This is a guest post by Becky Mares, Community Engagement Manager for Cooking Matters Colorado.
A man stands on the corner of 6th and Sherman. A simple sign says, “PLEASE HELP.”
His name is Gus. He’s an older gentleman with a kindly face, looks well-groomed, and has a slight accent – I think it’s Greek. (He reminds me of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)
I pass Gus on my way to work every day. I try to smile or wave. Sometimes I give him something – ironically, what I typically have available is fruit. I’ve taken Gus out to lunch, asked him what his favorite food is, what makes him smile, what makes him scared and why he’s on the street corner. I asked him how many people stop and if he has family; whether he lives in a small apartment, or if he’s in a shelter. Gus and I are friends.
All this would be lovely, except it isn’t true. I do pass this gentleman on my way to work every day, and I do give him extra food (typically fruit) when I have it. But I don’t actually know his name. (I asked him once but then forgot it). And I haven’t taken him to lunch or asked him about his life. He does make me smile – and he breaks my heart – a little bit every day. I do feel a strange affinity for him like he’s my warm and jovial grandfather or something.
So, why have I created this image of Gus in my head? Why have I not actually taken him to lunch when I’ve felt compelled to do so? To help this stranger who I somehow feel an affinity for? Is it because I’ve created this image of who I think he is and don’t want to burst that bubble? What if Gus has some terminal illness and dies tomorrow and I never got to know him?
I work in a purely compassionate field. My college degrees were focused on social and environmental justice. When I was 6 years old, I asked my dad why the man on the street didn’t have dinner but we did (even though we were living paycheck to paycheck ourselves). In my current job, I teach volunteers how to work with diverse populations. I talk about how everybody is an expert in their own lives; how everyone has value; and there isn’t really an “us” vs. “them” – we are a “we” community.
I should help him, right? Then why don’t I?
Well, I did it. I met Gus.
I’ve been watching Gus for several months now. As we learned from my previous story, he’s had quite an effect on me, even before I actually talked to him. Now that I have, he’s been inscribed on my memory even more.
It turns out that Gus isn’t Gus – he’s Tom. And it turns out that he isn’t Greek at all – he’s from Boston (apparently I hadn’t listened very carefully in the few words we had exchanged).
Tom moved to Colorado because he hated east coast weather – awfully cold and grey in the winter and awfully hot and humid in the summer. He cleaned floors in college to pay the bills and then started a small business in Colorado many years ago, which “did okay” in his words.
Tom loves football, and even though he’s from the East Coast, is a big Broncos fan. He watched the pre-season opener and didn’t agree with the commentators; the team looks great to him!
Tom rents a basement room near 30th & Sable that has a small kitchen but no oven. His landlord is a nice man who gives him rides when he really needs it. Otherwise, Tom takes the bus. Tom turned 80 years old in April.
When I asked what his “PLEASE HELP” sign meant for him, he said “Food, money, anything really. Just trying to make ends meet and pay the bills.”
Tom puts any collected money towards rent. He has Medicaid, but when I asked if he knew about food resources available in the community, he gave me a blank stare.
“Have you ever heard of SNAP, or food assistance?” I asked.
“No. What’s that?” Tom replied.
How fortuitous that I work for an organization that connects people with food resources! I shared a little bit of information about food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and food pantries, and said I would get him a phone number to call.
I know it can take a little time for someone to connect with food resources nearby, so I also asked, “What kind of food do you like?”
“Well, I don’t have great teeth, so soft foods are good. I used to make lasagna when I had an oven. Oh, I love lasagna!”
I told Tom that I would be right back.
I paused at my car to look up the phone number for the Hunger Free Hotline. Since it was early, I left a message and wrote the hotline number on a paper napkin for Tom.
Then, I walked down the block to Trader Joe’s. I went in and bought bananas, bagels, peanut butter, applesauce, and spaghetti noodles and marinara (and though not lasagna, it comes close without needing an oven or wanting to give an unhealthy frozen meal!). I got $20 cash back from the purchase and walked back towards Tom.
“Here you go,” I said approaching.
Tom and I went through the bag together, and I gave him the napkin with the hotline number on it. I told him that I’d left a message and would come back on Monday with some resources for him, but that he should try giving it a call himself to see if he might be eligible for SNAP/food stamp benefits – a resource that can supplement food pantries and is a more consistent, choice-based source of food.
I told Tom that it was truly a pleasure to meet him; he seemed like such a nice man (to which he replied jokingly, “Well I don’t know about that!”). I handed him the $20, promised to come back on Monday, and left with a smile on my face and sunshine-colored warmth in my heart.
The Hunger Free Hotline called me back that afternoon, providing the four closest food pantries to Tom’s location. I wrote them down and shared the list and a few other food assistance brochures with Tom that Monday.
I reintroduced myself, though I wasn’t fully sure whether he recognized me from our previous encounter. He seemed pleasant and warm, like I always think of him. We spoke for a few minutes – mostly about football again. He thanked me for the resources; I wished him well and left, again with a smile on my face and sunshine-colored warmth in my heart.
If you know someone who may be in need of food assistance, have them call Hunger Free Colorado’s statewide food resource hotline toll-free at (855) 855-4626.