A few weeks ago, one of the volunteers who staffs the check-in desk tapped on the doorjamb of my office.
"A guy on the phone — Luis — asked if we can send him his mail," he said. "The guy says it's really important."
I was working at a nonprofit that offers services that help people living on the streets acquire permanent supportive housing. Forwarding mail is not one of those services.
"Sorry," I replied. "Bethesda Cares' policy is that we don't forward mail. We'll hold it for people, but we can't forward it. Luis has to come get it himself or send someone with written authorization to pick it up." The volunteer nodded and went back to the phone.
I turned back to my work, but the volunteer was back within a moment. "He says he just got a job. The guy's finally working, but it's during all the hours that we're open. He can't get here and doesn't know who he could send. He says the mail has important ID stuff in it. He's afraid he'll lose the job if he doesn't have it."
I understand why we don't forward mail for the 375 clients who use Bethesda Cares as their mailing address (liability, workload, cost), but Luis had recently got into housing and had a job. I didn't want to go against policy, but I didn't want to bust this guy's chops either. The volunteer and I brainstormed for a moment, and we decided that Luis could send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and that I would get it back out to him, which is exactly what happened a few days later.
Having no mailing address pretty much stinks, more than you might think.
Practically speaking, people who are trying to enter or re-enter society have to create and re-create connections, paper trails, and systems of interactions with large commercial and governmental entities. If you don't have a mailing address, this task is nearly impossible. While a lot of correspondence is now done online, plenty of agencies that process crucial paperwork like IDs and benefits information still rely on the good old U.S. Postal Service.
Emotionally speaking, having "no fixed address" — which is how law enforcement and administrators refer to someone who is homeless — leaves you untethered. Maybe you have a bus stop you call your own, but you know that's not the reality. Having an address, a place where people can find you (even if only by snail mail), reaffirms your existence. It confirms your identity, especially when you're desperate for any permanent elements in your life.
Knowing that friends, families, and agencies can find you, even when you yourself don't know where you're going to sleep, is an anchor.
So in addition to helping people find housing, Bethesda Cares allows clients to use its mailing address as their own.
And when I say "as their own," that's exactly what I mean: We want clients to use just our street address, without our organization's name. Adding "c/o Bethesda Cares" reveals their status as homeless, and we want them to have the dignity of keeping their current situation private if that's their preference.
Some clients check their mail only sporadically; they aren't really expecting much. For others, though, coming in to ask for their mail is an important weekly touchstone. It's a layer of routine in their otherwise chaotic lives. It's a reason to come in to our safe space, where they know someone will greet them by name, address them respectfully, offer some coffee and maybe ask how they are. It's a place where they can seek respite from the elements without being told to move along.
Most importantly, it's a reason to come into the place where they will eventually seek other services — like talking to a case worker about housing.
I'm well aware that our office mailing address is a sorry substitute for a home address.
But it's not intended to be a permanent fix. Every service we offer is designed not only to ease our clients' lives, but also to serve as a tool of engagement. It's a chance to say "yes" to someone who's become deeply disenfranchised in society, who is unwilling or unable to believe that anyone will consistently have their backs.
In order to use our address, clients must have an intake interview with a caseworker. We learn their stories and a bit about their immediate needs. And we get to say "yes" — "Yes, you can get your mail here," "Yes, come have a hot meal every day of the year," "Yes, we have clean socks for you."
And, eventually, "Yes, we can help you seek housing."
Homelessness represents the total collapse of support systems, both public and personal.
Rebuilding that shattered trust takes years.
Every touchstone we provide and every indignity we soothe brings that client one step closer to taking the leap of faith they'll need to apply for housing — the leap of faith needed to hope for something better after so many years of accepting the worst.
While our office guides clients on the long path out of chronic homelessness, our greater community has a vital role, too, in making sure that our clients know they aren't forgotten and that they are worthy of our time and our resources.
Anyone can help restore a person's dignity. Just find a local organization working to end homelessness and drop off a package of cookies. Drop off clean socks or unopened toiletries. Maybe include a note filled with kind thoughts.
That way, when clients come in to check on their mail, you'll be helping to reinforce, in any way you can, that they matter.
This story originally appeared on amylfreeman.com and is reprinted here with permission.