Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity operates
a home improvement thrift store called the ReStore. Two men
volunteering in our store are homeless and I have spent some time trying
to figure out why they are here; after all they are not paid for their
If you ask them how to find something they will direct you.
If the restrooms are clean they are responsible. If you need help
carrying something to your car they are there to help. Do you want to
know how you can tell they are homeless? The answer is you can’t.
I think it is important to foster a connection for a better
understanding of people who are struggling and each year around the
holidays I look for a touchstone for understanding them. The idea came
from a quote I read years ago by Herman Melville, "A man thinks that by
mouthing hard words he understands hard things.” I often hear people
talk about the less fortunate with terms like, "lazy”, "corrupt”,
"cheating”, and so on. Do these character traits exist in the poor and
homeless? Yes. Is it universal? Absolutely not.
I am guilty of
trying not to make eye contact with the homeless when I am walking down
the street and I have observed that this response is almost universal.
We walk by and make every effort to ignore their existence. We are
hoping they don’t ask for money and we don’t like to remind ourselves of
their plight, especially during the holidays.
So why do homeless
people volunteer in our store? I think it is because it offers relief
from being invisible. For several hours people treat them like they
remember being treated before they were homeless. When they first start
volunteering you observe that they do not make eye contact. I think it
is due to the fact that they are not accustomed to it. Over the course
of a few days they develop it again.
We encourage them to take warm
shelter at a homeless shelter and yet they choose to sleep outdoors. We
close the store and they walk out into the winter darkness. We breathe a
sigh of relief when they return the next day.
Today these men
looked into someone’s eyes and one of our customers possibly returned
the glance. They did not know at the time what "hard things” these men
It is the holidays. You may not know "hard things”, but let’s
all take a break from mouthing "hard words” at the poor for a few weeks.
Maybe that sadness in a glance from someone's eyes during the holidays
has more meaning and depth than we understand.
Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity congratulates Rose Covey who was
honored with our ReStore Volunteer Community Service Award. Rose
suffered a stroke and began working in our store everyday. She indicated
that she has gained so much from her
work here. When she first arrived her speech struggled and she feared
talking to people. She said volunteering pushed her away from that
fear-- she was forced to talk to customers.
We marvel at the courage
that she had in facing this hardship and the dedication she has shown
for our community in the face of it all..
— at Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity and ReStore.
We often have predispositions for "how we think things are” and I love when something small knocks us off that center.
Over the years of providing a pick-up service for donations to the
Habitat for Humanity ReStore we found that many people hide books in the
boxes of donations. It is not an item we accept, yet it seemed to be an
item that people wanted to donate. We tried selling them for awhile but
even at fifty cents a book they languished on the shelf and took up
We decided to
create a "book swap” area in the store. It is a space that is dedicated
to the books we receive. The management of the program lies with the
public. If someone takes a book and does not leave one we just think it
is better for them to have the book. There are books going out and
coming back all day long.
Our store is located 50 yards from a
freeway off ramp. There is a homeless population in the area and we
often see them pan handling. They are respectful of the store and often
use our restrooms and we seldom have any issues that need to be
What has been a bit eye opening though has been
their interest in our books. I will see the women that stands at the
13th South off ramp take a book and swap it out two days later for
another. I often wonder if she is getting to the point that she has read
them all and looks forward to the day another batch arrives.
Did we ever really stop to think this person was a child once raising
her hand in grade school to answer the teacher’s question? Do we picture
her doing homework at the kitchen table when she was young? Are we
predisposed to think the homeless would not be interested in books? It
is our hope they will all have a decent place to call home one day. In
the meantime we hope the books bring some comfort. The "book swap”
concept was a good decision. Someone thoughtfully sent us these books
never knowing they would go towards such a great purpose.
Meseret (wearing red in the photo) relayed
this story to us a few months ago. Shortly after her Salt Lake City
arrival she was evicted from her apartment. With only a limited grasp of
English she had no concept of where to go or what to do. She sat
holding her baby with her other young son at her side crying on the
steps. A gentleman who was driving by stopped and asked her what was
wrong. She could not communicate with him. He then told her he would
drive her to the refugee center where
someone could speak to her in her language, but she refused because she
did not want to get into a car with a stranger. He parked his car and
came back and they took the bus to the refugee center. Upon arrival he
left her in the capable hands of someone that could speak to her and
walked out the door. She never saw him again, yet she credits him with
saving her life.
The following biography was written by Meseret herself and offers an insight into how far she has come:
My name is Meseret Demeke. I am a single mother with two wonderful
boys, a daughter and a beautiful one year old granddaughter.
moved to the United States 9 years ago on a Visiting Visa as a refugee
from Ethiopia. I was a news reporter, five months pregnant and in a very
dangerous and difficult situation, being threatened by death from the
Ethiopian government, which forced me to flee my country to protect my
own life while leaving behind my daughter, son, my mother, and my
When I arrived to the United States I first came to
Washington D.C. I applied for Asylum which was immediately approved,
and approved for my children to begin the immigration process. I
received a social security card and Work Permit. After one year I
applied for a Green Card and moved to Utah when my son Isaac was two
months old. The immigration process took about 2-3 years for paperwork
to be completed and my other two children to be brought over here. I
became a U.S. Citizen in 2011.
In Utah, I had one difficult
situation after another. I didn’t speak any English; all I had were the
clothes on my back and my infant son. I did everything I could just to
protect my baby and keep us alive. I had no money for diapers, no
doctor, no phone, no license or transportation, little food, no daycare
and no support.
Out of perseverance and strong will I pushed
hard to find a job, food assistance, child care, a driver’s license, an
old used car, secondhand furniture and was able to build a safe haven
for my family. With mattresses on the floor, sheets on the windows,
little sleep, eviction notices piling up and continued barriers, I never
stopped. I kept picking myself up and pushing forward as I applied for
and attended school, learned English, retrained in a new field of
employment and now I have a very rewarding job as an Operating Room
Technician in a local children’s hospital.
I’ve been fortunate
to meet some very kind people who’ve helped me along the way with work,
my children and making a life for my family here in Utah. I found out
about Habitat for Humanity and applied with no expectations. Once I was
approved, I worked very hard to get my sweat equity hours completed; I
have sacrificed and hit many adversities in this sometimes hostile
world. Through my dedication and hard work this fairy tale miracle is
coming true! I will be able to experience a rare and precious gift
through the extraordinary people who have contributed just as much as I
have through their donations and volunteer work. I am forever grateful
for this wonderful organization of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity
and the generous sponsorship of Oldcastle Materials.
Meet SHIRLEY BIESINGER (pictured in red). She
organized a great group of volunteers from Liberty Mutual Insurance to
help in the ReStore today. The volunteers have been working at 100 miles
an hour and the store looks great....... but they still struggle to
keep up with Shirley. She is one of our frequent volunteers. But here is
the amazing part. SHIRLEY is 78 YEARS OLD!
What a great day! We have a project in Magna
right now that really makes us feel good. This family had their home
damaged in a fire and the family of four has been living in a trailer
next to it for four years. Habitat has decided to repair the home and
get the family back into it....... but not without the help of our
wonderful volunteers! Today McGillis School put every ounce of effort
they had to build two rock walls, a raised garden area, and pruned and
cleaned the entire lot...... but thats not all! The students planted
seedlings months ago and brought the flowers today! (The family can be
seen in this photo: mom in bright blue, dad is in bright yellow, and
their two twin daughters are in pink in front)...... and the rest are
the amazing volunteers from McGillis! Thank-you McGillis volunteers
She is attractive and appears to be in her
late 50’s, but you can readily see that she is sad and her face reflects
years of hardship.
She is meeting with Habitat for Humanity because her home has critical repair issues. The problems we see in her home are typical for a much older age demographic—seniors that are 20 to 30 years older than her.
The title to her home lists a husband and I immediately assume she is a widow. It would explain my impressions.
She tells us her husband contracted early onset Alzheimer’s in his
50’s. He is still relatively young and cannot work anymore. In fact, he
cannot speak anymore. He was the bread winner, he was her partner in
solving problems, and Alzheimer’s has changed all that. She has had to
retool her life and return to the workforce leaving him in an adult
daycare facility. They had more money back then and he made the repairs
on the home. This awful disease has cast her alone into stormy waters.
My father died of Alzheimer’s in his 80’s last year. I saw my mother
care for him for 9 years and it took a toll on her while it was brutally
attacking him. In the later years he could not speak. Although they
were in the same room they could not have a conversation and she told me
she often felt very alone. It is a future that has no upside. It is a
future that is on a path to a conclusion that cannot be changed.
In an instant I knew why she had an aura of sadness. I had an
understanding of her pain. Through no fault of her own she was handed
this hardship and she was trying to find ways to find solutions to
problems. Today it was a problem her husband had a history of solving,
but today she was the only one that could.
I know from
experience that her days are long. I am certain she works all day and
then works all night caring for him, only to get up and do it again the
next day. She is very brief when she tells the story of the hardship. I
am certain the story feels much different to her, like an endless path
with only a dark horizon.
Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity
has made the repairs on her home and it is our deepest wish that she is
comforted in a small way from our efforts. We think about her often and
the hardship she and her husband endure. We hope that the burden on
their path is lighter and the horizon brighter with each passing day. It
is however a sad truth that this wish is unlikely to happen-- Ed Blake
[Many of you read this story a few months ago.
The good news is Martha is now safe. She was treated by paramedics in
her own home for hyperthermia and now lives in a safe environment.]
The original story follows........... Martha lives near downtown Salt
Lake. She lives alone in a small home that was also the home of her
business when she was a seamstress. It is easy to picture patrons
dropping off orders there many years ago and I’m certain a much younger
version of her filled the orders and
conducted a vibrant neighborhood business. The windows are very old now
and some are cracked with large gaps around the edges. The exterior is a
composition of barn wood with the addition of corrugated metal added
like puzzle pieces to repair its deterioration. She has pushed pieces of
carpet into the holes in the roof to slow the water from coming
through. She heats the home with only a space heater and wears many
layers of clothing to keep warm. "I don’t need your help,” she tells us.
"This house is not worth putting a dollar into and I will die soon
anyway.” We make frequent visits and she has been telling us this same
thing for over a year now.
Less than a block away we pass a line of
people waiting for seating at a well known restaurant. They don’t know
that Martha is so close and under the threat of dying cold and alone in a
home that easily qualifies as a shack. In fact it is very likely they
may not even realize such a thing could happen anywhere in the U.S., let
alone in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake Habitat for Humanity will
assist more than 50 families in 2013. People like Martha. They include
children, the sick, and often the elderly. They are your neighbors.
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