So I was volunteering again to stay overnight at the homeless shelter. I arrived before dinner, since it's nice to get the lay of the land and get to know everyone before bedtime (also, free food). Pastor Bill had to go pick up a DVD at Blockbuster, so he asked me to introduce the dinner crew and conduct a moment of silence when dinner was ready. Very shortly after he left, I noticed that the dinner crew was standing around looking awkward, so I confirmed with them that dinner was ready and asked them for their info for the introduction. I began the announcement, but a lot of people were still talking, probably because they couldn't all hear me. The woman leading the dinner crew shouted something to the effect of, "Excuse me! She's trying to make an announcement, let's please be respectful." Was somewhat unnecessarily school-marm-ish. I said something like, "It's okay, don't worry about it" and started the announcement over. Then the dinner line formed and I got to the back of it, and one of the homeless guests apologized and said they couldn't hear me, and gave me advice on how to get their attention better.
After I got my plate I sat down at a table with three of the guests, one of whom Bill had introduced to me since he thought she might need some extra assistance. As another one of the guests was showing me the TV shows that he had on his iPhone, the woman leading the dinner crew sat down next to me. She said she hoped she hadn't embarrassed me by getting everyone's attention for me, and I said that it was perfectly fine since I am not a very loud person. She said that she used to be a teacher and that the teacher instincts had naturally kicked in, and I said, yeah, I'd gotten that vibe. A fourth guest sat down with us, one who is rather abrasive, but that's just how she is so you just smile and nod. She and one of the other guests got into a conversation about religion and spirituality. Dinner-crew-teacher-lady asked us what other meals were typically served there, and I mentioned that I'd been there on Monday and we'd had lentil soup. She had made apple crisp and was proud of it, so when the dessert cart came out she called it over to our table first. Abrasive-guest scooped two servings together on one plate, then went into the kitchen to scrounge for whipped cream. Dinner-crew-teacher-lady said something about taking a small piece for herself, but she placed the smallest piece next to me. I slowly finished my dinner to try to give her a chance to take whichever piece she considered to be hers. Dinner ran out and so I started eating the small piece next to me. At that point I think I heard her say something to herself like, "I'm okay."
I think it was about that time that she turned to me and asked, "How long have you been homeless for?" I immediately responded, "Oh, I'm a volunteer!" not offended at all. Poor her, she must have been hugely embarrassed. Talk about putting your foot in your mouth. (Hence why I'm trying to keep her as anonymous as possible, although this is too good of a story not to post in a public entry.) She said that she hadn't seen me at the church services, and I explained that I don't go to the church but am involved in one of its discussion groups and got involved that way. I think my non-Christianity and preferring to get my spirituality out of my heart rather than out of a book came up slightly later in conversation, although that's probably not relevant to the story.
Later as she was leaving she came up to me and apologized again for the mistake. She said something to the effect of, I really hadn't seemed like the stereotype of a homeless person, but she knew that people from all walks of life could be homeless. So I'm still not sure what made her think I was homeless and what made her think I was an unusual homeless person.
I really can't be offended. Davis is a really affluent place, and the homeless people are sophisticated enough that there really would be no way for sure to tell if I were homeless or not, short of me mentioning that I rent a house. I think that one of the other times I've volunteered, I walked in there with my sleeping bag and old fleece hoodie at the same time as guests were arriving, and the overnight coordinator didn't talk to me until I specifically went up to her and said that I was there to volunteer.
(For the record, last night I was wearing an old black, grey, and white-striped cotton sweater, which wasn't too dingy and didn't have any holes, although there was one bit of loose thread on the shoulder facing dinner-crew-teacher-lady. Eddie Bauer drawstring cargo pants. The black sneakers that I where every day, which I got for $100 two years ago.)
So after I got into my sleeping bag, I lay there with my mind reeling with entertainment at what had happened. I actually really like that I'm not easily distinguishable from a homeless person. Homeless people are just as human as the rest of us. Maybe she thought I was homeless because I was comfortable around the guests, in which case I should take it as a compliment. But above that, I've always felt like people do not see me the way I see myself, so if my appearance confuses people, that could help them to start from scratch in getting to know me. Same with the hairy legs, that could mean a lot of different things, so hopefully that helps to reduce assumptions.
I've also been thinking about gender identity. I do identify as female. But that identity does not go particularly deep. Sometimes I wish that I could appear androgynous. I probably could, since my face is fairly square, but that would require a haircut that would make me sad. Really I just want to be a person, so it would be even better to be species-ambiguous, but that would be difficult to do without a highly-realistic bear suit. And no one would want to sit down and get to know me over tea if they thought that I may or may not be a bear.
Looking homeless also means I look non-materialistic, which is nice. I got to thinking about wandering around town barefoot again. I did that about two years ago, but then I got the trike and took recreational trike rides instead of recreational walks. But now I've gotten back to taking walks on the weekends, so I'd like to let my feet out for some fun.
Even if I were homeless, however, it would be rude to ask me how long or why. Perhaps she did not go to the same training I did, and hence did not know. It's okay to talk about a homeless person's situation if they bring it up, but if you want to initiate conversation, you can choose one of the myriad of small talk topics that you'd use with a normal person. So that's the second highly inappropriate thing that a homeless shelter volunteer has asked me, the first being the woman at the potluck last spring who asked me how I felt about Jesus. Got another potluck tomorrow - maybe I'll get another entertainingly offensive gem.