I Get Mail, Therefore I Am.

Oct 22, 2013 | Updated Dec 22, 2013

A few weeks ago, one of the volunteers who staffs the check-in desk at our Drop-In Center (for people experiencing homelessness), tapped on the doorjamb near my desk. "A guy on the phone -- 'Luis' -- asked if we can send him his mail," he said. "The guy says it is really important."

"Sorry," I replied. "Bethesda Cares' policy is that we don't forward mail. We'll hold it for people, but we can't forward it. Luis has to come get it himself, or send someone with written authorization to pick it up," I finished. The volunteer nodded, went back to the phone.

I turned back to my work, but the volunteer was back within a moment. "He just got a job, the guy is finally working but it is during all the hours that we're open. He can't get here, and doesn't know who he could send. He says the mail has important ID stuff in it."

Well, crud. I understand why we don't forward mail for the 375 clients who currently use Bethesda Cares as their mailing address (liability, workload, cost), but Luis had recently got into housing and has a job. I didn't want to go against policy, but I didn't want to bust this guy's chops, either. The volunteer and I brainstormed for a moment, and we decided that Luis could send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and that I would get it back out to him, which is exactly what happened a few days later.

"No fixed address" is a euphemism, used by law enforcers, bureaucrats and other people with forms to fill out, when someone is living on a park bench. Obviously, no home means no mailing address. Having no mailing address pretty much stinks, both practically and emotionally.

Practically speaking, the fact is, if you are trying to (re-) enter society, you will have to (re-) create connections, paper trails, systems of interactions with large commercial and governmental entities. If you don't have a mailing address, this task is nearly impossible. While a lot of correspondence is now done on line, plenty of agencies processing crucial paperwork, like IDs and benefits information, still rely on the good old U.S. Postal Service. And where email would suffice, that's not always an option for people living unsheltered. Even a free email account is of no use to someone who a) has no idea how to use one; or b) has no access to a computer, no library card to let them log into a public terminal.

Emotionally speaking, having "no fixed address" must leave you feeling completely untethered. Maybe you have a bus stop you call "your own," in your mind, but you know fully well that that is not so. So in addition to helping people find housing, or -- short of that -- providing them with hot meals or pairs of dry socks, we give our clients our mailing address to use as their own, and hundreds of them do.

For some clients, checking their mail is something they do only sporadically; they aren't really expecting much. For others, though, coming in to ask our front-desk volunteer what has come in is an important weekly touchstone. It's a reason to come in to our safe space, where they know that someone will greet them, address them respectfully, offer some coffee and maybe ask how they are. For those clients, the routine of coming in to check for mail is a part of what anchors them to "the outside world." It's an excuse to give structure to an otherwise amorphous existence.

I'm well aware that our office mailing address is a sorry substitute for a home address. But at least it's a place where someone living on the streets can tell someone, anyone, where and how to find them.