Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Food and Shelter

There were forty people in the Ottawa PADS shelter Sunday night.  Once a month my church, Open Table, staffs an entire night with volunteers. The supper shift starts at 5:00 p.m., two-night shifts, and the breakfast shift which ends at 9:00.  I’m the breakfast guy.
Our local shelter is well supported.  It enjoys a long-term lease in a building owned by the city.  When I retired they remodeled adjoining vacant space creating family rooms.  They started renovation during my first days not going into work.  Because of that I was able to come down and help them tear out walls, rip down ceilings, remove plaster.  Demolition is a guilty pleasure of mine.  I own my own crowbar.  It felt good sweating, making space for new services in a t-shirt and bib overalls, doing something wonderfully tangible while other people labored at work so ephemeral they may never have realized its result. 

The idea behind family rooms was simple.  Homeless adults are often parents, and when they are without shelter their children are homeless too.  Yet we rarely think of homeless families.  When we do we squarely blame the parents.  There was a time when losing a roof over you and your children’s head was grounds for neglect, with parents losing custody of their children, and children losing daily contact and the emotional support of their parents.

Maintaining shelter is basic.  A smart guy named Maslow put shelter right behind air, water, food, and clothing in order of importance.  But shelter has become precious.  Even poor shelter is beyond the means of some.  Housing takes money, and money in America has gotten harder and harder to come by.
We have an image of the homeless; single men warehoused at night in large open settings, rows of bunk beds stretched across otherwise empty rooms.  By day they are alcoholics, winos, addicts, or the hopelessly mentally ill, sleeping in the gutter, panhandling, estranged from family, telling their sad story to any and all who will listen.  Without saying it we quietly believe the homeless bring on their own misfortune by their choices and their behavior. Where do we get that?

The homeless are a wide swath of people.  Educated and not.  Young and old.  Extensive work histories and some rarely if ever employed.  Just when you think you have them categorized someone else pops up you would never imagine could be homeless.  Like school kids.
When the local school bus stops at the shelter a short string of kids run to the door, dressed for school, grabbing lunches, backpacks bouncing on their backs.  Most of them  stay in their rooms till the bus comes.  One junior high girl, with elaborate hair, braided with beads her Mom  likely helped her with, came bursting back through the door seconds after leaving.  She forgot something.  School kids haven’t changed. 

In addition to school kids employed people leave for work, some before I arrive at 6:30.  The fast food industry is popular among the homeless.  They usually work less than full time for minimum wage.  You didn’t really think earning the minimum wage meant you could afford a roof over your head did you?  They have jobs but not enough income to make a deposit and pay regular rent.
Others are looking for work.  Some need extensive help getting their lives started again.  From time to time people appear at the shelter with no ID, no clothes, no plan.  It’s hard to do anything without proof of identity.  Shelter staff guide them through the process of completely starting over.  They’ll be in shelter longer than most.  And some are obviously in no shape to work. 

Some are housed very temporarily.  You see them on their phones, talking to family and friends, making requests, figuring out arrangements.  They’ll take care of themselves.  It’s the full range of people.  If one thing binds them together it’s a lack of personal resources.  The lucky ones have a support network they are willing to use.  Others are either stubbornly or virtually alone.  Who among us hasn’t been helped by our family?  Who hasn’t turned to their family when they needed money, or accepted their family’s money when it was offered?  Is it really so hard to imagine a time in your life when this could have happened to you?  Honestly?  Use your imagination.  
I’m not sure why we stigmatize the homeless with pre-conceived notions, but our generalizations are strong and lasting, so strong in fact that the physical layout of homeless shelters ignored families and kids for a very long time.  Enter a shelter with your wife and kids and you may find yourself and your son(s) sleeping in adjacent bunk beds and your wife and daughter(s) sleeping elsewhere, your time together later shared with all the others in the shelter in a common area.  Cost efficient congregate care without regard for privacy, that’s what homeless shelters have by and large always been.  That’s changed, thank God, both in Ottawa and elsewhere.

I have known cases in which families sought public shelter but chose to continue living in their car after realizing the extent to which their family would be separated.  Fortunately at the shelter I volunteer at, beginning some five years ago, they recognized the needs of families and physically adapted their facility to those needs. 
That is how this conversation happened.  A young man, tall, stooped down to catch my eye in the opening between the kitchen and the eating area, asking about breakfast.

“I have biscuits and gravy and I’m cooking eggs to go with them.”
“That sounds great.”

“How do you like your eggs?”

He seemed surprised he had choice.
“How do you like your eggs?”

“Sunnyside up.”
“OK.  Give me a few minutes.”

I turned, got one of the sturdy square plastic plates off a big stack under the counter, and cracked two eggs in a hot frying pan.  As I stooped to get a biscuit from the oven and straightened to split it in two I heard his voice.

“Excuse me, could you also make a plate for my wife?”
“Sure, what will she have?”

“Just eggs and a biscuit.  Skip the gravy please.”
“How does she like her eggs?”

“Over hard.”
I noticed no women in the dining area at that time.

“So, is this breakfast in bed?”
He smiled.

“No.  I’m not that good of a guy.  She’s going to have to get up to eat.  We’ll have breakfast in the room with the baby.”
“Does the baby need breakfast?”

He chuckled.
“No. She’s gets everything she needs from her mama.”

That’s what you get when you create family rooms for the homeless, the possibility of family in the toughest of circumstances.
The shelter gets a lot of donated food.  In fact, they were flooded with donations when I walked in, always too many doughnuts and sweets but rarely enough eggs.  On this morning I was blessed with plenty of eggs.  I had made a plea earlier in the week on a Face Book post to my friends, some of whom raise chickens, for eggs at the shelter.  They came through.  It’s easy to stay stocked with canned goods, freezer items, stuff with shelf life.  But eggs, milk, and juice go quickly and require constant shopping.   Monday mornings are especially subject to a lack of weekend grocery store runs by the staff.  On this morning I had plenty of eggs, but no juice.

You never know what’s going to be there.  The sausage gravy was a bonus, brought in by a local restauranteur who gave the shelter the unused food from his Sunday brunch. However, the biscuits he brought with the gravy  were hard as a rock.  He also gave us a small box of fried shrimp with four little cups of red seafood sauce.  I kept them in the oven warming with better biscuits and when the crowd was largest simply put them out on the counter.  They disappeared in minutes.
As luck would have it, my church brought in biscuits the night before.  On the second Sunday of each month we prepare a free community lunch.  The Episcopalians just up the block had a free lunch for years on the first Sunday of each month and we at Open Table finally caught on, along with two other downtown churches.  The Episcopalians had a fire and are out of commission for the time being but Open Table, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians have the other Sundays covered.  Christ  Community Church does the occasional fifth Sunday, and we’re hoping the Catholic churches in town get interested in taking over the first Sunday soon.  Here’s what happens at the free lunch.

A family, an individual, or a group from each church plans a meal, cooks it, and serves it.  Pretty simple.  Sunday, the day before I did breakfast at PADS, we served turkey and biscuits to maybe 90 people.  It was a big crowd for a day that featured cold rain and sloppy snow.  You never know what the turnout will be.  We made up the turkey sauce earlier in the week and set out to bake 180 Bisquick biscuits Sunday morning.  We don’t know how many we made, but it was plenty.  We burned some, lost count, scrambled to keep the ovens both filled with biscuit dough and then emptied of finished biscuits.  It’s always a little nutty serving 90 people lunch.  But very satisfying. 
Here’s who turns out for free Sunday lunch: a core group of seniors who see the meals as a time to socialize with old friends, residents of the public housing centers in town, families who need to stretch their budget, and always residents of the PADS shelter.  In fact, the last breakfast I served Monday went to a man who was the last to be served at Open Table Sunday.

He came through the door about 1:00, when we usually begin to clean up.  A very quiet man, in his fifties I’d guess, with several sweatshirts, one hooded.  He may be in need of a winter coat, or maybe he prefers layering.  He needs dental work.  He came to the counter wanting a meal.
“Sorry.  I have plenty of biscuits but I’m flat out of the sauce.  Served the last of it about ten minutes ago.”

“That’s OK.  I should have gotten here earlier.  Just biscuits is fine.”
One of the church women overheard our conversation and brought up the possibility of hot dogs.  We always have something in the fridge.

“How about a couple hot dogs?  We can microwave them for you.”
“Oh that’s not necessary.  I can get by on the biscuits, really.”

“It’s no trouble.  Let me cook you a couple hot dogs.”
“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.”

Humans (or is it just midwestern humans?) when offered kindness go through this “Oh You don’t have to do that” thing.  Think of it as perfunctory protest followed by fairly quick acceptance.  It’s a form of politeness I think.  A little cumbersome and time consuming, but I like it in a way.  I do it myself.  Can’t seem to help it. 

The same guy, in the same sweatshirts, showed up Monday morning at the shelter kitchen as I was about to take down breakfast and start doing dishes. 
“I hear you have biscuits and gravy.”

“I still have biscuits but the gravy’s gone.  Hey, aren’t you the guy that came to church and got hot dogs yesterday?”
“Yeah that was me.  You’re the gentleman that was serving.  Yeah, I remember you.”

He flashed a big sparsely toothed grin.
“So no gravy?  I’ll just take the biscuits then.”

They were the same biscuits he’d eaten the day before. 
“How about I crack you a couple eggs to go with them?”

“I don’t want you to go to the trouble.  Really.  Just the biscuits will be fine.”
“Its no trouble.  How do you like you eggs?”

“Over easy.  But really you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”

“OK, if you insist.”
Here’s the point of this post.  The homeless are the full spectrum of Americans.  Families like the man with his wife and baby, individuals like the guy who shows up late for food, school kids, people with jobs, people with nothing.  The homeless are simply a category of people who don’t have homes, most often because they can’t afford them. 

Never, correct me if I’m wrong, has America achieved 100% employment.  Currently we have fairly low unemployment, around 4.5% locally.  Unemployment benefits last 26 weeks.  What do you think happens to the long-term unemployed?  People without income?  People whose families cannot or will not support them financially?  People who do not qualify for Social Security Disability?  What happens to those who fall through all those cracks?  They end up in homeless shelters.

America has public housing for low income people that has not expanded significantly in thirty years.  In fact there are so many deserving homeless people and so few places for them, LaSalle County’s Housing Authority has resorted to giving out its vacant units by lottery.  We have vacant foreclosed houses across America but no way to get homeless families into them.  We have no-kill animal shelters.  And fortunately, we also have shelters for human beings.  The homeless are like you and me.  Think of them that way.
While you’re at it, show them some compassion and support those who help them.  Consider helping them yourself.  You can volunteer.  You can donate money to your local shelter.  Or you can bring your shelter some eggs.  Most likely a guy like me will cook them.  Skip the donuts and cookies.  You might pick up some juice too.  You don’t have to.  But I’ll take it if you insist. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Planting the Garlic, Sowing the Rye

It’s amazing how fast it comes upon me, the cold, the change, the diminishing sun, the slowly expanding night.   I’m no doubt in denial, refusing to acknowledge shorter days, the signs of fall.

We brought the plants in, mother in law’s tongue, springeri, Boston fern, all the houseplants that flourish outside in the natural cycle of rain and sun but can’t endure frost.  The frost soon came and killed the coleus, petunias, marigolds, and finally the geraniums.  Last to live were the pansies.

“Do you want to save these pansies?  Should I bring them in?”


My wife saved their life casually, with little conviction, on a whim I think,  but the pansies now live atop the dining room table.  How pansies earned a reputation for being delicate I’ll never know.

I mowed over the peonies, cut down the perennial dinner plate hibiscus, chopped the oak leaves, tilled the garden.  And then it rained.  

The rule where we live is plant garlic on Halloween, harvest on the 4th of July.   I failed to get my garlic in before the trick or treaters came, and then it poured.  Too muddy to work.  The rain halted the grain harvest, flooded the jack o’lanterns, drove us all inside.  And when we emerged it was fall, with winter close behind.  Suddenly we had to prepare.  Did it happen suddenly or was I not paying attention?  I swear to God it was summer just weeks ago.

Today, November 7, six days past Halloween, I chose the spot for the garlic.  I rotate my crops a little.  Very little.  I moved the garlic to the middle of my skinned dirt strip of garden by the garage, on either side of the remaining Brussels sprouts plant, directly under the young oak. 

I screwed up irreversibly on that oak.  I thought I could move it without harm when it grew to six feet or so, but the nursery advised me if I had not balled the roots, prepared it for transplanting, the tap root would be established and moving it would most likely be fatal.   By that time I liked it too much to cut it down. 

I had grown attached to it as a seedling.  Soon after I realized it had sprouted, likely buried  among the asparagus stalks and forgotten by a squirrel, I cheered its progress as it grew taller.  Now it is a permanent part of the place, a junior member of the fraternity of trees headed up by the huge oaks in back.  Some year soon, maybe after the next, I’ll move the garden instead.

To prove that if you pay attention you learn something every day, or to disprove that tired adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I planted my garlic a bit differently this year.  I picked up on something my friend, also a small-time garlic farmer, said about clove size as it relates to the size of harvested bulbs.

H was talking about some new seed garlic he got locally.  In fact he fished around in a can in his garden shed and gave me four or five cloves of it.  Said it came from big bulbs, and he figured it would produce equally big bulbs in his garden. 

It was that very white looking garlic, most likely a soft neck.  I prefer the purple stuff myself, which is a little peppery, has more bite, and is a hard neck.  I’ve been planting that each Halloween from the leftovers of what I harvest in July for some time, believing I was adapting it to the soil and weather on Fields Hill where I live.   But I accepted the foreign garlic anyway.  What got me thinking was what he said next.

“They’re big cloves, so you ought to get nice big bulbs.  You know, plant big get big.”


I said yeah like I understood completely.  Truth is I’d never made that connection.  When you take a garlic bulb apart, separate the cloves for planting, there are big cloves and scrawny cloves.  The cloves on the outside are usually bigger, double the size or more, of the ones in the center.  I’d been planting every clove, big and small, for years.  And every year I was disappointed and baffled by the size difference of my harvested garlic bulbs.  The scrawny bulbs taste the same and have smaller cloves.  Aside from being unhandy when cooking, requiring you to more cloves to get the same amount of garlic, they are fine.  But given the choice I’d much rather all of them be nice big bulbs.  Plant big get big.  Why didn’t I think of that?

So this year when I made my five rows with the hoe and began putting garlic cloves in the trench fat end down, I skipped those small cloves.  I put them in my pocket to take to the kitchen.  In the ground I put only the big fat cloves.  I’ll tell you how it turns out.  And yes, I planted that super white garlic too. 

After covering my garlic rows I put straw on top, laid the rebar grids I got from Wedge on top of that, and seeded the rest of the garden with winter rye.  Just poured it into a tin basin and scattered it around by hand.  After that I raked it in, covering it loosely with dirt.  The birds might get some of it but I put on plenty.  It will sprout in the cold weather, amazingly, and by the time I till the garden again in spring, careful not to dig into the garlic rows, it will be six inches high or so.  Not big enough to make grain, but thick enough to choke out early weeds and good for the ground when I till it under.  I save some of the rye stems for mulch between the rows.  Winter rye is nice stuff.

And with that I put the garden to bed for the winter.  I think of those garlic bulbs from time to time, hunkered down in the cold dirt, waiting for spring to poke their heads up and see if it’s OK to come out again.  Sort of like me.  When I plant the garlic and sow the rye, winter is just around the corner. 

Get ready everybody.