (I know that feeling.. I have been there myself).  They will provide food in a box with enough groceries for a week to feed a family of four.  Sometimes that’s all someone needs.  We all have had a rough patch in our lives.  I was a single mom, going to school and working.  I had at times no help from my childs father financially.  I never had to ask for groceries, but had I known that was available I very well could have used it a few times.  We were fortunate that we never went hungry, but we didn’t have a lot of variety at times, lets just say that.  We live in one of the most expensive areas to live in the world.  At the time I was making $20.00 an hour (about 10 years ago) which is decent money in most places.  However, in San Francisco bay area with rent, child care costs, clothing, gas, insurance and a car payment.  I had very little left.

I wasn’t lazy nor uneducated.  So, I can see how easily one tragic event can sink the boat of an already unstable situation.

I am not naive to the fact that many homeless individuals are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and choose to keep living that lifestyle.  But, for the ones who want a chance at a better life, to raise their children, and just need a helping hand– assistance should be more readily available.

There is virtually no where for families to go for help.  What about the family that doesn’t qualify for food stamps, or aid.. that person was me.  I financially made to much money to qualify for anything.  Yet, I was left sometimes with $40.00 a week for food.  These are people who pay into the system. They have jobs, yet they might still be homeless or can’t afford to feed their family.  These are real scenario’s many people don’t realize.  It could be your co-worker.  I actually saw a woman I know from school, and I know she worked for the county at one time.  Who know what her story was now, but she was smart and capable.  I do remember that.

These are real people, who aren’t always the derelict’s of society.  Are people going to say they don’t deserve a “a hand out?”  How about a “Hand up?”

I decided to volunteer in the kitchen yesterday.  This is where they needed the help the most.  I showed up at 8:00 am and met the cook.  His name is Peter and used to own a restaurant.  He now volunteers cooking every Saturday morning.  I met another guy who will remain anonymous as he is also a cook here in town at a local establishment and doing community hours for a DUI.  He was an awesome help and I found myself thinking.. what would this place do without experienced people like them?  The kitchen was immaculate and professional.. huge steamers, ovens, walk in freezers just like a professional restaurant.  The menu was fajitas.  I spent time mixing salsa, putting out individual salads, cutting fresh fruit and washing it for fruit salad.  They had rice, beans, sour cream, salsa, tortillas, fruit salad, potato salad, individual green salads, pumpkin pie, berry pie, pecan pie, chocolate cake, eclairs, juice and milk.  All of this was donated by markets getting ready to throw things that might be a day or two from expiration dates.  We checked everything, wore gloves, and washed everything to health standards.  I was amazed at how nice everything was prepared and the love and thought put into the menu by the volunteer cooks!

It was time to serve!  About a 100 people were there to have lunch.  All were thankful, polite and happy to eat everything prepared.  Anyone in the community can come for lunch- no questions asked.  Breakfast and dinner are for residents only.  I met a woman who didn’t look like the stereo type of person one might expect to be a resident.  She explained she has a bachelors degree, but when you fall off the path sometimes its hard to get back.  I tried not to ask too many questions, as we are not really supposed to.  I left it alone.  And, I try not to judge anyways.  I was glad to see she was there, and happy to serve food.  I don’t know what I would have done without her.  We would have been short handed.  Here is a few pictures of how nice everything was!

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COTS also offer parenting classes, pre-school time for an hour each morning, clothing to help men and women get back into the work force.  They teach how to manage a budget, and life skills to help increase the odds of success.  Seeing all of this made me feel hopeful and much better KNOWING there is a place that helps; KNOWING there is a place to direct these families in need next time I see one.

Indigo gave me a stack of cards with information and phone numbers to hand to someone next time they are begging.  She explained, the goal is to get people OFF the streets, and by giving them money here and there its not getting them off the streets. We need to look at the big picture of what is going on.  Which is exactly what I was thinking when I saw the family begging.  A gift card for 20.00 bucks isn’t going to fix what is going on here!  They need help for more than one day.  This is what this organization does.  They aim to help give people help that will sustain them a lifetime.

She also did mention that some people will always be homeless.  Sometimes people don’t want the help.  And that’s ok if that is what they choose.

I am more concerned for children who deserve not to have to make that choice.

My boss gave me a case of toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss.  I had a few friends donate blankets that I brought with me to donate.  Now, that I am signed up as a volunteer I can volunteer in whatever area they might need.  I hope I help get the word out to others who might not know where to start, but want to help make a difference.

It makes me happy to know there are others out there making a difference and creating HUGE change for others.  As I get older I realize we are all in this together.  Focusing on just making ourselves happy is not how I feel in my heart we are supposed to be. Everyone doing little things together make big changes.  You never know how you might impact someone or even change their life.  Food for thought.

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