The power of the ask: When someone’s basic needs for survival go beyond the obvious

Originally posted December, 2021

By Tom Hoffarth

We learn to ask anyone wrestling with the realities of shelter and food insecurity who manage to arrive each Saturday morning at the St. Robert’s Center in Venice a simple question — What do you need?

It is as much a conversation starter as it is a fact-finding mission.

The answers are remarkably simple and ones you might not always default do. But consider the beauty of:

= A hot cup of coffee, please. With as many refills as you can spare. To take the chill off the night before.

= Access to an electrical outlet, to recharge a phone. How long can I leave it plugged in? This is how I stay connected to the world.

= Five quiet minutes in a restroom, if that’s possible. Just to gather oneself.

The last umpteen months of protocol adjustments brought on by the COVID pandemic have forced Catholic Charities L.A.’s facilities like this one that serve the Santa Monica area into a “grab-and-go” assembly line. Often in a condensed time window.

The basics of offering food, clothing and toiletries are the default essentials, and come from various sources. It was a pivot to pre-made grocery bags and lunch bags — granola bars, fruit cups, cans of soup (stay away from anything condensed), Vienna Sausages and whatever else has easy-to-carry nutritional value – are things regularly ordered and picked up at the Westside Food Bank. More financial donations that allow shopping at the local Smart & Final. About a dozen volunteers from surrounding Catholic churches donate their time and hearts — and often what they can cull from their spouse’s closets — each week to make it flow in whatever direction it will end up going.

Blankets, hoodies, socks, pants and other practical clothing items for men and women are there, depending on what’s available. Same with seizing the day for anyone who could use travel-sized bar soap, toothpaste and shampoo/conditioner. Add masks, hand sanitizers and alcohol wipes to the essential lists.

Those three main asks above — coffee, a phone charge and a restroom break — may be easier to accommodate now at the St. Robert’s Center than with other outreach programs, especially on weekends. The guests often hear “sorry, but no, we can’t” before they can get out what they’d truly wish for at that moment.

At the SRC, the process starts with signing in guests, as much for non-profit auditing purposes as it is to connect faces with names. The option is next to head to the station inside the patio where a couple 100-cup pots of coffee brew start brewing since daybreak. New reinforced electrical outlets nearby can handle dozens of phone charging now, and there is security sitting nearby to watch them power up. A restroom inside the clothing boutique can handle one person at a time with his or her essential privacy.

Now flip the situation: What might you require most if your life has been knocked sideways, upside down and into self preservation for whatever reason?

The obvious: A sleeping bag. A backpack. Towels. Socks, underwear and stocking caps. Warm gloves. Shoes. Jeans. Disposable razors. Many of those we have anticipated and seek in bulk to have available.

But whether it’s someone surviving on a street sidewalk in a tent, huddled in the shrubs at a local park, or curled up nightly in the passenger seat of their car or RV, the answer to a question of need sparks interesting back-and-forth.

“I’d really love something to read,” someone will ask. “Do you have any books?”

A variety of paperbacks, including copies of the Bible, are now sought out from local used-book stores that collect them. Magazines are sent over. And, sure, we can also track down a pair of reading glasses to go with that.

“Can openers? We can always use a can opener,” said an otherwise resourceful client.

Not all cans have pull tops, unfortunately. Although the Dollar General stores have those kind of utensils, durability is an issue. Those who know and endorse the military P-38s are far easier to carry around.

“Any laundry detergent?” one will ask. “It gets expensive at the laundromat and that would really help stretch my SSI check.”

Here you go. And a roll of quarters if that helps, too. By the way, have you head of the organization called Laundry Love? Maybe we can connect you. Check in over there at the St. Joseph’s Center during the week.

“Where can I go to get my RV repaired?” Let us Goggle some options.

“I am here trying to go to school. My laptop was stolen. I am 19. I have no family here. What do you think I can do? The library isn’t open today? Do I need a library card to get access to the Internet there? What address can I use?”

(Watch a heart break with that one).

“Have you seen my artwork?” another pops up, holding up a drawing. “I’m always looking for sketch books.” Or blank journals. Crossword puzzle books. Word-find books. Sudoku books.

A bungee cord, a sewing kit or a couple of pieces of duct tape to fix a shoe. A small mirror for grooming. A belt to hold up these over-sized pants. A ballpoint pen.

The list grows. We’ve tried to supplement that with an Amazon gift registry where volunteers can purchase some of these things in bulk and have them delivered right to the Center for quick distribution.

Ask, and sometimes you might even receive. As well as receive another request you weren’t prepared for.

A homily at a recent at daily Mass – it was the memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul – touched on the old-school Catholic teaching that some of us recall from the Baltimore Catechism and how it relates to the work of this saint of good will and outreach.

Why did God make you? To know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world. Why is it necessary to know God? Because without knowing Him we cannot love Him; without loving Him we cannot be serve him … we serve Him because He is infinitely good.

The homily takeaway: How can you serve anyone unless you take the time to know them? If you can’t find empathy and love for their existence, then activate resources to search for what they’ve asked for, you’ve got it backward.

With this challenging pandemic, and these local homeless in the news for getting moved around off public property and finally some taking to temporary housing, there’s never a quick and easy solution. But in some ways we’ve got to know our unhoused neighbors even more intimately, even through the masks.

We all value the human contact, brief as it may be, but it leads to more familiarity. The numbers who show up each week are going up again. We’ve been able to add a local volunteers who gives haircuts — Bill, a prince of a man, just needs an electrical outlet himself to do the job as he pulls into the lot loaded with equipment. Watch someone’s demeanor and attitude change in an instant.

We can occasionally throw some hot dogs on the patio grill and add that to the celebration of life. Milk and fruit and cereal; tuna sandwiches to go with peanut butter-and-jelly; and even small bags of dog food for the trusted companion.

Someone asked for all those, and we found them.

The dignity offered just by listening to and acknowledging the beauty of a request can usually mean more than one person is on the receiving end of this act of grace.

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