Company was coming!

If you came from a big family or had a Polish mother like I did, you knew what that meant: cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, and buying enough groceries to feed an army. It was the fall of 2020, and because I had just moved into this townhouse a few months earlier, I wasn’t even fully unpacked yet. My guest room was jammed with all the boxes I’d “get to one of these days,” and now suddenly it needed to be ready to host actual guests. Not only that, but for years I’d had a set of twin trundle beds in there. I recognized that it was time to donate those to the Salvation Army® and buy a more comfortable queen bed for my brother Gary and his wife Kathy, who announced they were coming for a visit just before Thanksgiving.

So in the month or so before their arrival, I was scrambling. I was unpacking boxes and trying to settle the household. I scheduled for the Salvation Army to come pick up the twin trundle set. I bought a new bedroom suite for my master bedroom and scheduled that delivery. Then the weekend before, I scheduled for movers to come by and move my master set down into the guest room. I went shopping for a new mattress for that bed and scheduled that delivery; shopped online for new sheets and comforter and pillows for that bed. After they arrived, whew! I could relax a bit; the guest room was finally in good shape.

In the last weekend before my brother and sister-in-law arrived, I was hanging artwork throughout my house and unpacking my mom’s antique china, which had been in storage for about 2 years. The place was really starting to shape up! Then my phone rang. I saw it was my brother Gary calling.

Me: “Gary! What’s up?”

Gary: “We’re not coming.”

Me, incredulous: “What?!”

Gary, despondent: “The house burned down.”

Me: “Oh my God! What house??” [they have two houses]

Gary: “In Seattle. Our house in Seattle. It burned down this morning. Blain [their oldest son] was setting up the smoker with two turkeys, getting ready for Thanksgiving. I guess he put them in there, set everything up, closed the door, and walked away. And something went wrong with the propane tank and it exploded. It caught the back deck on fire and then the whole house on fire.”

Burned-out roof of my brother’s home

I was in shock as my brother told me of this absolute disaster up in Washington. He and his wife were in California at their second home, while his son and two children were living in their home in Seattle. Luckily everyone escaped the blaze and no one was hurt, but it sounded as though the home was nearly destroyed. Kathy, his wife, was going to fly immediately to Seattle to see what she could do to help settle the kids into another place to live, and Gary would follow shortly thereafter.

I broke down crying at the end of the conversation, remembering their beautiful home and how much blood, sweat, and tears they had poured into that place. How many memorable events our family had held there, including weddings and receptions and family reunions over the past 35 years or so. They had been hoping to sell it soon and have the proceeds be a significant part of their retirement nest egg. Now that dream was a big question.

I sat alone in my living room, trying to process this. I still had some artwork I was going to hang, but I couldn’t get motivated to finish it. The phone call just took all the wind out of my sails. There didn’t seem any point to any of it. No one was coming. I felt so awful for my brother and so useless, thousands of miles away and nothing I could do to help. It was such a weird experience to have all this momentum and adrenalin and drive one minute, and in the next minute to have it evaporate.

Shifting Gears

At some point I grabbed my laptop and logged on to the social media site NextDoor®, just to try to distract myself from all these distressing thoughts. As I scrolled through some of the posts, one caught my eye. A woman named Megan had posted something about a food distribution her church was conducting for the homeless that was being planned for the Wednesday just before Thanksgiving. If anyone wanted to participate, they were accepting anything in the way of donations—turkeys, hams, pies, etc. I thought to myself, “THAT’S what I can do! I’ll cook for the food drive!” I replied to the post and asked Megan if they would be interested in homemade cookies or bars, and she instantly replied back that they would love it. She told me where and when to deliver the goods.

So I immediately poured all of that adrenalin that needed an outlet into cooking for this segment of Houston’s homeless population. It was perfect: I had about 5 days to get ready and had almost everything I needed already in my kitchen. I went to work.

The philosophy that when you are down, feeling depressed about yourself or your circumstances, and the way to get out of that mindset is to do something for someone else who is worse off than you are—well, it worked for me. Focusing on people who were living on the streets and sleeping under bridges, doing something nice for these people who were down on their luck, was just what I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself that I would be spending another Thanksgiving alone and missing a visit from family.

Charity in Seattle

Meanwhile, up in Seattle, some amazing things were happening. The insurance company set up my nephew and his family in a rental home for 1 year, allowing ample time for the burned-out structure to be repaired. But they had nothing to put in it. My sister-in-law Kathy flew up there and purchased beds for Blain and his two teenagers, a boy of 19 and a girl of 15. Blain’s friends set up a GoFundMe® page on Facebook® where they raised more than $5,000 for the family. But outside of that, the family of three received almost $10,000 in cash donations from friends and relatives. Friends of the family took the two teenagers shopping, where they could buy anything they needed in the way of clothing, shoes, school supplies, etc. Another friend of Gary’s sent a care package filled with eight winter coats in various sizes for everyone. Someone else donated basic kitchen supplies: dishes, glassware, cooking and eating utensils, and kitchen towels. Someone else again donated sheets, blankets, bedspreads, and pillows, as well as bathroom towels and bathroom toiletries. My brother told me that he’d never been on the receiving end of so much generosity before, and how humbling and overwhelming it felt.

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Understanding Houston’s Homeless

Christmas cakes wrapped in gold foil boxes and shiny ribbon ties
Christmas cakes wrapped in shiny foil treat boxes with ribbon ties

After Thanksgiving had passed, Christmas was fast approaching and I had a feeling they would have another food drive for that holiday. So I preemptively started baking cookies again and freezing them. I also purchased better packaging on Amazon® (the cookies had to be individually wrapped, and the first time I just used Saran™ wrap and Ziploc® bags, which was both messy and expensive). Because it was going to be a Christmas distribution, I also bought some fancier wrappings that were holiday-themed, colorful, and fun. I thought the shiny, gold and silver foil boxes with Christmas cakes inside, or Christmas gift bags filled with caramel corn, might be something that would cheer them up. I noticed in the photos I saw from Thanksgiving that the dinners they received were in white Styrofoam® take-out containers and not very festive.

Megan reported that the Christmas distribution was a huge success, with more than 100 people showing up. But I also learned that they weren’t just doing this once a month, but every week. Every. Single. Week. Megan and her husband Steve were organizing and distributing not only food, but anything else the homeless folks needed: gently used clothing, warm blankets, tarps, shoes, bug spray, hygiene products, first aid kits, etc. When I would drop off the cookies I’d baked, I would see their garage floor, strewn with a huge mess of these donated goods that they were sorting through, trying to get them organized, some things earmarked for certain people, and ready to take downtown. I marveled at how one person was managing all this, coordinating with all these volunteers, and still holding down a full-time job.

Christmas gift bags filled with caramel corn
Christmas gift bags filled with caramel corn

One day I asked Megan: “How did you get involved in this program? What was your motivation?” She told me that there was a time that a family member fell on hard times because of a drug addiction and became homeless. It broke her heart to learn that this family member had to resort to eating out of trash cans and sleeping under bridges. She said, “My work with my church just blossomed at that time, and I got involved in their Wednesday night outreach to the homeless. I felt if it could come so close as to affect my immediate family, that could be me someday.”

So week after week, this small team of people unfailingly showed up to serve a group of 100 to 150 people, mostly older men, but some women too. Megan and Keith, another dedicated volunteer she met at the church, has gotten to know them by name. She told me that the homeless feel invisible, forgotten, ignored, worthless. No one makes eye contact with them, no one trusts them, they lack human interaction. They are shunned by a society that looks down on them and says, “Get a job. Take a shower. Have some self-respect. It’s your own fault. Get away from me.”

Homeless man showing "Seeking Human Kindness" sign on cardboard
Homeless man, asking for compassion. Adobe Stock photo. Get 10 free Adobe Stock images.

When I heard that, it really tore my heart out. I learned that yes, some people are homeless because of alcohol or drug addiction or mismanaging their lives. They have alienated the remaining family they have left who have helped for the last time, or they don’t want to be accountable to anyone. But there are also youths there, who are homeless because they came out to their families as gay and were kicked out of the house by their parents, with no place to go. Or men who came out to their spouse as gay and were kicked out. There are women who “got themselves pregnant” and were kicked out by men who don’t want to support another child or who believe it’s not their child. There are victims of domestic abuse, who for their own reasons have left the shelters. People who have lost their job, got evicted from their apartment, then lost the car they were living in. The circumstances are all unique and are all heartbreaking. It made me realize that we are all about five or six steps away, or five or six bad decisions away, from being in the same situation as some of these people.

After the Christmas effort of making the cookies and cakes look all shiny and bright, the next month I tried to think of a way to make my baked gifts distinctive in some way. I thought about writing a special note or something funny and attaching it to each cookie, so that each person would have a little keepsake afterward. I experimented with how I could do this, and finally figured out that the standard office yellow sticky notes would stay put on the clear plastic sleeves I was now wrapping my cookies in.

Smiling man holding up a cookie
Appreciative man holding up one of my cookies

So I sat down and got busy, and started writing little funny anecdotes about things that had happened to me (such as getting lost and spending the night in my kayak), or jokes I could remember. When I quickly ran dry of those (I needed about 100, remember), then I turned to the Internet for inspiration. I landed on a trivia site and selected a bunch of science trivia questions that were suitable for anyone who had gone to high school (“E = MC2. What does E, M, and C stand for?” “How many hours out of each day does a typical cat sleep?”). That gave me maybe 30 more notes. Still in trouble, I needed about 35 more! I filled out the rest of the deck with word jumbles, inspirational sayings, and words of encouragement.

homeless people, lining up for food
Lining up for the food

This was actually a lot of fun for me, imagining their reaction as they found the notes. I dropped off the cookies to Megan’s husband the next Wednesday, and didn’t say a word about what I’d done. That night after the distribution was over, I got a text from Megan. “Gail, they all LOVED the notes!! We all stood around & they read them and we laughed and joked around…it was so amazing. One of the guys wanted me to tell you ‘Seriously, this is the REAL deal, it’s so kind, thank you.’”

Her text went on to say, “I always talk to the people who I give food to, ask them their name, and ask how they are doing. Many homeless people feel forgotten, unworthy and unloved. I always try to remind them that they still matter. Sharing your notes with them was the BEST part of my day!!”

Thanksgiving 2021

Table setup for hot meals
Table setup for hot meals

A year has passed and I’m still baking cookies for this ever-changing group of people. One large homeless camp was “decommissioned” in April of 2021, meaning the people were assigned permanent apartment housing through the efforts of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County. This was considered a huge victory for the welfare of those living on the streets, as it gave them a chance to apply for jobs and live in safer, cleaner environments (applying for a job without a permanent address is a huge impediment for the homeless).

In the past few weeks, we’ve been gearing up for the Thanksgiving distribution, anticipating close to 150 people this year. Because their church is in transition, moving to a new facility, Megan and her small team of volunteers are managing on their own without corporate sponsorship, so no hot meals were planned for this year. But they still planned to hand out “real” ham sandwiches, fruit, and healthy snacks, and I shifted my recipes to a more holiday theme: pumpkin spice cookies, molasses spice cookies with cream cheese icing, and chocolate brownies with walnuts. Several cold fronts have also hit the area, so Megan had also collected blankets, cold weather gear, and other items for people to hand out.

The target date for the distribution was Wednesday, November 24, the day before Thanksgiving. But, there was trouble on the horizon. Our location for delivery is right in downtown, and Houston was planning to hold their annual Thanksgiving Day parade this year. It was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, so the entire city was looking forward to getting this annual tradition back on track.

Late in the afternoon on Wednesday, Megan took a bike ride through downtown to scope out the situation and found a worst-case scenario for us: roadblocks everywhere, a heavy police presence guarding all the floats and acting as an unwelcoming committee: don’t even think about entering this space. She conferred with Keith and they made the executive decision an hour before we were all ready to jump in our cars: the food distribution is canceled, because our access is blocked off by the parade route. We would have to do it next week.

Yet another disturbing reality for the homeless: Because of our lack of foresight in taking into account that the annual Thanksgiving Day parade was “on” again, they didn’t get fed that night. They were counting on us and we let them down. The next day was the holiday, everyone had plans with their families, and a few of our volunteers in fact went out of town. I felt awful in about 100 different ways as I thought about what we should have done in retrospect.

We learned earlier this same week that another set of camps was also decommissioned by the Coalition for the Homeless, which may have directly affected the group we were serving downtown. On November 22, a large writeup was published in the Houston Chronicle, describing the program. People aren’t forced into housing; they have a choice. In Houston’s program, approximately 85 to 90% of the people choose housing, while the remainder choose to remain on the streets. Next week, I guess we will find out how many still remain of our little group.

According to the article, the success of Houston’s program is being watched closely by other cities that may choose to emulate it, such as Austin and Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Spokane, Washington. A recent influx of COVID-19 funding has enabled an acceleration of this program because of the vulnerability of this population to COVID.

To add insult to injury, in the last 10 minutes before the parade was about to start, as the floats and the high school bands and the baton twirlers and the giant balloons and Santa were lined up and ready to go, Houston’s Mayor Turner cancels the parade! A storm is coming through! Yes, the same storm that had been predicted for a week beforehand to arrive on Thanksgiving Day, yet he allowed thousands of people to continue with their preparations and expense, and thousands more to line the streets that morning, only to pull the rug out at the last minute. What a cluster.

Back to My Brother’s House

After haggling with their insurance company for more than 9 months over the cost of repairs to their burned-out home, and not a single repair being initiated, my brother and his wife got a pleasant surprise: an approach from a real estate agent who said, “I’ll bet I can sell this for you, as is.” In fact, he already had someone who was interested. Talk about plant a seed! Why go through all the hassle of repairing this house just to sell it? That first offer fell through, so they listed it and it sold quickly, actually getting into a bidding war between two buyers. With all the active relocations and the seller’s market in the wake of COVID-19, their dream of a retirement nest egg became a reality after all.

And Blain? Living rent-free for 1 year enabled him to finally get on his feet. He was able to pay all bills, his credit rating improved, and he’s finally able to get approved for a mortgage. The closing date is right around the corner. In the midst of a tragedy it’s sometimes hard to see that there might be a silver lining behind that cloud. To seize that second chance and make the most of it is something we wish for all our children.

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11 Responses

  1. Nice work Gail! Great story.. It is great that you do all of this! Craig and I do similar things to support our community, as you said, we are all 5 or 6 steps away that tragedy could happen to anyone!

    1. Thanks Julie. Glad to hear you guys are involved up there!
      It’s frightening to talk with these people and to learn just how fast they lost everything, or how fast the winds shifted for them. Then they become the pariah of society. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

      Gail

      1. I work for a community action agency and we support homeless, low-income, and families in crisis. I work in the early learning department where we support children and families that are low income and get them early learning education and wrap-around services. I am glad you found this wonderful place to bring support and dignity to people in crisis.

        1. Julie,

          Likewise! I had no idea you were doing this important work up there! One of the books that was on the list for 10 Best of 2021 is called “Invisible Child” and it documents how a homeless family navigates the system in New York City, for about a decade. On my list to read. As I get more and more involved, I’m learning how Houston is handling this ongoing problem. They are getting better, with increased funding.

          With your new degree under your belt, they are lucky to have you!

          Gail

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