Although my externship at Crossroads Community Services was short, just four days, it was an extremely enriching experience. I saw the organization both from an administrative perspective by attending meetings, seeing how food for the soup kitchen, shelter, and pantry is acquired and organized, and how guests at the shelter are selected. I also took a volunteer's perspective, by participating in helping the shelter, soup kitchen, and pantry programs. Additionally, I was able to learn from my externship sponsor about the ins and outs of the shelter system in New York. I became aware of the factors that can lead to homelessness, and about some of the potential solutions.
Crossroads Community Services consists of three different programs. The women's shelter gives up to ten women dinner and a warm place to sleep every single night. The food pantry acts somewhat like a grocery store with free items for families having trouble making ends meet. Their soup kitchen serves dinner to homeless individuals every night and serves a full, restaurant style breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sundays. Additionally, the soup kitchen hands out coats and other donated goods before dinner some days. The three programs complement each other well, each providing vital resources to individuals in different situations of need. The three programs are able to support each other, because one often is able to make use of leftover or unused resources from another of the programs.
My first experience was with the soup kitchen, working with other volunteers to go on what are called "food rescue missions”. These “missions” consist of picking up the day's unsold, leftover foods from stores and company cafeterias (CCS is in midtown. I had no idea that businesses were a source of food for soup kitchens, and found it really interesting and inspiring that for-profit companies were willing to be so generous. Also, the food we were able to scrounge up was really tasty! The guests who come to the soup kitchen for dinner every night really seemed to appreciate it.
I also found out that there can be a downside to donated resources. There is an NFL store across the street from Crossroads, and they very generously donated a few boxes of some of their products to the shelter. Inside were a lot of clothes, outerwear, backpacks, and shoes. However, the shoes they had donated were only left shoes, without pairs. This was really frustrating, because it seemed like instead of making a thoughtful donation, they were just dumping leftover garbage they had on the shelter, without thinking about the recipients. Homeless people have a right foot and a left foot, just like everyone else. Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they don't want matching shoes. As a result we took the shoes back to the store and just asked them to reconsider the types of things they donate, and to respect the recipients a little more. This just highlighted to me the way homeless people are often thought of without regard for their perspective or awareness of the very basic fact that they are humans exactly like you, who would like a shoe for both their left AND right foot.
Working with the other volunteers at CCS was also a very eye-opening experience. I was surprised to discover that the volunteers were homeless individuals as well. Their situations were often slightly different than guests at the shelter in that they generally had a friend or family member's place to crash at, but did not have places of their own. Many came in wearing the same clothes every day. The fact that they were in fairly precarious situations themselves but were willing to devote their time to trying to help those less fortunate was really inspiring. This challenged my assumptions about homeless individuals' capacities not just to receive charity but also to be able to give themselves. Additionally, I found that homeless shelters and soup kitchens often work best when the whole community is giving input, not just when one group is providing care for another group.
The next part of CCS that I was exposed to was the women's shelter. Only about 15% of New York's homeless population is women, but those that are women are particularly vulnerable on the streets. Those in a partnership or who have children are automatically guaranteed a space in the city's shelter system, but single individuals are not, and it was to this second group that the guests at CCS belonged. The night that I volunteered to stay over with the guests the temperature was in the single digits and everyone was just so happy to be inside in the warmth. Dinner that night was provided by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was a great treat, and again made me aware of surrounding businesses generosity. My responsibilities mostly consisted of retrieving and setting up the food, and just being there in order to make sure that if there were any problems, they got resolved. There wasn't much time for me to be able to get to know the guests very well, but I really enjoyed the time that I was able to spend with them, they were generally a very happy and jovial bunch.
The last aspect of CCS that I was able to experience was the food pantry. This is a really great program that attempts to approximate guests' experiences to that at a grocery store. I think this is a really smart idea and is very empowering for guests who utilize the services. Guests go around the pantry with a volunteer who is there to make sure that the food that they choose conforms to a nutritionally healthy distribution (the grant that CCS receives stipulates this). I was able to be one of those volunteers, and found the personal shopper experience to be a great way to get to know people, and get to know about their situations. One woman had broken her arm at work, and just needed some help with groceries until she was able to get back on her feet. Another woman travelled the country preaching, and needed assistance while in New York. The food pantry program is really about providing people with a leg up until they can get back to a more stable place in their lives.
Overall, my experience at CCS was one that definitely left an impact on me. I understand the shelter system and homelessness in general so much more intimately now, and feel empowered by that knowledge to know at least somewhat better to what avenues help should be channeled. I also have been able to see how a nonprofit operates on a day-to-day basis, and how volunteers really provide the backbone of support for CCS. I am definitely going to continue to volunteer at CCS and could also see myself trying to direct my career path towards the nonprofit sector.