May 20, 2019

A lesson in listening

It was a cold summer day in Northern California when I had the opportunity to participate in Project Homeless Connect, a one-day program that occurs three to six times a year to assist veterans and others. While this project has been implemented in many places across the United States, I attended an event in the Veteran Center of San Francisco.

Project Homeless Connect provides important services, including medical treatments, haircuts, hearing checks, dentistry, massage and podiatry. Lunch was provided, and not only were groceries in ample supply, but recipients were provided with large bags to carry them. Volunteers worked at stands where these services were provided.

My day at Project Homeless Connect was a field trip during a three-week course on civic leadership, a program of the Center for Talented Youth run by Johns Hopkins University. Along with 75 other high school students, I stayed at San Francisco State University, learning about the root causes of social issues such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

Having been in Jewish day school for my entire elementary education, the emphasis of mitzvot (which can be defined both as good deeds to serve others and obligations) has stuck with me throughout middle and high school. Exploring efforts to reduce homelessness was in keeping with the Jewish values I strive to apply to my everyday life in ways that will benefit the world as a whole.

What I most liked about Project Homeless Connect was that it doesn’t just provide a place to stay for the night, but much more. Volunteers treated their “clients” as equals, a service that many of them seldom had experienced. My job was seemingly simple — to accompany clients from the entrance of the Veterans Building to various aid areas upstairs, depending upon their needs. In doing so, not only was I directing them and physically taking them upstairs (as some of them were in wheelchairs), but I got a chance to converse with them and hear their personal stories.

I was partnered with a woman who, before she even really met me, thanked me for just showing up as a volunteer. She was homeless in San Francisco and felt that she had nowhere to turn before she found Project Homeless Connect. As I walked her to the housing information stand, she displayed thorough delight that somebody was beside her to hear all that she had to say. It seemed as if very few people, or none, had bothered to listen to her full story.

She told me she had spent many years serving our country in the Navy. She left the military and eventually became poor and dismayed by what she had seen in war, and married a man who physically and mentally abused her. She did not have a job at the time, and when she finally gathered the strength and courage to leave him, she found herself homeless. She is currently looking for a job, and the services she received on the day of Project Homeless Veterans Connect gave her the basic resources she needs to get on her feet so that she can be in a better position to seek employment.

As this woman told me her enthralling story, she paused periodically to mention her appreciation for all God has given her. As we looked around us, we saw other veterans who had served their country proudly and now found themselves homeless and, in many cases, severely emotionally or physically disabled. The woman told me of how she felt their pain but was thankful that her situation was not as dire as those surrounding us. She reminded me that “every day that we live is a blessing by God” and even said that she wants to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect when she one day has a house, a job and some free time.

She inspired me to remember God in my everyday life and although she was not Jewish (I believe she was Catholic), her humble nature made me think of the 10th commandment given directly by God at Mount Sinai: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Instead of having envy for the people at the top of the social or economic ladder, she simply focused on God’s gifts given to her every day — things as uncomplicated as a smile from a stranger on the street, a hot meal from Project Homeless Connect or an attentive person to hear her story.

Ariel Cohen is a junior at the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to