By Stephan Sveshnikov
As a way to way to highlight DESK’s guests and their stories, we’ve invited Yale undergraduate students to interview some of our folks at dinner and contribute short essays based on those interactions. Our hope is not only to emphasize the human complexities behind hunger, poverty, and homelessness, but also to encourage two-way conversations between people who might not otherwise interact so readily. Our first contribution is from Stephan Sveshnikov, a graduating senior.—ed.
I arrive at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, taking the stairway down through the service entrance, only a few minutes before the guests arrive. The volunteers in the kitchen are busy laying out the food for the dinner. Opposite them, in the corner, are volunteers from the Hill Health Center. Steve Werlin and I chat for a few minutes, then he’s off, bustling with preparations.
As the guests file in, dinner is announced. Chicken, mixed grains, salad, bread, peaches, and yogurt. “Why is it so healthy?” pipes a voice from the back of the line. But that voice is quickly silenced by a few hungry “shhhs.” Steve invites one of the guests to give the prayer for the meal. It’s quick and short, straight and to the point. “Let it be for the nourishment of our spirits as well as our bodies,” he finishes, and “Amen’s” resound. With smiles and “thank you’s” the line starts to move towards the food.
Steve introduces me to Michael (at his request I only use his first name). He’s tan, with graying hair hidden by a black baseball cap, around forty years old. We have a connection, it turns out: his father was from Puerto Rico and mine recently moved there. We strike up a conversation.
He’s been coming to DESK for about ten years. “If it wasn’t for these churches people might be digging into garbage cans,” he tells me. Instead, he can come here for a hot dinner five nights a week. He is able to get breakfast and lunch at other places around the city. For now, he has enough to eat every day.
Growing up in Chicago, Michael had a hard life. He was in gangs, special ed, then sent to a boarding school in Connecticut. Finally he ended up living in a foster family. Michael never finished his high school diploma, though he says he’s working on it. He worked in the restaurant industry, which is where he would like to work again if he’s able to find work. In his free time he goes to the public library to check his email and search for jobs.
He’s been in New Haven a long time now. I ask him if he’s ever thought of leaving. He shakes his head.
“I’m happy here,” he says. “I have a lot of friends.” Together they watch movies or go bowling or bike riding, sometimes to the West Haven beach. After eleven months on the street, he was able to find housing, which means long-term stability.
He eats his food eagerly but carefully. When he’s done, there’s nothing left on the plate except a couple of chicken bones. Before we say goodbye, I ask Michael if there is anything he would want the whole world to know, if he could say it. “Life is good, life is what you make of it,” he says. “You only live life once, you know?”