Nate, a homeless man from San Francisco, with Ursuline High students Elissa Maloney, left, and Elisa Vargas during Project Homeless Connect on Dec. 8, 2010, in San Francisco.

By ELISSA MALONEY
URSULINE HIGH SCHOOL, JUNIOR, 16

Dec. 8, 2010 started out as a normal day for me. I planned on going to San Francisco to help homeless people, but I never thought my life could be so strongly affected in such a short time.
San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect was created in 2004 to serve homeless people, and the organization since has been duplicated in more than 200 countries. Essentially, PHC is a bi-monthly event where services to help people are brought together under one roof to make it easier for less fortunate people to access the help they need to survive. My English teacher at Ursuline High, Jennifer Gray, has been participating in PHC for many years. Every year, she allows approximately 100 to 150 students to volunteer with her.
We arrived early in the morning and listened to the mayor speak before heading to our work stations. We paired up with a friend and were assigned jobs; mine was “Client Escort.” My partner and I escorted a lovely man named Nate to his appointments. At first, Nate was very quiet and reserved. It wasn’t until we arrived at the DMV booth to get him a California ID card that he began to let his guard down. While waiting in line, my partner and I introduced ourselves to everyone around us, making sure that we introduced Nate as our client. As we waited in line, we decided to make up rap songs about going to the grocery store and spending our dough. At this, Nate couldn’t help but laugh. When it came time for Nate to get his picture taken for his ID, my partner and I ran behind the camera man and jumped up and down, which left Nate with no choice other than to smile for his picture.
Over the course of the day, the facilities at Project Homeless Connect provided Nate with a voicemail, reading books, eye glasses, a tuberculosis test, groceries and lunch. Even though these things may seem minor to many who can afford them, they mean the world to those who cannot. Although it may seem as though Nate had little to be thankful for considering his financial situation, he was extremely grateful for all the help he received at Project Homeless Connect.
Toward the end of the day, when Nate and I felt that we could trust each other, I asked Nate about his past. He had mentioned earlier in the day that he had served in the Navy for 17 years. It wasn’t until we were waiting in line at the vision booth that I inquired about what had happened to his left eye, which no longer functioned. He told me that his Humvee had blown up when his unit accidentally drove into a mine field. This completely caught me off guard. Nate said it as though it didn’t bother him anymore, but I could tell that his service as well as the explosion had scarred him for life, both physically and emotionally. I cannot understand how someone can devote almost 20 years of their life to serving and protecting the United States, get irreversibly scarred in the process and still end up homeless on the streets. I was surprised to later learn that homeless vets are 25 percent of the homeless population in America. I think that veterans should be the first people we take care of, considering the fact that they risk their lives to ensure no harm comes to their fellow Americans back home.
On Dec. 8, 2010, I got to love people who don’t usually feel loved. I know that in a few weeks, when Nate gets his ID, his smile in the picture will remind him of my partner and I and the great day we had together. That day, I learned the importance or looking someone square in the eye and shaking their hand with a firm grip, no matter what they looked or smelled like. Homeless people deserve every bit as much respect as any other hard-working American. Just because someone is homeless does not mean they do not deserve to be loved and cared for. I know for a fact that any man or woman who has served in the U.S. military deserves my respect and will receive it. Project Homeless Connect provides for people like Nate, people who have made their country proud and deserve proper care.
I hope Nate never forgets me, because I know that I will never forget him.