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What’s your name?
It seems like a simple question, but it’s one that makes a connection more meaningful, especially during a time of crisis.
As the chaplain for Corazon Ministries in downtown San Antonio, I have the privilege of working with our homeless and marginalized communities on a regular basis. Seven times a week, we have dozens of local volunteers provide warm meals and care to our homeless neighbors in need. During the COVID-19 crisis these efforts have pushed us to serve the homeless outside at various locations (and now at specific hubs) to create social distance.
We no longer have the ability to hug those who need a hug, offer a comfortable place to eat, or provide small groups for recovery. However, during this challenging time there are two people I have witnessed who go above and beyond the call of duty, reminding us what matters most.
Valerie Salas with Haven for Hope and Morgan Handley with Centro San Antonio both have similar jobs as downtown outreach specialists. Both have the same duty to go around our city and walk alongside the homeless to learn about specific needs, find solutions, and care for them like one would care for a friend or close neighbor. They often travel together.
Their presence helps break down the fear many homeless have of social agencies that shelter or provide other programs for the marginalized. Yet, the most important job they feel they have often goes unnoticed and is not part of any official job description, and that is to learn names.
They can walk up to almost every homeless person in downtown San Antonio and say their name. If they don’t know someone’s name, they will ask it before any other question comes up. For them, it’s the most crucial question to ask.
The homeless are often stereotyped, misunderstood, and placed in a specific box. They become nameless, invisible, and just a number in a point-in-time count. The work that Valerie and Morgan do recognizes each homeless person for who they are and gives them the dignity they deserve. For a moment they look past any differences and see a neighbor and a friend; they see the divine in every single person they meet. They humanize homelessness and by doing so humanize all of us.
“Knowing a name makes my job personal,” Morgan once reminded me. “It creates a relationship. I am no longer able to drive by or walk by that person anymore without acknowledging them because I know their name and I see them as more as just homeless. It makes me vulnerable and at the same time brings that individual to life and opens the door to hopefully a growing friendship and relationship.”
During this time of crisis, when all of us feel vulnerable and face uncertainty, it’s important to remember that each of us has a name. Each person infected by COVID-19 has a name. Each worker who lost their job has a name. A name matters and making a personal connection helps reframe our response to the situation at hand.
The homeless and marginalized population will continue to grow as the fallout from the pandemic and economic turmoil continues. The homeless and those stricken by severe trauma will have a greater need for healthy meals, shelter, health clinics, and hygiene services such as showers and bathrooms. If these needs are not met, along with proper social distancing, the infection will cause even more damage to this vulnerable population.
The city and local non-profits will need to continue to work together and find new solutions to meet this rising need. One of those examples is happening right now. Organizations like Corazon and Centro San Antonio are teaming up with food industry workers to help with the higher demand for warm meals. This not only helps the homeless population but also the worker who has been hurt by layoffs.
Each time I go out to serve on the streets with Morgan and Valerie, whether we are serving a warm meal or providing hygiene kits, it seems to always go smoother than times with others or by myself. There’s a different feel – our homeless neighbors respond differently. They speak differently. They open up more so more solutions can be found. It’s because Morgan and Valerie have made that personal connection. And it all started with a simple question: What’s your name?