I recently started a new volunteer job at the red cross. I took the job because due to my busy schedule, it has been very difficult to devote much time to my regular volunteer work and I felt like, there had to be more that I could do on a day-to-day-basis to help. I am no one, you should ask for advice when it comes to life choices, nor am I to any help in any survival situations. However, I can offer you a story about differences.
The red cross around the world is always in need of help. Either financially, morally or in any other way you could possibly imagine. I do donate blood regularly and if I can, I help financially as well. My main goal is not to be a do-gooder but to help where it is badly needed. I believe that we all have become very self-absorbed without realizing, how good we actually have it. Don’t get me wrong, I love shopping just as much as the next girl, trying out a billion outfits? Heaven. Come on, who does not like that? But I think for me it’s more about the experience than actually getting new stuff (have you seen my wardrobe? I still have clothes from 10 years ago and although they might not fit the way they used to and the colors might have faded a long time ago, I am perfectly happy with what I have). A always complains about how my wardrobe is overflowing and that it is my own fault “if I cannot find a single thing of garment and I have nothing to wear”. Like I said, I am no different from you.
In a way, I gain no actual happiness from a shopping sprees but a sense of accomplishment, hoping not to have to do this again in the near future. That’s just how I am. I am not very materialistic but I like nice stuff, we all do. Some people have no choice than to make due with what they have, which in these cases, usually is not a lot. It is impressive, when you realize how little a person can have but still being so content with what they have.
My new work usually takes place either super early in the morning, when no one voluntarily is up or super late, when people already sit in their yammies on their sofas watching TV or right around when most people sit down for dinner. I can pick and choose how I like and how it fits my schedule and to be honest, I would have picked different times in the day, but then again I am not in charge, I am merely there to help, to observe, to take in and to report back to you.
As I make my way to doubled-doors on an early Sunday morning, the air is crisp, not even a handful of people are on the streets, it is pitch dark and cold. I feel the cold slowly creeping into my inner core. I knock twice before a gentle bear opens the door for me. He has been up all night, making sure everything works smoothly, that everyone is in the right room, and that everyone feels secure in this place and the bear is tired, you know, like you would be if you work from 9 pm to 6 am in the morning. He offers me a cup of tea, which I decline, and then he falls into a chair. Sleepiness is in the room and you notice how he slowly nods of. He only awakens when his co-worker loudly enters the room, with a cheerful good morning. He too has been up all night, but he seems to actually like it. People are different… and odd. He is the translator and although he does not speak Norwegian, he speaks most of the languages the homeless do.
Big bear looks at his watch and motions me to follow him, we slowly make our way to the third floor. He tells me that this building once used to be a children’s psychiatry and that now they re-purposed it for the homeless people. This is not a hotel for people without a home, but a temporary place for the unfortunate ones to stay for a night, with a warm bed and a hot shower. We knock on everybody’s door, they have to leave before 8 am, because of the day-activities. We are greeted by a bunch of people, most of them rather cheerful. We knock on about 20 doors, each room has about 4 people in them. Most of the people that share a room are merely acquainted with each other but other than that have nothing in common. Sometimes we see mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, but usually no families, no extended relatives, people that seem to be alone.
You’d think that they would feel like the world did them an injustice, that this is not right, that they should be in their own homes, having a cup of coffee in an actual mug, not a paper mug from the convenience store around the corner. But they are not faced by my own ideas of what life should be like. In fact, they are more cheerful and happier than people I usually meet on a day-to-day basis in my store. But then again, these people down bother themselves with the stupidity of things that we put up with. What, your phone doesn’t work? Obviously your life will end right here and then when you cannot check your emails. Most of these people have not used a computer once in their lives. Maybe I am being unfair, maybe they have? How would I know? I cannot ask them, because we do not speak the same language, not even almost.
I know that, because I have talked to all of them when we registered their names, ages, where they came from. We register the homeless people, because we only have 80 beds in 20 rooms on two levels of one building, when we would need 80, 100, 300 rooms to accommodate every homeless person in Norway. I am not even going to go into the global-problem that is at hand here. As we register their names, I understand, that they don’t understand me and if it weren’t for the translator, we would be completely and utterly lost in translation. I wonder why the translator does all the writing for the women, because most of them are well over 40, they should know how to read and write, right? Some of the homeless are barely 19 and sometimes I do not believe that, because when I look in their faces, I can see their innocence in their eyes and I can tell that they must be younger than that, but they know that if they are under 18 that we cannot accommodate them here but rather have to talk to the authorities. But no one asks for their ID, so if they lie about their age, we do not question it. I guess to make it easier for everyone?
As I watch a young fellow write is own name, it dawns on me that most women that have been in here, which is about 30 or so, do not write their own names, but yet the translator does and most men that come in here, write very slowly, child-like and my eyes widen as I watch how carefully they write their own names. In a modern way of sense, it takes forever. I realize that a sense of pride overcomes them as they finish filling out the form, they look exhausted from the write too. They smile at me and I nod and smile back. I cannot even begin to make out what their names are, not only because to me these are foreign names but also because the writing was just nothing they had to do in their lives. As far as the women go, reading too was nothing they had to learn.
The hardest part is not the people that we wake up at the break of the dawn and in a way tell to leave the facilities, but it is the people that we cannot register, because there is not enough space for everyone. We are not allowed to register more than 80 people, so if there are 81 people in line for a bed, or 300, we can only register 80. The rest has to find a place elsewhere and where that would be, I do not know. And in the freezing temps that have been hoovering over Oslo these days, I cannot imagine the horror some of the people have to go through, sleeping outside, somewhere. Most of them are not from Norway, and how they got to Norway, I do not know. That living on the streets in Norway is more lucrative than living on the streets where ever they come from, I can imagine, but moving across borders, just to be living on the streets in Norway, I just cannot wrap my brain around, what has to drive you to that action.
I reflect over all the people that have been sleeping in the very same beds only 30 minutes ago, as I strip down the beds. There is an odd smell in every room (as you could imagine, personal hygiene is limited and so are clean clothes), but I don’t complain, because I get to open the window, and close it when I feel the rooms are freshened out. As I look out the window, I see some of the homeless still standing outside, they do not get to close the window. They live in the open window, so to say. I think about all their belongings, that they took with them, when they left the facilities and I think about the layers of garments they had on their bodies to protect them from the cold. Most of them had either a big backpack or a big IKEA-bag with them. I do wonder, what they carry around with them, but I do not ask.
And I reflect over that although I believe all of them can imagine a better life, I do not think that they imagine a happier life. This might be very rude and single-minded of me, thinking that the less you have, the better your life would be, but that’s not what I am getting at. I realized that we all can learn from these people that you have to make due with what you have, so stop complaining and move on. Obviously I am romantizing the facts, because I have no idea how they actually feel, I cannot ask them, I can only play charades while trying to get my points across. But what it is in my power and what I actually can do, is show them all the love, the warmth and the help I can, and maybe one day, we can get rid of homelessness entirely. Just maybe.
Now that I showered you with my wisdom, I will get ready and head to work and deal with a bunch of complainatory customers, while thinking that life could be so easy…