My home town, Santa Clarita, California, has more than 330 homeless people. Only a few of them find temporary shelter in private and public facilities. The rest huddle under brush and trees in the several dry riverbeds that run through this mostly middle class suburb of Los Angeles. Located at the western edge of the California desert, the lack of moisture can result in very cold nights in the winter. Many of these people have jobs, but the increasingly high rents here squeeze them out from under a roof. They work or look for work all day, and spend the night under tarps and bedspreads draped between trees.
A local organization called Bridge To Home provides meals, medical, psychological, and case management resource services year-round, and provides shelter beds for 60 people during the coldest winter months. They rely heavily on private groups, mostly churches, to provide dinners.
Several weeks ago our local atheist group, the Santa Clarita Atheists and Freethinkers signed up for our very first turn at providing and serving a dinner, and we did it last Sunday. We were told that we must be prepared to feed between 60 and 100 people. If the night was extra cold, more people would show up than the lucky 60 who have winter beds in the shelter. A few of the local churches serve many of the dinners during the year, and so with their permission I attended one of their evenings to see how it’s done. I got several good ideas. They were surprised but they seemed genuinely pleased that an atheist group wanted to help, because not every night ends up covered.
With the contributions of 30 members, we bought lasagna and chicken from Sam’s Club, and when Sam’s found out what we were doing, they donated all the lasagna for free. (Thank you very much!) We also made salad, vegetarian bean soup, home-baked chocolate cookies, and provided bananas, oranges, milk, and bottles of water.
Ten of us crowded into a small serving room at the end of a large dining hall, and although it was hectic, everything went very smoothly. Bridge To Home staff guided and encouraged us in our very first effort, and the “clients” as they are called were grateful and friendly as we filled plates with their choices and offered them seconds. I was told that 72 people were fed that night. We put all the leftovers into refrigerators to be used for lunches in the coming days.
After the serving part, people settled down at tables to eat their meals, and I and several other SCAF members went out to sit and talk with them. Socializing is an important need that homeless people often don’t get enough of. Just being acknowledged and treated as a human being is difficult to come by during their daily life, and lacking it can seriously reduce one’s emotional health.
I enjoyed several congenial conversations with them. Some people were curious about our group, and in keeping with the shelter rules for all volunteers, we answered their questions but of course we did not “proselytize.” No one in my group reported experiencing anything negative that evening about us being atheists. A young staff psychotherapist there told me that he’s very happy to see an atheist group volunteering, because he would like to see a broader variety of groups helping than just church groups. He also mentioned that he objects to the widespread assumption he’s heard that atheists have no morals or compassion.
That is one of the two reasons for atheists to do more things like this. The main reason is simply that the need is there, and we want to help. The smaller (but still valid) reason is that we live in a society where atheists are constantly slandered by ignorant and hateful bigots, and unless we visibly contradict that slander, the ignorance and hatred will continue.
I definitely want to do this again, and I hope that my group can make it a regular thing. It made our group a more cohesive team and brought out leadership and organizational skills in several members. It was fun and heartwarming, but it was also sad and sobering because providing an occasional meal to a few dozen people is such a tiny response to such an enormous and awful problem.
But it really wasn’t difficult. Any stress we had I think was just from never having done it before and wanting to not screw it up. Compassionately sharing food, smiles, and stories with fellow human beings is a human instinct. It’s not as strong in some individuals as it is in others, but I think it can be increased by having plenty of examples. We only need to draw upon a small amount of money and time to make it happen, and the desire to keep helping will grow in us.