Homeless night, helpful days: Students learn to appreciate
Sleeping outside on a tarp in 30-degree weather doesn’t sound like the ideal Spring Break, but that’s where I found myself on my second night in Biloxi, Miss.
We arrived Sunday night after driving for 26 hours and staying overnight in Nashville, Tenn. We were told to take advantage of the hotel bed and warm shower because it’d be our last for a couple of days.
We left Nashville around 7 a.m. the next morning and arrived at Camp Wilkes in Biloxi around 6 p.m.
After we shoved our last substantial meal into our mouths, we were off to the Bethel Lutheran Church to meet with a woman named Linda Favre who runs the organization, Shepherd of the Gulf, which helps the homeless in Mississippi. All I had packed for the next two days was an extra pair of sandals, underwear and my pepper spray in a small backpack.
When we arrived, Linda asked where our tents and pillows were, which we were told not to bring.
As she realized we would be sleeping outside with no protection, she took off with a volunteer Frank, to bring us some sleeping bags and blankets.
We then met Mr. Thomas, a local homeless man, a veteran suffering from emphysema currently living in a small camper with his cat, Tard.
Mr. Thomas began telling us the closest shelters for women were miles away and you either have to have a child or a police report saying you were abused. Men have shelters but none are local.
Ultimately, if you are a single woman or family trying to live together, there are no shelters for you in the area.
Once Lynda and Frank arrived with the blankets, flashlights and tents, we bundled up and huddled together in pairs to brace the cold, rainy night together.
I barely slept out of fear of hearing random footsteps outside and the lack of comfort my backpack was giving me as a pillow.
The next morning we awoke wet and hungry.
Mr. Thomas told us to wait for him so he could drive us to the closest soup kitchen, located seven miles from our site. As we waited, Frank decided he would bring us to his camp site to show us where he lives.
As we began walking into the middle of the woods located behind a set of neighborhoods, I realized Frank walked this same path the night before without any light. He also stayed in his tent without a sleeping bag or blanket because he gave them all to us.
As he gave us a tour of his site consisting of a couple of tents and a camping chair, I realized how selfless this man was. Frank, who has nothing to his name but necessities to survive, was willing to give us everything he had in order for us to sleep well that night. If that isn’t the definition of absolute altruism, then I don’t know what is.
Once we arrived back at the church we awoke Mr. Thomas and piled into his van. I’m not quite sure how we fit the 20 of us inside but we managed. As we drove, Mr. Thomas introduced us to Tard, who was skeptical and scared.
The smell of the van was indescribable and the amount of trash showed the conditions this man, who once served our country, was living in. The first soup kitchen served us grits, eggs and white bread but the only thing I could stomach was the bread.
As we sat, I decided to ask Frank a little more about his story. What he told me next I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.
A scar located on the top of his shoulder was left by a spider he didn’t want to kill out of the kindness of his heart. The spider ended up being extremely poisonous and bit him in his sleep.
The next morning Frank realized if he didn’t do something about the bite his entire skin and bone would begin to deteriorate.
Since he couldn’t go to the hospital, he cut and re-bandaged the infected area every couple of hours for three weeks straight.
After eating breakfast and meeting a few people we realized Loaves and Fishes, a local soup kitchen located a couple blocks away, was serving lunch soon.
As we walked I realized that all of the soup kitchens are located in the same area. They also don’t serve dinner or any meals on the weekends. This means that if it’s Friday afternoon and you’re homeless living in the same area as Frank, then you must walk seven miles back to your site and go without food until Monday morning.
Panhandling has also been made illegal by the state of Mississippi so asking for any form of money is out of the question.
Loaves and Fishes served us mashed potatoes, ham, green beans, peas and some caramel ice cream. This meal to me was worth more than anything else at that moment.
After eating we all decided we needed to take a nap so we decided we would find the local library and hopefully be able to lie down in a warm room. After about 30 minutes of resting our eyes, the librarian told us to get out. Mr. Thomas told us to contact him when we needed a ride back, but wasn’t answering at this time. We then followed Frank back to our site for the next three hours along the train tracks.
Wearing my thin, flat Keds wasn’t the smartest idea and the rocks under my feet made my feet feel as though they were bleeding, but it was my only option.
We weren’t allowed to walk on the road because of the driving conditions and lack of sidewalks, and at one point were stopped by police who let us go after explaining our challenge.
That night a few girls and I decided we needed dinner, so we took off to see if any restaurants would give us food if we cleaned bathrooms or tables or if they had any extra they would be throwing away. We did this for the next hour and were turned down by at least five different restaurants, including Subway and Popeyes.
After deciding our last stop would be Taco Bell and being turned down there as well, we felt discouraged, angry and somewhat ashamed.
We then heard someone call after us, and it turned out that a couple had seen us walking on the tracks earlier and knew we needed food.
The man tried to slip me a $20 bill to cover the rest of our group, but I explained I couldn’t take anything from him. He went on to say he worked at the local motorcycle shop, so if we needed anything to stop by at anytime.
This small act of buying us a $1.50 cheese quesadilla and giving us the time of day restored my faith in humanity.
Homeless people must go off of the kindness of people’s hearts, whether it’s giving them a piece of bread or volunteering at a local soup kitchen.
The word homeless in my mind had always looked like a man begging for money on the street to buy various sorts of drugs and alcohol.
I never understood that the word fearless and homeless should go hand-in-hand and that there are hundreds of people who are just like you and I who find themselves in this situation everyday.
The rest of the week was spent volunteering at various places, such as the Boys and Girls Club, and helping to rebuild a house destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
This Spring Break was nothing as I had expected but absolutely exceeded my expectations.
I can now say I’ve made 20 new friends and have a new perspective on life and the extra things I take for granted on a day-to-day basis. I think we all need to think outside of ourselves even for just a few moments each day.
We all get caught up in our busy schedules and how to make the next dollar we forget the things that really matter in life.
If everyone helped or did something kind for one person each day we would see a huge change in the world, and what better time than to start now?
A night on the streets teaches KSC students how to live
Someone who has old dirty clothes on comes up to you and says “do you have a dollar?” You can smell the alcohol on their breath and tell they’re intoxicated, and you assume they are homeless. This is the stereotype for homeless people.
This year’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Mississippi not only took people out of their comfort zones but out of their homes completely. Twenty Keene State College students were homeless for 36 hours–no food, water, tooth brush, pillows, blankets or phones; you name it and we probably did not have it.
It all started Sunday night. We drove over to a church where we were greeted by the coordinator Miss Linda. She introduced three men who are homeless: Mr. Thomas, Mr. Frank and Mr. Gary. They start off by giving us some advice for being homeless, such as going to soup kitchens for breakfast and lunch. They warned us to not be alone at night because it is dangerous. They weren’t joking around with us at all. They were serious and wanted to make it clear that being homeless is a struggle every day. We were very thankful that we got a quick lesson on Homeless 101 before our challenge really started.
Cue the pouring rain and 40 degree weather! Twenty people that have known each other for two days so far got nice and cozy into only four tents tossing and turning all night, maybe getting a total of three hours of sleep. A couple hours later we all woke up around 7 a.m., looking around at each other’s baggy eyes. Only 24 more hours of being homeless. Mr. Frank was waiting for us and we walked a couple miles into the woods where he gave us a tour of where some homeless people live. There were a few areas with tents, sleeping bags, and maybe a chair or two. Then there were other areas where someone’s “home” was completely destroyed. This is because police go into the woods looking for homeless people and slash their tents along with everything else they have. None of us had seen a site like this before.
By 9 a.m. you could hear stomachs growling. Mr. Thomas was kind enough to offer us a ride in his trailer to the soup kitchen. Keep in mind, we squeezed 20 people into this old, beat up contraption, and it was quite a bumpy ride, to say the least. We arrived at the soup kitchen assuming we could just walk in and eat. Little did we know, they weren’t expecting a group of 20. Apparently Linda forgot to inform them we were coming. We felt a bit awkward because they basically denied us. We explained our homeless challenge; they understood and opened their doors.
The breakfast was grits, bread and scrambled eggs. Inside there were mostly men–no children and only a couple of women. We all sat down at different tables, trying to spread out. This cute little lady passed out napkins and cups to us. You could tell she was trying to make us feel comfortable, and we all appreciated it. However, some of us did not feel overly welcomed at this place. We got many stares, could feel the judgment, and essentially felt pretty invisible. But we decided to step out of our comfort zone for a bit and get to know these people.
KSC student Meredith Trabilsy talked to a man named Nathan. The main thing Trabilsy took out of their conversation was to appreciate what she has in life and never take anything for granted. “If I became homeless I would do anything in my power to get my feet back on the ground,” Trabilsy said.
Once we started talking to the others they really opened up and made us feel very welcomed. Many of us got some great advice from the people we met and won’t forget it. What I got out of it was to get an education. The man I talked to preached that: get an education. We talked about other things, such as basketball. When talking to homeless people they appreciate any type of conversation because they don’t have too many, and they barely hear their names.
Off to the next soup kitchen! We walk ed about five minutes down the road for lunch at 11:30 a.m. Some of us didn’t eat that much at the previous one. This soup kitchen served ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, peas, corn bread and peanut butter cup ice cream–a lot more variety than breakfast.
There were student volunteers there who served us. We talked to a few of them and told them about our homeless challenge–their jaws dropped. Whenever we told people what we were doing we got a lot of jaw droppers.
KSC student Allison Picone and I talked to a teenage boy and his father at lunch. They weren’t as open to conversation as the last soup kitchen we were at, so we respected their privacy. One thing I do remember out of the conversation was inviting us to a bonfire. It was a thoughtful offer, but we declined.
At the table next to us KSC students Annie McCaffrey and Brittany Rando spoke with a man that wasn’t actually homeless. They talked about how anyone can really come into soup kitchens for a meal. The reason this man was actually here was because his girlfriend runs this soup kitchen and it is more of a community thing. His friends go there, some homeless and some not. McCaffrey said though that he was homeless for a period of time after Hurricane Katrina. You could feel the sense of community at that soup kitchen. People were friendly and many people knew each other.
Fatigue hit us all after lunch. The group split up, half going to the library and the other half walking around. We found an open room in the library, spread ourselves out and slept. About an hour later we got woken up to the librarian, who wasn’t too pleased. “This isn’t a dorm room. You all have to leave,” she said.
We didn’t have much to say so we left, but at least we got an hour’s worth of sleep!
Our next adventure was more on the cardiovascular side. Since we had no money to take a bus, all 20 of us and Mr. Frank walked about seven miles from the library back to our “home” at the church. We walked on a railroad track the majority of the way. It was a bumpy walk back because of the rocks all over the tracks. We saw a few more camp sites in the woods and recognized three homeless men we met earlier in the day.
About two hours into the hike back we hear a man yell to us sternly “Hey what are you all doing?” We turned our backs and it was a police officer, who told us to come down to the hill. Being interrogated by the cop, our trip leader Alyssa Tremblay explained to him what we are doing. He looked at us like we are crazy, which we were pretty much used to by then. We had some small talk with him and he told us he would warn the other cops on duty so we don’t get in trouble, then he sent us on our way.
Eventually, we arrived back at the church. We were all so happy we made it back alive. But it was dinner time and soup kitchens don’t serve dinner. Mr. Thomas meet up with us and he said he had $84 for food stamps and wanted to make us all burgers and hot dogs; you can imagine how excited we got. But it never happened. So, we had another plan–to basically beg for food. We split up into three groups of about four people in each. Some of us didn’t feel comfortable doing that though, but at that point I would have done anything for food. We all walked downtown going into restaurants saying we were homeless and need food or that we would work for food. We got turned down many times.
Some people didn’t even care that we were starving.
One group went into Burger King and the cashier ended up using her own money to give them some fries. Another group went into Backyard Burger and got some burgers from the manager. My group went into five different places, all rejections. Our fifth place was Taco Bell, we explained our situation and offered to do work. The manager said she couldn’t help us. We walked out of Taco Bell feeling defeated. I was thinking how awful this town was, how nobody cared, and no one could spare a dollar to help us out. While still thinking negatively we hear a voice call “Do ya’ll need some food?” Stopped completely in our tracks, we turned around and there is a lady standing outside of Taco Bell. We were all in shock, and couldn’t say anything.
Somehow I managed to find words and say yes. So we all walked back in and she told us to order anything we want. Praising her with thank you’s, and how much we appreciated her, we couldn’t stop saying thank you. We ordered the cheapest thing and got cheese quesadillas. The ladies’ husband walks over to Keene State College student Hannah Rascoe and offered her money. In shock she declined and said she really couldn’t take it but she thanked her anyway. He insisted on her taking money but Hannah refused. We couldn’t take money from people, nor did we want to. It was still a generous offer though.
We all sat down with warm food in our hands in silent for a moment. We could all feel tears in our eyes.
This was the moment when it truly hit us. These strangers decided to help us out when we had no money or food. We went into other restaurants where other customers saw us asking for food and they chose to do nothing, yet we were blessed with this kind couple helping us out.
Feeling enlightened, we walked back to the church and explain what just happened to us to the rest of our group. They were shocked as well. Unfortunately, there were still some people who haven’t eaten yet. We all felt bad for them and wanted to get them food. Mr. Frank suggested dumpster diving. I couldn’t wrap my head around dumpster diving but some of us wanted to experience it. So we walked to the dumpster behind Winn Dixie where Mr. Frank does most of the work. He got some muffins in a box and flowers, there wasn’t much in there that night.
We walk into Winn Dixie to use the bathrooms. Walking by the bakery a small group of us see some food. Thinking that they are going to have to throw this out tonight, why not just ask if we can have it? We find an employee, explain to her our homeless challenge, she was really into it so she calls over her manager. He was very hesitant at first and said “Homeless people find food in the dumpsters.”
Little does he know we just did that. But he could tell we were suffering, so he gives us two bags of cookies, a box of chicken, a package of six bread rolls and some water bottles.
We weren’t expecting this much at all. We thanked him many times and left feeling so thankful. We walk back to the church with food to feed our friends who haven’t eaten. It was a great feeling to know that everyone wasn’t suffering anymore, or as much, because we got them food. Seeing your team struggling is hard to watch.
Getting ready to sleep we decide not to use the tents because they were soaked, instead we lay out a couple tarps on the grass with sleeping bags that Mr. Frank lent us.
The weather was freezing that night. It was so cold and we didn’t have enough sleeping bags to keep us all warm. Somehow we make it through the night and wake up the next day at 7:00 a.m. So many emotions were flowing at the time. We were happy we did this challenge but sad to say bye to Mr. Frank and Mr. Thomas. They let us into their lives for 36 hours with no judgment and helped us survive, without them things would have been completely different and definitely awful. We go into the church and have a quick group talk with another coordinator and explain what we learned and what changed us.
What we think people should start doing more is to helping the homeless. Now, we will walk up to a homeless person and ask them their name and have a conversation. It isn’t just about giving them some money, it’s about making them feel wanted. When we see homeless people now we aren’t going to judge them or turn our heads, because we got to experience their life for 36 hours. After this challenge we actually get to go back to food, water, beds, and family. We can escape being homeless when they can’t, and leaving behind Mr. Frank and Mr. Thomas hurt our hearts.
This homeless challenge changed all our lives and opened our eyes to reality. All 20 of us became a family. Friendships were formed and the hard work continued. We felt invincible after, nothing was hard to us. We continued doing service work until Friday, helping people fix houses, working outside with nature, and going to a boys and girls club to play with the kids.
I asked student Bobby Pettit what his favorite part of the trip was. “I wouldn’t say I had one specific favorite part because the whole trip was so much fun, even the work sites. Once we got back to camp the fun kept rolling, even the car rides. Nothing like singing your voice off in a car full of people you just met.”
I asked student Britt Rando if the trip was what she expected? “It was a lot more than I expected but in a good way. It was more eye opening than expected and I didn’t realize how close we all truly would get.”
I asked both of them how they would encourage other people to do ASB if they haven’t before. Rando said “don’t take anything you do for granted, embrace everything the best that you can, no matter how hard, sucky, or awesome it may be.”
Petit wishes he had down ASB earlier in his college career since he is graduating in May. Pettit suggested to just get the word out about asb and to talk very positive about it and how our experiences would be enough to get people to be interested.”
Just because our trip is over does not mean our friendships are. We all learned from each other and brought something to the table. The first of ten days we were all strangers to each other, but now we are blessed with 19 new friends. Somehow we developed British accents in the south and aren’t sure how, and we find humor in taking pictures of Allison Picone. But one thing we know is that we got to experience something many people never will. Next spring break instead of going to Cancun, Mexico with your friends, do an ASB trip and help others. Help change the world a little by dedicating ten days of your life to others and change their life for the better.
Nicole Marano can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org