By: Amy Hinman
A member at HQ told me once that the worst part about being homeless isn’t the starving, the not bathing, the freezing. It’s being looked at like the world would be a better place if you weren’t there. It’s knowing that, in that moment, you are despised and rejected, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
After they (I’ll call them Alex) told me that, I had to scrape my jaw off the floor. Sure, at 19 I had my fair share of struggles: the perm in my hair was growing out, a recent knee injury required a herculean effort if I wanted to walk even short distances, and my mom was sick with a terrifying Mystery Illness that would take years to diagnose. But no one has ever (to my knowledge) regarded me with the kind of contempt my member-friend described. No one has ever breathed a sigh of relief when I paid at a restaurant, I’ve never had to fight, literally fight, for the safety of myself and my loved ones, no one has ever shooed me away from a bus stop because “these benches are for Rapid riders…not you,” despite being a regular bus-rider. And sure, my struggles at 19 were challenging, but there were people in my life who wanted me to win, and that’s what made the difference.
Alex, with wide, warm mahogany-colored eyes, laughs quickly and easily. They speak quickly, sometimes so quickly, I have to ask them to slow down. They’re smart in the way that Sherlock Holmes is smart: To the casual observer, doubled-up hoodies and scuff marks on the backs of someone’s legs mean nothing. To Alex, these signs mean that the wearer slept on a bench last night. Alex is unconditionally brave. They swear that, when they have housing and a good job and no longer need to come to HQ, we’ll be real friends.
And I believe them. I believe they will find a job that will not only pay the rent, but fill their soul with flowers. I believe that the confidence I see blooming as I get to know Alex at HQ will permanently permeate who they are outside our walls. I believe that with the same kind of support and love that have carried me through my struggles will carry Alex through theirs. And I believe, with everything I have and then some, that Alex will continue to make the world a brighter and warmer place, just for existing in it.
When I tell people that I work at a drop-in center and they ask what a drop-in center is, the quick answer is that “a drop-in center is a place for young people who are experiencing unsafe or unstable housing to come and receive resources and support.” The question-asker nods, not really sure what to make of my carefully-worded answer. And I cringe, because there’s far more to HQ than what I can say in a sentence. HQ isn’t just drop-in…drop-in is just the widest part of the funnel; it’s what catches youth like Alex from fading into park benches and church stoops and invites them into a warm safe place where people know their name and care about them deeply, and the possible napping locations are unlimited.
I want to do is show them the way Alex’s shoulders don’t slump once they walk through the door. I want to show them the eagerness in the eyes of our members when we ask them a question and know we’ll take their answers seriously. I want to show them the hope-filled two hours members spend in our space–eating cereal, doing laundry, playing guitar. I want to show them the myriad of ways that HQ is indeed headquarters for over 500 youth: the center of operations and a place to work out of, but not a place to stay forever. A place to get what you need so you can go forth with confidence.
And sure, without beds or a residential program, a drop-in center takes a little work to understand. It did for me when I first started. But now, I understand HQ as far more than just a place to hang out and grab some food. It’s a place with people who, more than anything in the world, believe in our community’s young people. Where knowing you’re safe and you belong is as important as food or water or shelter. HQ is a place where hope burns bright.