Erfahrungsbericht USA

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Verein für soziale Dienste International e.V.
Christoph W.

Franciscan Outreach Association

What exactly was going to happen over there? I just had rough ideas from different stories and reports like the one I am writing right now ...
I am back home now, my arrival in Chicago is quite exactly one year ago and a lot has happened since then. To say in advance: It was all in all an outstanding time.

The airport pick up service consisted of my future coworkers and friends. They brought me to the Marquard Center, which is situated in a neighborhood named "Wicker Park". The building at the near north-west side of Chicago houses the administrative headquarters of FOA, my future apartment sharing community and the most important part my stay was going to be about: a soup kitchen to serve the poor. I enjoyed a warm welcome in the community, which was inhabited by former volunteers who were all about to leave during the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, they didn't hesitate to show me around, introduce me to different people and finally be my friends. Two things about the community were very surprising: a very comfortable living site and an extreme German domination among the volunteers.

I found myself assigned to work in the soup kitchen. The FOA is running two different programs: The soup kitchen just mentioned and an emergency overnight shelter at the west-side of Chicago. The volunteers of both programs used to live separately, but decided last year to move together, forming a group of about 13 people, the number varying throughout the year. Living here turned out to be one of the new big experiences, although I had grown up in a big family. This way of living demands a lot of tolerance and conflict management, but you are rewarded by a lot of entertainment and a special spirit.

After one day of settling in my first day of work in the kitchen started. Every night (no exceptions!) we would serve about 150 guest. Therefore, the kitchen crew gathered every morning to prepare the food and serve it later in in the afternoon to our guests. Each day one volunteer was assigned to be the kitchen manager, a position carrying the responsibility for the whole process.
Besides the work within the kitchen we were responsible to pick up food donations at different places all over the city. I really enjoyed going on these so called "runs", because it gives you the chance to explore the city at the same time.

My first contact with the homeless as a kitchen volunteer was friendly, but not very intense. It is always very busy during the dining hours and you are working more "backstage". Anyway, as guests are usually lounging around in the courtyard or the lobby, you always have the chance to get in touch with them. And most of the guest are looking for contact, they are curious about you and are happy to talk about anything: common topics like sports and weather, but also very personal things like their life stories, recent problems, wishes and hopes.

After two months of working in the soup kitchen I made use of the possibility to switch the program and started working at the shelter. This meant the end of my regular sleep pattern, because the work hours at the "Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph" mainly take place at night. Although the shelter facility, an old mop factory filled up with beds standing right next to each other, and its surrounding neighborhood are shabby, I felt something special about this place right away.
I had been spending a lot of time in the shelter before my name was put on the schedule (warum dat denn?) and therefore I already knew roughly what to do when I first started. We sheltered about 210 men and 40 women every night (again: no exceptions!). The men's site is divided into two dorms. North dorm guests have to fight for a bed every night: The leading principle here is "first-come, first-serve". We showed up in front of the building three times a day to take names of candidates waiting in line in order to gain entry at night. If the list was full, it was full. There was nothing we could do except for recommending other shelters.

So called "regulars" sleep in the south dorm, which includes some privileges like the same guaranteed bed every night and a locker to store personal belongings. They gained this trustworthy position through a long and constant stay without trouble in the north dorm.
We opened our doors at 8:30 pm. Two volunteers were working every night. One of them was supposed to call up the names on the list to a crowd and check the guests for noticeable drug abuse when they passed to enter the building. The second volunteer was working inside sitting at the desk to assign beds and monitor the dorm.

Besides the volunteers there is always a supervisor on duty. He conducts the whole procedure and is available to support the volunteers in case of any incidents. Another essential help is provided by homeless people ( "crew staff" ) who have committed themselves to working for the FOA in exchange for a little stipend and the permission to stay inside the building during the day.
As I know from talking to other staff members, the shelter and its procedure haven't really changed since it first opened its doors 25 years ago. From this point of view I should mention the introduction of a new digital bed management system. The plan is to exchange the bed sheet of paper through a computer system. The new system rewards us with funding, because we share certain informations with the city's department of human services. Going digital sounds progressive, but I am skeptical because of a concern for private data protection. It generally tends to loose significance in the course of fighting crime.

The workflow itself as described above is simple and not too demanding. But working in the shelter means more than just handling your duties and going home afterwards. It is impossible to be fixed on a certain course of the night, and incidents happen again and again.
I kind of caught a rough start working at the shelter. During my first morning shift one of our guest didn't react on my attempt to wake him up. He passed away that night due to a cardiac arrest. A lot of other things were going to happen during the upcoming twelve months, but I noticed that things are less shocking now than they would have been before. But I don't mean too scare anybody - I never felt unsafe staying at the shelter, mainly because of the presence of other guests and the radio connection with the supervisor waiting in back.

The misery along the homeless is very obvious and affecting in the shelter area. A usual way for them to deal with their situations is taking drugs to suppress problems. Intoxicated guests coming into the shelter is basically not allowed in the regulatory of the shelter, but commonly accepted as long as it is not too apparent.

The sleeping atmosphere is very intimate and it just happens that you become very close to each other. It is hard to minimize emotions like compassion and sympathy in order to act professionally and treat everybody the same. I got to know a lot of interesting and great individuals, who taught me more about life than any teacher. But there is also another side, full of disappointment and incomprehension. And after a while you get aware of the limits of your help. As volunteers running the shelter we help them to survive on the streets and satisfy important needs from day to day, but we are unable to end homelessness. A lot of our guest were veterans, uneducated, had mental health issues or were just ill-fated. Although everybody has is own tragedy story, in the end it usually comes down to certain lacks in the society system. For instance, it turned out that Larry, the guest who passed away in my first night, had had heart issues for a long time but was unable to finance a necessary treatment. I started to appreciate the German welfare system more and more and at the same time I became aware of how unnecessary the German grumbling mentality is.

To guarantee good social work, time off for yourself helps a lot. By the way, there is no better city to spend your recreation time than Chicago. North Ave Beach, concerts, museums, YMCA gym are just some of endless opportunities. The FOA provides useful equipments such as transfer tickets, wireless Internet, cars and bikes. And our strong European currency makes everything more affordable, even though a good time here doesn't depend on money, but on your own motivation.

I hope you got an impression about my terrific stay in Chicago. It's really hard to describe it unless you experience it yourself!

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