Shelter from the Winter

On September 15, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation sponsored a screening of the documentary American Winter. Through the stories of eight families, the documentary vividly shows how one lost job can cascade into depleted savings, utility shutoffs, eviction, homelessness, hunger, and profound hopelessness.

The film follows one woman visiting a food bank for the first time. As a worker places food in her basket, the woman breaks down crying. She explains that she’s never had to turn to a food bank before; the groceries will make a huge difference to her family. The worker hugs her, touches her hand, looks in her eyes. “You can help somebody another time,” the worker says.

You can help somebody another time. Around and between the structures that perpetuate poverty – low wages, underfunded social services, tax credits that help only the wealthiest – human connections thrive. In American Winter, family members reach out to each other, literally and figuratively. When one husband suggests his wife move out of state to live with her family rather than face eviction, she tells him that she loves him enough to live outside in a tent with him in the winter. “Now that’s love,” he responds, his eyes full of sadness and gratitude.

You can help somebody another time. A neighbor lets the family next door run an extension cord from his garage after their power gets shut off for nonpayment. A social services worker, herself a former client, helps a family get $900 in utility assistance. A friend shares food with a hungry classmate.

Inadequate health insurance, defaulted mortgages, unsympathetic landlords: as the American Winter families battle these sources of despair, the flickers of compassion around them offer tiny antidotes.

Lawyers working for the common good are not immune to the sense that the task of dismantling unjust systems is just too immense. When the work feels overwhelming – and it always does – we must remember the power of small mercies to restore an ounce of hope.

You can help somebody. We are given these opportunities daily. When someone on the streets holds out his hand for a dollar, you can give without judgment. You can see the shivering, shabbily-dressed woman in the coffee shop and buy her a hot cup of coffee without asking. You can give someone a ride to the grocery store or the food stamp office to save them time and bus fare. You can represent a client – multiple clients – for free, helping them escape unsafe homes and gain a measure of peace.

In America, we learn to feel a relentless sense of scarcity. We believe that we never have enough; we are convinced that other people are rich, not us. But if you are reading this now, you likely have a safe and clean home, with air conditioning and running water; you likely have a reliable car and more than enough money to pay your bills. You and I have enough. More importantly, we have enough to help somebody.

Toward the end of American Winter, a little boy looks steadily into the camera. We have seen him and his mother move from an unheated garage to a homeless shelter to, finally, transitional housing. “Some days are harder than others,” he says, “but I never lose hope.” By helping somebody, you and I can keep that ember glowing.