I step in quickly. It is never easy to control a milieu of more than two hundred homeless people, despite my years of experience in doing crowd control. Heated arguments break out frequently, often over something as little as who jostled whom with the elbow, or who cut into the line, and must be broken up before they devolve into fistfights.
“I understand,” I say gently, “No wonder you’re frustrated, you’ve been waiting so long for your food parcel”, pulling an enraged man to the side with a practiced air. And I do understand. To the destitute people who live on the streets of Camden, NJ, a dangerous and poverty-stricken neighborhood that boasted the third highest murder rate in the US in 2018, the food parcels that my organization doles out weekly can make the difference between starving and surviving another week.
By allotting almost every Saturday morning of the last three years to distributing aid parcels in Camden, come rain or sunshine, I have learned more than just giving out food. It is true that this is a dangerous and mostly thankless task, as the supply of the parcels is always limited, and the homeless who waited for hours in line and didn’t receive anything may sometimes turn belligerent. However, this also taught me how to be patient and calm even when dealing with openly hostile people, and how to de-escalate a tense situation and to peacefully resolve conflicts. It has also taught me how to keep my wits in emergency situations, as I was responsible for the safety of the volunteers who worked with me as well as that of myself.