Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Will Act For Food

Carol, Degage's administrative assistant, says that homeless people need to see you're going to keep showing up before they trust you. "Lots of people haven't been there for them in the past."

No one wanted to join in my theatre games yesterday morning at the shelter. Before I left I stopped by Jesse and Ricardo's table, where they were eating pancakes--had they not been, they told me, they'd have joined me again this week. Jesse, as I mentioned before, is young and somewhat sly; Ricardo is older, gentle, warm as the deep brown of his eyes and braids. He was born in Puerto Rico and he eats breakfast at a homeless shelter; that's all I know for sure.

How much can you really get to know people in a transient population? A staff worker at Degage said that on the day of her interview a fistfight broke out in the dining room and she went right home and cried, vowing to never take the job. I can guess at what helped her change her mind, but on the other hand, there are days when even the walk from my car to the shelter makes me question what I'm doing there. Why I think these people need my theatre, and why I think I'm doing a helpful thing.

Maybe because Ricardo looked genuinely disappointed to hear that I wouldn't be back for morning sessions until after Labor Day. And also because when it's good, it's very very good.

Degage has a great dignity index--patrons can sign up for meaningful work and earn points toward the purchase of food and services. The staff and I bounced around the possibility of offering vouchers to participants as is done in other programs. With theatre games, the idea was to reward those who showed up 4 out of 6 times, say, but that plan quickly showed itself to be too optimistic. Later, someone suggested you give food coupons to anyone who agrees to participate.

Sure, I said, and then it hit me: People would be acting for food. They'd be doing what I ask only because, like circus dogs, they'll jump through any hoop for a biscuit.

I don't think I can have that on my conscience. I'm going to keep stewing on some other ideas that don't require as much gumption as does traveling to the third floor for theatre. And in the meanwhile, I’m going to keep showing up.

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