The Generosity of Strangers

Today’s Thanksgiving blog is by Angela Patterson, M.S.W., M.P.C., UNITY’s Director of Programs and the inspirational leader of UNITY’s outreach team.

Angela Patterson, UNITY Director of Programs

Angela Patterson, UNITY Director of Programs

No one knows what really happened that first Thanksgiving. Important details seem to include a story of Pilgrims — a people moving into a different set of circumstances and finding in this new place such hardships that except for the mercy of strangers their very existence was threatened. The devastation of their situation — without the extraordinary generosity of strangers, in this case the native American brave, Squanto, and other members of his tribe — was almost beyond description.  Cold, snow, sleet, hunger, exposure, illness, diminishment of spirit, hope and dreams.

In working the UNITY mission of helping the homeless to move into housing, I encounter on a daily basis the same human hardships being borne by homeless individuals and families, who whatever the personal differences of details, are suffering almost beyond description. Time after time during 2007, from the tents of human desperation, lived in by an estimated 1000 persons in the Duncan Plaza homeless encampment across the street from New Orleans City Hall, I met persons  disabled both mentally and physically, young, middle-aged and elderly, whose very survival depended on the generosity of strangers, especially the housing assistance provided by the Welcome Home Outreach Team.  If it is possible to contemplate human suffering on an even greater level, then consider the equally large encampment at Canal and Claiborne Avenue, closed after a massive humanitarian rehousing effort by UNITY in 2008, where a study of vulnerability for mortality found that a majority of the camp residents were drastically disabled, mentally and physically, some developmentally disabled to the point of barely being able to communicate or understand, living in horrid squalor, with literally food and feces sharing a space next to each other, living in conditions of cold, rain, sleet, hunger, exposure, illness,  and diminishment of spirit, hope and dreams.

Being utterly dependent on others for one’s well-being in life, for even a short time, is not something most of us would care to consider, let alone admit.  Yet just this past week, on a late night visit to Walmart’s on Tchoupitulas Street to get some last minute items for my vacation the next day, I found myself outside the store, panicked in the rain and cold, without cell phone, money, wallet or ideas about what to do or how to do it, because all were contained in my car that had just been towed away. I got through this situation through the person of a Walmart’s customer service worker, who like Squanto, left her usual life activities and work, and gave me her all — time, attention and care — that got me through this, heading back home in my car.

Part of being human is the capacity to need others at those times when one is utterly unable to provide what is needed on one’s own. It has truly been a blessing to me in disguise, to find myself upon such occasions, utterly dependent upon the mercy and generosity of strangers for my well-being, and sometimes even survival. These situations of experiencing first-hand the fragility of well being, of entering into those spaces where the actions of care given by others make all the difference in the world, informs and supports my work with homeless persons every day. 

The situations of homelessness that the UNITY Outreach team daily encounters, that of persons, young and old, with dreams and purpose, living in abandoned buildings, on the streets, in cars, alleyways, porches and sheds, recycle the systems of suffering experienced by the Pilgrims and those living in the Duncan Plaza and Canal/Claiborne encampments, that call out for the mercy and generosity of strangers, not only for the possibility of their well-being but for their very survival.

This past week, I conducted a survey of seven formerly homeless disabled persons who had been residents of the Duncan Plaza and Canal/Claiborne camps, now permanently housed in their own apartments through the UNITY Rebuilding Communities Program, to find out how they were doing. While visiting the homes of these seven individuals, one being the mother of a young family, I found that to a person, their well-being was in full display. These seven formerly homeless persons were barely recognizable, in their homes leading normal lives, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends, productive, full of dreams and hope. One, Ms. Cyrus, ended the visit by saying: “I never thought I’d make it, the way things were going before, but now, you wouldn’t know me, because things are going so good.”

-Angela Patterson

UNITY Director of Programs

1 Comment

  • Wendy

    December 2, 2009 11:08 pm

    An apt metaphor that is so much more than a metaphor!

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