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Jane Hess Collins
By Jane Hess Collins
Posted on Mar 23,2011
Filed Under News , Community,


Photo by FLICKR/30538672@N06/5164287632/<br /><br />A homeless man takes refuge at a church. <br />
Photo by FLICKR/30538672@N06/5164287632/
A homeless man takes refuge at a church.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - I was really looking forward sleeping on the floor of a church in Alexandria last Wednesday night.

That church serves as an overflow hypothermia shelter, and husband and I had volunteered, for the second year, to spend the night there. Instead, we had to sleep in our bed at home.

When we volunteered for this last year, I did so grudgingly. My I-can-sleep-anywhere days ended in my twenties and now I complain if a hotel doesn’t offer room service.

Nonetheless, 10 men arrived at the church last year around 8 p.m., having already showered and eaten dinner at the shelter. Each of them had stayed at the church before and knew what to do. They signed in, took a blanket and pillow, and placed them in a pew or in an aisle as a placeholder to mark their sleep spot. Then they sat in front of a small television in the back room next to a table of coffee and Girl Scout cookies and we all watched reruns of “The A Team.”

As we talked with them I was intrigued by their stories.

One guy professed to be a chess whiz, and after cluing me in on a few high-level strategies, I am convinced that he was. A few of them had served in Vietnam. One earned a college basketball scholarship offer. But the guy I remember most was the one who asked me, tears streaming down his face, why God had done this to him. He had lived a decent life, he said. He’d never been dishonest with anyone. Now he was homeless and nearly blind.

I had no answer.

No one tried to sneak out, start a fight or behave like any of those bad stereotypes I had convinced myself would happen. They just wanted a place to sleep. By 10 p.m. the lights were out and everyone settled in for the night. Mike and I took turns sleeping in four-hour shifts. I checked the sacristy a few times during my 2 a.m. – 6 a.m. patrol. All was quiet.

The day laborers asked me to wake them at 5 a.m., and everyone else was up and out before 6 a.m. We collected the bedding, gave them a McDonald’s voucher and a bus token. I didn’t know what they would do for the next 14 hours until they returned to the shelter for the night.  

But no one came this year. As my husband and I waited by the piles of bedding, discussing who would sleep first, a social worker stopped by the church to tell us that that the shelter could accommodate all of the homeless that evening. We could go home.

I was happy to sleep in my own bed that night. I was even happier that those men would sleep in a bed and not in a church pew or on the floor.

But I really wanted to get to know them.

Get out and give back.

Jane Hess Collins of Old Town helps and encourages people to give back through her writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. She also established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at

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