Thursday, I stepped outside my comfort zone. I participated in the weekly Faith on Foot Walk starting in Downtown Rutland. Together with members of the clergy, Pastor Hannah Rogers of the Rutland United Methodist Church and Pastor John Longworth of Good Shepard Lutheran Church, and other volunteers, I walked; because they walk… with no place to call home, day or night, people experiencing homelessness walk, hang out, try to disappear, focus on survival.

We walked around Rutland.  Our path extended no more than one mile from City Hall.  We walked passed the fire station, Main Street Park at Routes 4 & 7, past vacant apartment buildings, churches, parks, by banks, McDonalds, the fairgrounds, through the Howe Center and so on.   We were in search of those in need of connection, a smile, a gentle hello.  If they were interested, we offered help they sought.  At a minimum, we acknowledged everyone we encountered.  We looked for evidence of people who call outside home, because they have nowhere else to sleep; those who slept outside the previous night, and would likely do so again.  When we found homes, we left kits of toiletries, first aid items and warm socks.

We found outdoor homes; tents, hidden, yet so close to the world.  We found mattresses grouped, where parents and children sleep under trees.  We found this right here, right now, in Rutland, in our community.

We talked with an amazing woman, who now leads a crew, is mom to a five year old with her own challenges, and is celebrating 10 years of sobriety this summer.  She was a heroin addict, and shared her story with us.  She credits the police officer who arrested her after robbing a convenience store for saving her life.  Today, she “pays it forward” by showing compassion to others experiencing homelessness or struggling with addiction.  She may offer a referral, a shower, and when possible, she offers them work.  I learned that these experiences are considered Grace moments.  It made my eyes swell with tears.

There are many faces of homelessness in our community.  We all think we know who they are, but people experiencing homelessness come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  We think homelessness is due to addiction or mental illness, but it’s often the result of too much bad luck, trauma in one’s past, financial hardship, and/or too much pride.  To say the least, it’s complex!

Every year, hundreds of children in Rutland County, don’t have a place to call home.   They sleep on the couch or on the floor at a grandparent’s house, or that of a friend.  Some families stick together and prefer sleeping in a car in a hidden location.  Some sleep outside.  Fear of harm, separation, and hunger trouble these children, traumatizing them and their parents, and causing emotional problems that can haunt for a lifetime.

As Executive Director of the Housing Trust of Rutland County, I work every day to develop affordable housing for people in our Rutland Region who need a safe and affordable place to call home.  In order to go to work every day and be productive, people need shelter.  In order to go to school every day and learn; to be able to grow into an independent adult; children need housing.   Even seniors, who did work every day; they too need a safe and decent home to thrive.

Even with my 25 years working to provide affordable housing, this Faith on Foot Walk was outside my comfort zone. The people I visited with cannot afford the housing we build. They often can’t even afford to seek us out.

My challenge to you:  Offer him compassion, a listening ear, a smile.  Acknowledge her existence.  Engage with them, even if in a small way.  Connect with those you don’t know.  Push outside your comfort zone. Make a difference.  When we as a community raise up those most in need, we raise up our entire community.

Elisabeth Kulas, Executive Director
Housing Trust of Rutland County, Inc.
May 31, 2017