THE first time I prepared half the main dish for dinner at Transition House, one of the homeless shelters in Santa Barbara, California, and stayed to serve, I experienced a great personal discovery. So intent was I with the other two cooks and our serving line, I was not making eye contact with those being served.
We were ladling food for hungry men, women, and children, but I was not really seeing them! I was stunned! A depression child grown up, champion of many underdogs, and here I was, unaware of my own avoidance in such a social situation.
I stopped short. I straightened up, filled the large section of the plate, glanced into two blue eyes appraising me tentatively, and said sincerely, ``I hope you enjoy your meal.''
``Thank you,'' the young woman said, ``I'm really hungry.''
The next person came along and the next, 38 that evening, including screeners, planners, a manager-host, proctors who would sleep over, taking turns in charge during the night, and cooks who prepared food at home and brought it hot or chilled to serve. I made a conscious contact with each guest. Most had a friendly response, but not all. I began to want to know more about how Transition House (TH) operates and helps solve problems.
TH, a beehive of activity, is a converted Quonset hut, open to qualifying homeless from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., providing an address, shower, and clothes change, and a place to make and receive phone calls and to share a good dinner, breakfast, and brown bag lunch.
``Guests'' who qualify are prioritized: families with children, single women, working men, and men looking for work. The evaluators are volunteer screeners and planners who are therapists, trained social workers, or both. They are professionals with skills in helping people set goals, and possibly change perspectives.
This activity goes on seven evenings a week, 365 days a year, and is now completing its second year. There is never time enough, a few evenings, a few weeks, when months are needed, but it is more than stopgap aid. The intent is to get people working and into their own places.
Area churches provide food handlers and proctors, usually on a once-a-month basis. Half a block away is the area headquarters for California unemployment.
The main floor, formerly a bare cement slab, is a huge dormitory for women with roomy cubicles curtained off along the sides for families. Cots with clean donated linens and storage areas are near. Family quarters have youth beds and cribs as needed. There is easy access to toilets and showers.
Up a stairway the men sleep in a massive loft dormitory with open wooden lockers for packs and suitcases.
The usual tenure for a serious applicant is one month. One evening a couple, both employed, with five children came, unable to find or afford housing. I could identify with that in a small way.
The family with five children stayed three months, saved their money, and with help from local churches, found a good-size mobile home and space in a nearby town. The children are in school.
The coffeepot brews constantly from 5 p.m. on. Guests, showered and in clean clothes, hair still dripping a bit, pour. Some ask for tea, nobody asks for decaf.
Donated fruits are washed and cut up, ripe avocados become guacamole. A clear plastic pillow-size sack of tortilla chips is opened. At times a cook brings along visiting grandchildren.
Girls play dress-up, do board games, or read. Boys are on skateboards or shoot baskets at the portable hoop in the parking lot. A safer play area and eventually a preschool day-care center are goals in the planning.
The cooks cover generous meals with foil, holding them back for late workers. Babies are handed from one mother to another.
At 7 the host-manager with clipboard welcomes guests and introduces volunteers, crediting their churches but not proselytizing their beliefs. Rules are spelled out firmly and briskly:
No drugs, no alcohol.
Smoking outdoors only, away from the doors.
Ten p.m. curfew.
No one on the second floor unaccompanied.
Guests take care of the cleanup.
Everyone out by 7:30 a.m.
Will someone offer a blessing? Several hands are raised, of different skin colors, men, women, children. One is chosen. The blessing is basic, simple, short, and sincere.
There is a nice family feeling by now. I expected to hear tales of missed jobs, unfaithful partners, cruel landlords, but the general conversation each time is lighter. In-house jokes, a bit of teasing about a Dodger cap or a Giants jacket. Some women speak of illness or a new hairdo. Several men patting their stomachs express thank-yous.
The bustle of cleanup, chores signed for and shared, reminds me that we're dealing with young energy.
Real dishes and silver now, instead of paper and plastic throwaways, go into the new dishwasher, tables are wiped, children help put condiments away, more coffee is made, the floor is wet-mopped.
It's hard to tell who is in charge, if anyone is - sort of like home. I hang around wanting to talk with a guest. ``I love to keep things clean,'' Mary tells me as she rinses dishes I've scraped. ``I get that from my mother, and I loved her, too.''
The other cooks have left. I take my empty pans to the car. This night the only child, a six-year-old, is shooting baskets. His folks watch.
A ruddy-faced man, thin, silent all through dinner, plays a guitar and sings softly near the dumpster. A young couple in the half dark get more and more interested in each other.
I drive off thinking of the word ``transition'' and how it applies at TH. People meeting people's needs, opening opportunities, sharing, changing attitudes, celebrating independence.
I want to be more in touch to hear the success stories like the new single mother who had arrived pregnant and told a volunteer she met at a market, ``One more month and I'll be off welfare. I can hardly wait!''
I am grateful to be a part of this. The dusk beauty of the city enfolds me, and I drive a couple of blocks before realizing I've left my windbreaker. Returning, I pass three young men smoking and talking on the rock wall edging the hut.
When I pass them again, wearing the jacket, one of the men calls out softly, ``You drive carefully now.''