The Holidays are a time filled with warmth and joy for many, but for those without a home, it may be a much different time of year.
Author Rich Garon knows all about the hardships many face during the winter months as he devotes his life helping to end hunger and homelessness.
Garon spent 25 years on Capitol Hill and switched gears to volunteer and help homeless individuals who live in the woods. He currently chairs the Serve (Outreach and Mission) Committee at the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA and coordinates the Homeless Ministry.
He wrote the piece about his experience and also took the time to speak with Good Celebrity about his why the winter months are so difficult for those homeless people living in the woods.
Read the interview with Garon and his article, Christmas at a Homeless Camp in the Woods, below.
Rich Garon on Giving Back & Finding a Solution to Homelessness
GC: You mention that the homeless community needs a lot, more than just a few small things. What is the most effective way, in your opinion, to give back?
RG: The first thing, I believe, is recognizing that a person has become homeless after suffering a series of setbacks. Job loss, divorce, physical and mental illness, are some of the things that can lead to homelessness.
While there are temporary means of providing assistance, such as food, counseling, and helping them find jobs and shelters, the homeless need someone or some group to commit to helping them for as long as it takes to get them back on their feet.
The small things, giving food, blankets, occasional money, must be supplemented by a willingness of individuals and organizations to recognize that a homeless person is a person; they want to feel someone cares and will treat them with dignity and respect. This type of commitment isn’t easy because while there are successes, there are also failures along the way.
Those offering assistance can become discouraged. It takes determination and the recognition that one person or organization is not going to solve the entire homeless problem. Identify where you can help and stick with it.
GC: Homelessness in our country is a big problem. Do you see any foreseeable solution or programs that can effectively help reduce this problem?
RG: As with so many problems facing us today, public awareness needs to be raised around the problem of homelessness. From that, willingness to do more than what we’re doing has to be generated.
Those woods behind the neighborhood mall could house a homeless camp. People on grates, sleeping in cars, making do with temporary housing from week to week, that is the face of homelessness.
All too often it is possible to think that someone else—the government, churches—are taking care of the homeless.
Truth is, much more needs to be done. Each one of us needs to take the time to ask themselves, their political representatives, their places of worship, their civic groups: what are we doing to address the homelessness problem? And get the children involved; let them see how the problem can impact people and help their generation develop a more determined will to help the homeless.
GC: In your own words and from your own observations, why are the winter months so hard for the homeless community?
RG: While summer in the woods brings stifling heat, the sub-freezing winds in winter are almost unbearable. People can go to horribly overcrowded hypothermia shelters that open at night, or they can stay in their tents or makeshift dwellings, fearful that the few things they own will be taken if they’re not there.
Winter brings with it a constant search for propane for portable heaters. Winters are never without tents catching fire and someone getting badly burned. Winters are not without those with substance-abuse problems passing out and dying in the frozen woods.
Heavy snows can break tent poles, bringing tents down on those within. Those escaping often have to abandon the damp and unusable items that well-meaning individuals and groups have given them.
In addition, winter is often when fewer volunteers venture out. I doubt I’d ever make it through a winter in the woods.
Christmas at a Homeless Camp in the Woods by Rich Garon
There were about fifty people in the woods, behind a strip mall that sits right across from one of the largest outlet malls on the east coast. There were clusters of tents and a shack or two. Looking carefully, I could see the winding paths that led me to another way of life. My first visit was a novelty. My grandson and I had arranged with one of the homeless men at the camp in the woods to bring the group produce from a nearby food pantry. I’ll call him Sam. He was tall and led us to his site, which seemed to be very well organized. We didn’t speak long and he thanked us for the meals our church had brought earlier in the week. The air-conditioning in our car revived us from the stifling heat that hung in the woods that early July day.
A group of us continued bringing produce from the farmer’s market, chickens from Costco, and some gas for the one or two generators that powered some small fans fighting the oppressive heat. We continued this routine for a while and spent time getting to know the men and several women who called these woods home. “I’ll be glad when the fall comes,” a guy named Billy said.
We were all new to helping the homeless, but it soon dawned on us that produce, chickens and gas weren’t really the answer. As we became familiar with the people in the woods, we learned about them and realized their lives were complicated; that divorces, job losses, arrests, addictions, or chronic health issues had led them into the woods. In some cases, events unfolded abruptly. In others, it took a string of setbacks before they claimed the spot on which they set-up their tents. We gave them money at times. It seemed they always needed little things; that is, until we had to shell out $200 to get Randy’s car out of the impoundment lot so he could travel a considerable distance to his job.
As we tried to help, we realized we really didn’t have a plan, so we decided to give money to groups we were told were more expert in helping the homeless. We still visited the homeless; many who by now had become our friends. We took them out to dinner occasionally, tried to interpret undecipherable forms and letters they received from county and state aid agencies and recognized each individual required more help and guidance than we could provide.
Remember how Billy was looking forward to the fall? Well, fall was short-lived that year and winter rolled-in with chilling winds and heavy snows. We brought shoeboxes full of toiletries and other notions. Billy even erected a beat-up Christmas tree. He situated it near a memorial of Christmas decorations dedicated to his twenty-five-year-old friend, Mantu, who froze to death one night outside his tent. Our friend, Sam, who had become increasingly ill, almost died one sub-freezing night when someone stole his propane heater. Such was Christmas that year in the homeless camp.
We were able to get Sam into transitional housing, but his medical condition was beyond what the home could accommodate. He was asked to leave. The snow had been replaced by the brutal heat of July, and his overall health declined rapidly. We tried to get him into a facility, but were told there was a two-year waiting list at most places. We spoke to another agency and they said they’d be pleased to help, but he’d need a fixed address. There was also little help available from non-profits.
We did eventually find a small studio apartment for Sam, and then one for Billy. We schooled ourselves in learning to navigate the bureaucratic tangle of regulations that tried to discourage us from finding out the types of assistance to which they were entitled.
You see, most homeless people don’t have cars to get to assistance offices, and they don’t have computers to complete forms online. They don’t understand the importance of seeking medical help for a problem before it worsens. Many individuals, church groups, and non-profits—while well-meaning—often support competing programs, and local governments provide inadequate funds to address the problem.
Sam and Billy have become family to us, and we’re going to continue taking care of them as family. Who would have thought that could have developed from our initial trip into the woods? There are plenty of other Sam’s and Billy’s who desperately need help, especially this winter. If you would like to help, check out non-profits and houses of worship in your area who work with the homeless. Any amount of time you have, can help those so in need.
For more information, visit www.richgaron.com, and connect with Garon through Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Rich’s book, Felling Big Trees, is available for preorder on Amazon and for immediate purchase on BookBaby.