Once my dad stopped wearing ties to work, he became incredibly difficult to shop for. He’s a guy who gets his own gadgets, has simple taste for food and drink, and already has the same corny grandpa t-shirts in heavy rotation. But since he’s a philanthropic man, I’ve recently been giving him the gift of volunteering side-by-side. It’s been a great way to maximize quality time while furthering causes he cares about.
That’s what recently brought me to Westside CARES, a nonprofit located in Colorado Springs, CO. My dad chatted on the drive there, telling me that before he became involved with the organization, he regarded a homeless person as no more than someone on a street corner with a cardboard sign. That was because he had no idea about the challenges faced by this invisible segment of society. Without a residential address, it’s virtually impossible to obtain basic services like car registration and government benefits, much less employment. He explained Westside CARES helps prevent homelessness in ways like assisting with housing and utilities costs. This is in addition to helping those already homeless, like by providing an address for the receipt of mail and helping replace lost identification.
Once we arrived, I toured the modest, well-run facility, and quickly learned some of the vernacular. Instead of serving “clients” or “the needy”, terms loaded with connotation, Westside CARES simply seeks to help “neighbors”. Volunteers like my dad, then, are “neighbor advocates”. I was introduced to a few other advocates, who didn’t just hand out food vouchers and applications for government assistance. They facilitated as much assistance as possible by combining their vast knowledge of area programs with Westside CARES’ services, like an onsite nurse and a clothing closet.
Other advocates, like my dad, work behind the scenes to contribute to Westside CARES’ vast operations. I met two who were handling empty prescription bottles, explaining they planned to fill them with powdered laundry detergent to give to neighbors. It was such an obvious yet overlooked need. After all, how is a person supposed to land a job, look presentable, or even keep a warm coat in good condition if they can’t even clean their clothes?
After I toured the facility, my dad introduced me to Westside CARES’ CEO, Kristy Milligan. Knowing I wanted to write about Westside CARES, she graciously agreed to sit down with me even though she had two others waiting to see her and another appointment in an hour. All the while, her phone buzzed with text messages and computer chimed with emails.
Her frustration was palpable about what more local government could be doing but isn’t. She felt the only way to truly impact homelessness is to address permanent, affordable housing.
It only took a minute before it became obvious that Kristy’s passion for both Westside CARES and humanity in general radiates from her core. She explained we were meeting on a great day for one of their neighbors, a woman who had lost her husband and was forced to live in her car, then had had a stroke. Kristy had been working to secure her housing, and the day of my visit was the day this neighbor would be signing a new lease. The excitement I witnessed could be likened to that of a child before a birthday party.
I learned that Kristy’s substantial efforts aren’t just on a micro level managing individual cases. She works to secure grants, raise awareness through local media, and advocate for policies that will benefit the homeless. Her frustration was palpable about what more local government could be doing but isn’t. She felt the only way to truly impact homelessness is to address permanent, affordable housing. She suggested municipalities help facilitate the construction of affordable units by offering tax advantages and other incentives at their disposal. Her conviction alone seemed like it could mobilize an army.
This then, made their neighbor’s lease-signing that day an even more important victory than I initially realized. Kristy pointed out that the new landlord could have easily found someone else making $60,000 a year with perfect credit, but she chose to do something different to help someone in need. That’s fulfilling yet risky, and there aren’t enough people willing to do the same. This need resulted in a win, but she was quick to point out that’s not always the case.
She recounted an instance where she had continually told a neighbor to let her know when he was ready to do something different about his life. It took almost two years, but the day came when he chose to address his addiction issues, engage in programs, and seek ongoing medical attention. As a result, he was finally approved for subsidized housing only to pass away unexpectedly two days later. It was one of the toughest losses they endured.
Kristy mentioned she tells neighbors every day to let her know when they’re ready to do something different. Yet, their readiness (or lack thereof) doesn’t impact the effort made to meet their fundamental needs. Unlike other organizations, Westside CARES doesn’t demand sobriety, promote devotion to a religion, or restrict cell phone access as conditions for assistance. It’s true altruism without agenda or imposition of what’s deemed the “right” way. They see that even the most drunk, unwell, unwilling, or downtrodden deserve food and shelter.
This impressive combination of compassion and lack of judgement was not only evident from Kristy, but from the neighbor advocates with whom I also sat down. They treated everyone with dignity, making eye contact while speaking to neighbors as friends. I heard them ask neighbors about their fingertips after sleeping in the cold, and make conversation about the emblems on their clothing. But there was never any trace of condescension, belittlement, or pity.
One of the advocates told me she knows there are people who take advantage of the system, but that doesn’t mean you simply can’t help all the others. I then asked about the hardest part of her work, and thought she might say it was dealing with the exploitative or those that choose not to help themselves. Instead, she said it was her inability to help enough. She wished they could offer onsite showers to make it exponentially easier for neighbors to take care of themselves. She wanted storage lockers so when a homeless person gets a job they’re not forced to leave behind all their possessions. And she wanted a better network of public transportation, as mass transit is often cost-prohibitive. She and the other advocates were a reflection of Westside CARES’ seeming judgement-free policy.
I took away two primary realizations after visiting Westside CARES. The first, similar to what my dad came to know, is how much we never realize about the homeless. So often we regard them as society’s drunks, mentally unstable, lazy, and most dangerous. But while looking at a twenty-something clad in a sharp blue shirt, trendy glasses, and spacers in his lobes, I realized I never would have guessed he was anything but fortunate. Yet, there he was at Westside CARES because he needed food after losing both his mother and his job. Misfortune does not discriminate.
I asked Kristy how she prevents the job from breaking her heart every day. With tears in her eyes, she told me it DOES break her heart everyday.
The longer I spent at Westside CARES that day, the more I was struck by how tragic life can be for some people, and how those tragedies could just as easily happen to my friends, family, and me. I asked Kristy how she prevents the job from breaking her heart every day. With tears in her eyes, she told me it DOES break her heart everyday, and she was thankful it does because it allows her to let more love in. Yet she said the hardest part isn’t sustaining the losses, fighting the system, and witnessing the hardships, it’s convincing neighbors they are deserving of love and help.
It was then that I had the second realization, which is that I don’t have the strength of Kristy and the Westside CARES advocates. I don’t have a heart that can withstand getting broken every day. I don’t have the determination to help such a sea of misfortune one drop at a time. I don’t have the patience to offer never-ending support of even those that abuse the system and choose not to better their lives. And I don’t have the virtue to be so free from casting judgment. But thank goodness Westside CARES does.
I chose to give my dad the gift of volunteering at Westside CARES, but I feel as though I received more in return. I walked away with my eyes wide open about the circumstances outside one’s control that can create such dire need. I was inspired by the selflessness of the neighbor advocates who are so generous with their time, energy, and empathy. And I had a newfound appreciation for all that I take for granted everyday.
I encourage others to also support Westside CARES, be it through their time, checkbooks, or secondhand clothing. The support will help the organization provide things like coats, toiletries, and children’s school supplies so that more in the community can have their basic needs met. Trust me that it will do so much more than the gift of another necktie, gadget, or gift certificate.