It was a chilly, late September Saturday afternoon in Baltimore city. I pulled a beanie down over my hijab for the first time since last winter. Fall was finally in the air, and on all my social media feeds too. My friends posted statuses and snaps about the crisp air—a welcome harbinger of sweater weather, hot apple cider to be sipped around bonfires, and pumpkin spice everything. A favorite season to be outdoors, fall is a time to stay warm and cozy with friends until winter pushes everyone indoors to wait for spring.
That Saturday, I arrived for an afternoon of work at Islamic Relief’s Day of Dignity in Baltimore, a day of service to the local homeless and low income community. My feelings about fall that day shifted once I started talking to community members. It was as if my day had started over.
It was still a chilly, late September Saturday afternoon in Baltimore city. But there was a palpable tension in the air as I watched people scattered throughout a park nestled in the shadow of a towering white church. After talking with a few recently homeless people, I understood why the air felt so tense. For them, what was in the air was not the warm, apple-cinnamon-spicey, cozy fall. It was almost winter in the air. It was how will I stay warm. I realized that the source of my excitement was the source of their worry.
The park had a name, but I only remember the name given to me by a friendly man standing outside the park’s cast iron fence. “They call this Bum Park,” he had said matter-of-factly, his new, bright blue Islamic Relief tote bag slung over his shoulder. He explained to me that it was one of the few places in the city where homeless men and women could sleep without being bothered or asked to leave. The church was known for defying city officials intent on eliminating the encampment. There wasn’t much to the park—a number of wooden benches sat scattered about a barren stretch of dirt. Several trees offered some privacy between the benches, and a concrete walkway in the center had been taken over as a makeshift stage where a young man shouted nothing in particular through a makeshift megaphone. People of all ages sat around unfazed, surrounded by belongings that ranged in quantity. A couple sat in silence, staring off into the distance. A group laughed. Children played. Sprinkled throughout the dreary park were pops of color—bright blue totes dotting the landscape, announcing that Islamic Relief USA had been there. The bags were filled with food and hygiene kits.
I met a woman named Roxanne that day. She had been homeless in Baltimore for six months. I asked her what happened, and as she spoke to me her eyes filled with tears. I thought about the simple, universal ways that the heart manifests on a person’s face—tears, laughter, an involuntary sigh. My heart recognized tears that looked just like mine. She had lost her job, couldn’t pay her rent, and didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. This was a woman who was down on her luck, trying to hold it together and have hope despite being sad and exhausted. I’ve never been homeless, but I have been there.
She told me that she was worried about winter. Already, she barely sleeps because she tries to sleep on buses during the day so she can be awake when it’s dangerous at night on the city streets. Even the shelters are a scary option. “People steal your stuff, and there are fights,” she told me. I learned that day that a lot of homeless people actually prefer to sleep on the streets rather than in the shelters. I also learned that there are a lot of organizations that offer services and provide distributions that really help, especially in the winter.
As I spoke to more people, I was reminded of something that I already knew, that I had seen time and again: those with the least often give the most. “I’m just having a bad time, but it’ll get better soon,” Roxanne told me. “As soon as I’m better, I’m gonna be out here with you all, helping.” All day, and across all of the Days of Dignity I have visited, I heard that same sentiment echoed again and again as we handed out food and offered other services. It struck me that in such dire circumstances, when all one is expected to do is fend for oneself, so many responded to our help with dreams of helping others. I saw that gratitude inspired people to pay it forward.
This fall, there will be much to be grateful for—sweater weather, hot apple cider to be sipped around bonfires, and pumpkin spice everything. And there are so many ways to pay that gratitude forward—whether donating winter coats or volunteering time at soup kitchens, we can all find ways to spread the warmth in our lives and help out someone who truly needs it.