Dubuque Associate Billie Greenwood Shares Her Heartbreak

17 Feb, 2019
How This Work Breaks My Heart (and Why That Is Good)

by Billie Greenwood

Billie Greenwood has volunteered for Humility Homes and Services assisting persons experiencing homelessness for over a decade. And, each winter, she and her husband help in a migrant assistance center in Nogales, Sonora—next to the US-Mexico border wall. She was asked: How is combatting homelessness in Iowa like providing humanitarian relief on the border?

People with no base-with no home-are the world’s most vulnerable people. “Home base” names the importance of a site you can safely live and work from. Without a home-whether living homeless in the Quad Cities or fleeing far from home searching for a new one in migration-support structures vanish.

A decade of volunteering with these populations of people has broken my heart. And that’s a good thing. Because, it teaches me every day, if I pay attention. Here on the border, I experience:

Grace under pressure:
I overhear a deported husband reassure his U.S. wife on the cellphone I provide “they’re treating me very well here” at the migrant assistance center. He’s lonely and facing the unknown. But, through his reassurances, he tries to shield her from worry. When he returns the phone after his call, his eyes are wet as he thanks me.

Reality from insider sources:
After giving young deported women used clothing to supplement the little they have, I inquire about the conditions in immigration detention. My nation fed them food that gave them upset stomachs and allowed no medical treatment for their issues.

A woman asks for a pair of shoes because hers are “smelly.” While exchanging them for one of our donated pairs, I discover she’d been walking in shoes two sizes too small. She’ll lose her toenail soon to a painful toe blister. Yet she didn’t complain that her shoes didn’t fit.

Raw Courage:
An indigenous woman in traditional garb is four feet tall, looks 80 years old, and can’t speak Spanish let alone English. She carries one Guatemalan baby on her back and leads another toddler by the hand. Criminals assassinated the children’s mother. So this tiny heroine stepped in to get the kids to safety. They’ll plead for U.S. asylum.

Ask the Humility Homes service providers what they learn on the job. They’ll tell you similar, Midwest-flavored stories. Assisting people without homes in the Quad Cities of IA/IL:

  • You’re inspired by kindness and generositywhen someone with nothing shares what little they have.
  • You see true grit when a child living in temporary housing or in a motel room still manages to succeed at school.
  • You note the patience it takes to live in close quarters with someone who’s suffering from a psychosis.
  • You realize: Six unrelated adults bunking together in one tiny room defines tolerance.

Search “homeless” on Twitter and you quickly see that people’s attitudes toward those who lack homes range from distaste through dismay to derision. Scan the news and quickly see that migrants are feared and hated. But across the last decade my experience has been the opposite.

Whether volunteering in homelessness issues in Iowa or migration issues in Mexico, the situations I see break my heart. Every person deserves a home base and no one should be forced to migrate.

Whether in Iowa or in Mexico, I’m blessed by the humble teachers I try to help—if I get over myself, listen and learn from them.