During the stay-at-home order, I have been volunteering at the COVID Recovery Center at the East Boulder Recreation Center. Citizens experiencing homelessness with symptoms of the virus can go to the center to recover and isolate. Boulder moved quickly to establish this resource and has seen relatively fewer cases among the unhoused.
The CRC is staffed with city and county employees. Some are paid and some are volunteers, like me. For some staff members, this is a job, maybe the only job they could get right now. For many, it is much more: a chance to help some of our neediest citizens, to show compassion for them and the situation they are in.
Together we serve food, do laundry, sanitize common areas, and keep the center neat and orderly. The staff is problem-solving, setting up appointments with doctors and mental health practitioners, making sure prescriptions are picked up, and helping clients connect with family and other resources. Some go out of their way to do more than required. For them, the job seems like a calling. They are good at making clients feel seen, and listening to their stories without judgement.
For me, serving food and doing laundry have been the most meaningful. The food is good and plentiful. Folding clean clothes feels caring. I’ve met people who live in a state of difficulty that is hard to comprehend. I’ve wondered, how did they get here? Where did things go wrong?
One young man arrived looking so sick. He was nauseous and had diarrhea. He only wanted a Gatorade. I gave him a low-sugar purple one, but he wanted the blue one. He asked me if that would be OK? Of course he could have whatever he wanted, and that surprised him. He soiled his bed and some of his clothes. No problem, I could wash them. Over the days he started looking better. He told me he had been doing well in his life, and his mother and father were proud of him. Then things fell apart and he landed here. He is grateful for every meal, every drink, every smile, every ounce of compassion. His parents came by the parking lot and brought him some things. They were disappointed.
A woman in her 40s maybe, it’s hard to tell, was relieved to be at the CRC. She hardly left the dorm. She wanted very little. A black coffee with four sugars. She explained that she’d started drinking again, and her family threw her out. “It’s my own fault that I am here, but surely it can’t be that I have to leave now with all the snow?” She didn’t want to go. When I returned two days later, she was gone.
A man in his 30s arrived in the middle of the night. He didn’t have COVID symptoms, but he was agitated and disoriented. In the morning, he had some food and a Gatorade. He took a shower. He was told he needed to leave. He fell to his knees and sobbed. He said he was suicidal. They took him to the crisis center.
An older man, a veteran, a father, a Texan who had worked his whole life, became homeless after things in his life fell apart. When he was ready to leave the CRC, I handed him his laundry: hoodie, pants, t-shirt, underwear, one pair of socks. “I had two pairs of socks.” We lost his good socks. Socks are important when you are living on the street. My sister brought some.
Homelessness and COVID-19 are similar in that nobody chooses them, they choose you. For some, either condition is a temporary inconvenience. For others, it is a painful event that leaves you forever scarred. For still others, it is a terrifying life-and-death struggle experienced alone.
Our society has failed to care for the least among us. The safety net was already full of holes. The global pandemic threatens to completely shred it at a time when more and more people will need it. I am humbled to volunteer in this small way, and more determined than ever to work on fundamental changes to a system that isn’t working.
Judy Amabile is a former member of the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board. She is running to represent Colorado House District 13 in the 2020 election.