Monday, December 7, 2009

Help? Help? Really?

I spent this weekend waiting for the phone to ring. I was waiting to be called to the scene of a fire, where I would dispense food and drink and compassion to families whose home had been damaged or destroyed in a fire. This was my first "on call" weekend as a volunteer with a relief organization.

My first call came just 8 hours after my volunteer "duty" period started. At 2:15 am, I was jarred out of bed by what I thought was the phone ringing; but it was the phone's email alert, not the phone. I read the message, telling me in a cryptic code that four adult males were involved in a single family house fire in South Dallas. Then, moments later, I got a message telling me the "incident number" for this fire, a number I would need to use if I filled out forms giving some sort of aid to the victims of the fire.

Finally, the team leader called me and told me where to meet him and the third member of the team, where we would all get into the agency's well-equipped emergency vehicle and drive to the scene of the fire. I arrived at the designed parking lot at 3:00 am and the agency vehicle arrived moments later. Then, the three of us drove to the scene of the fire. Along the way, the team leader commented that this was a "bad" part of Dallas, a comment I couldn't dispute. It was a poverty-stricken area that had a reputation in the media as being a haven for gangs and drugs and a place where violence was relatively common. The talk made me a bit nervous, but I thought, "who's going to mug relief volunteers?"

We arrived at the scene of the fire to find at least two fire trucks and several firemen, plus three black men wrapped from head to toe in blankets. We introduced ourselves and the team leader began asking questions: Did the men have IDs? (no) Did they have any bills, etc. that had their names and that address on them? (no) Did they have keys to the house? (no) They had reasons for their answers, but their answers suggested that they either did not really live there (they claimed the guy with the key left earlier) or they were not the primary residents or that they only crashed there temporarily.

Inside, we found smoke and a bit of fire damage to a hall closet, lots of water and "gunk" on the floor, and two empty beds nor other furniture. The kitchen was dirty but barren of food. A clothes washer was half-full of green, smelly water. The occupants, who had come back in side by the time we looked around, were all lounging on the only furniture in the house: two recliners and a sofa. About the time we saw them, a woman arrived; she had been inside an ambulance outside, receiving treatment for smoke inhalation, but she was obviously OK by the time she came back in the house.

The leader explained that the agency's policies provided relief only for lost shelter, food, and clothing. He explained that the house was livable because there was only a litte bit of damage, and that there was no food that could be replaced and that the people obviously had some clothing (what they were wearing, I suppose). So, he said, the only thing we could provide would be some snacks and drinks. The occupants were not thrilled, but they seemed not to have expected much from us; they seemed (to me) to expect that no one would give them any real assistance.

I can't help but acknowledge that the victims of the fire may have been, and probably were, squatters. They had no money, no food, and no clothing other than what they wore on their backs and had wrapped around them. According to relief agency policy, they did not qualify for replacement food or clothing or shelter. But I felt like I was watching bureaucracy in action when I watched the team leader explain that we were unable to do any more than provide them with snacks and something to drink. I was tempted to reach into my wallet and give these people $50or $100 just so they could have a little bit of comfort. But I didn't. I was home and in bed just after 5:00 am, smelling of smoke but comfortable and warm and dry. When I got up later, my wife cooked bacon for me before I had to leave for a meeting.

The next call came about 15 minutes after I went to bed the next evening. Again, it was a house fire, but this time it was much closer to home, only about 12 miles away. And it was in a neighborhood that is undergoing a transition from small homes built in the 1940s to behemoth replacements built after the smaller homes have been razed.

The second call involved a duplex that had caught fire while the occupant, a renter, had been out of town but was on the way back. A neighbor called him to ask if his dog was with him; when the guy said it was, his neighbor said good, but your house is on hire. The damage at this place was more signficant, involving walls and the floor, which had been torn and sawed up by the fire department, making it impossible to get to the kitchen. The single guy who lived there said he could stay with friends that night and, since he had been traveling, had clothes with him. But he said he could use some help with food, since he had been saving his money for his move...his trip was to Colorado, the location to which he was arranging to move. Again, the team leader asked questions and essentially settled on not giving the guy anything, but he changed his mind and gave him a $50 debit card for food.

In private conversations afterward, the leader said the relief agency was in business to replace losses and get people on their feet, not to hand out money.

The victim's next door neighbor came out and asked for support, too. His place had some smoke odor, but nothing else. I had no problem with the decision to tell him "no."

One thing that struck me about these episodes was the enormity of the paperwork burden the relief agency places on volunteers' shoulders. While I understand the need to avoid abuse, the paperwork is akin to governmental bureaucracy on steroids.

Fortunately for me, the phone did not ring again on Sunday or Sunday night. I was afraid it would. I found I was emotionally jarred when the phone rang. I didn't want to hear it again. But after all was said and done, I wondered if this volunteerism is for me. I felt like my role would become one primarily of fighting off swindlers with volumes of rules. Do I want that? How else can I help people?

Hell, I'll just go back to dealing with my as-yet-unreturned and unreplaced car. I'm on the hook to drive the loaner at least until Thursday. Maybe then I'll get a replacement or push the button and insist on a check and the return of my old car.


bev said...

What happened to the new car? Did I miss out on something? As for the volunteerism - this particularly volunteer gig sounds rather demanding, and not in a nice way. If it were me, I'd be looking for something different that didn't involve driving around in the middle of the night. There are plenty of other ways to do good -- driving people to chemo appointments at hospitals, or delivering meals on wheels, or dozens of other things.

Springer Kneeblood said...

Hi, Bev. The new car...ahhh, the new car. The dealer picked it up the Monday after I bought it to take care of some paint blemishes. When it was being delivered back to me, the salesman sideswiped some high occupancy vehicle lane markers, scraping up the driver's side. We've been in a stand-off of sorts ever since. As for ways to do good, I'm with you. I delivered meals on wheels for awhile several years ago and it was a good thing. Maybe I should return to that. It felt useful and valuable.

Kathy Rogers said...

If you don't like it, don't do it. It sounds pretty unsatisfying. And tiring. Doesn't anything catch on fire before bedtime?