Lessons from the Kitchen
Harold Cox shares what he has learned about the power of compassion and listening while volunteering at a local shelter.
Harold Cox is an associate professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health. On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Cox will hold a Lunch & Learn session titled “Know Your Mass and Cass Neighborhood” for on-campus students. RSVP to attend.
Their preference is mayonnaise.
So on a recent Thursday evening, I passed out lots of packets of mayonnaise, salt, sugar, and mustard to the men passing by my station in the dining room at the homeless shelter. I volunteer there every Thursday as a meal server dishing up food with a smile and greeting.
It’s a small gesture of support for the unhoused population battling an ongoing crisis of crime, mental health challenges, and substance misuse—and a shortage of support and resources—around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as “Mass and Cass.”
Let’s be honest—the homelessness issue at Mass and Cass is a mess. I don’t know how it reached this point, and I’m uncertain about how it will be resolved. But what I do know is that it needs to be addressed.
In 2021, I wrote a viewpoint about the comings and goings of this population as I viewed them from my office window. But I wanted a closer view—I wanted to connect with the people walking by. So I decided to volunteer at the shelter.
When the shelter’s volunteer coordinator asked me what I wanted to do, I was clear to him that I didn’t want to engage in social service navigation, housing advocacy, public health education, strategic planning, or grant writing—things I am suited to do. I just wanted to help in a small way to get to know the people from the streets.
So he assigned me to the kitchen.
I confess I thought I would have deep and lingering conversations with the guests who come in for dinner. I planned on interviewing them, learning and hearing their stories, striking up friendships, and gaining insight into their experiences of homelessness. I wanted to get into their heads and learn firsthand about homelessness straight from the source.
But it didn’t work out that way. I learned quickly that people coming in from the streets to get a hot meal aren’t interested in deep and lingering conversations. They just want to sit down and eat. They don’t want to recount stories of hardship, drug use, or sexual assault to a stranger, albeit a good-natured one.
So I took a different approach. I decided to watch and observe.
Dinner starts at 4:30 p.m. People file in to pick up plates of food—broccoli, rice, beans, and chicken on one day, spaghetti with meat sauce and vegetable medley on another. There’s a long line of tired and hungry men, anxious to see what’s on the menu for the day.
The kitchen is managed by Miss China, who runs things with authority. She is forceful, direct, and caring. Everyone knows that when Miss China speaks, you listen and comply.
Most guests remain quiet during dinner, sitting at tables with 4-5 people. There are a few animated conversations among some groups of guests, but most keep to themselves. Occasionally, a few people return to my station to ask for extra tea bags or hot sauce. Some speak words, while others simply point to what they want before returning to their seats.
One Thursday, a man became upset because I wouldn’t give him an extra sandwich. Miss China’s rule was that no one should receive second servings until everyone has been fed.
“That’s ridiculous and makes no sense,” he snapped at me.
“I understand that this is frustrating and makes you angry,” I responded, using my best college-trained social worker speak.
“You don’t understand anything,” he snorted. “You don’t know nothing. Just shut up. Think about my life. I have to ask for everything—even for these stupid packets of mayonnaise, sugar and salt,” he shouted.
“You have no idea what my life is like,” he continued. “You have no idea what it is like to watch people turn their heads when you get too close to them. You have no idea of the indignity of not knowing where to go relieve yourself of urine and feces [he used harsher words]. Then, I come here and I have to ask for salt.
“Never tell me that you understand. You don’t.”
Miss China watched this exchange and then walked over, gently placed her hand on his waist, and guided him to a seat at one of the tables. He calmed down.
I took a deep breath and realized that, in that simple yet intense conversation, this man taught me a great deal about stigma, fear, and compassion. Most important, he taught me to talk less and listen more.
Miss China understood this. She knew exactly what to do to comfort and show respect to this man. There is so much to learn from her.
When I leave the dining hall after my shift, I’m always tired. Tired, but fueled with a new understanding, even if just a fraction, about the lives of those who live in the Mass and Cass territory.
Policymakers are working to tackle the problems in this area. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu claims that the people living on the streets will soon be gone. Whatever actions she takes, I hope she and others never forget to treat the people with dignity and respect.
BUSPH students often discuss wanting to study, conduct policy analyses, and design programs for specific populations. To that, I say bravo. Absolutely do that—but also take the time to get to know and understand the population you are studying. Engage with young, pregnant teenagers, people with HIV, caregivers of the elderly, or whichever population piques your interest. Learn about their plights, situations, and feelings. Good and effective public health programming always starts with this kind of respectful engagement and empathetic understanding.
Just make sure to follow the rule that I learned in the shelter’s kitchen: talk less and listen more.
Click here to register for the “Know Your Mass and Cass Neighborhood” Lunch & Learn from 1-2 p.m. on Sept. 27.