Friday, March 23, 2012

Forty-Eight Hours of Homelessness

     As many of you have probably heard from various trip participants, one of the main events of this year's Homelessness in the Heart of our Country's trip was a 48 hour homeless challenge put on by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). From 4pm Monday, March 19 to 4pm Wednesday, March 21, we spent the days and nights on the streets of DC. The days were filled with WALKING, trying to find food, and trying to find a bathroom. The nights were filled with memories with our guides from NCH, sleeping on benches and the steps of buildings, and being waken up by the police at 5am.
   My experience on the streets of DC taught me a lot about myself, the city of Washington DC, the general public, and, obviously, homelessness. These are the highlights of what I learned from probably the most interesting 48 hours of my life:

1.     I am not qualified to be homeless. Living on the streets takes some serious skill: knowing which places serve meals, knowing when the meals are served, and knowing how to get to the places is not something one can easily figure out. And meal time is only one of many things homeless people have to think about on a daily basis. Furthermore, by Wednesday I was so exhausted that I did not want to get off of my butt and do ANYTHING. I was so tired of walking, so tired of not have a good night's sleep, and so tired of being dirty that I absolutely could not find the motivation within me to seek out the places that served food.

2.     After a few days of not showering, I smell. REALLY bad.

3.     Steve, who was formerly homeless and our NCH guide for the first night, informed us that the place we first slept (a bench on a sidewalk) was located in one of the "safest" places in DC, because it was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, the street that is covered with video cameras and federal security organizations. The bench that we slept on was surrounded by such buildings on every side (the FBI for example).

4.     Traditional gender norms that have been perpetuated by society (ie Male Privilege) are almost completely flipped in the world of homelessness. Men have no day centers, few places to eat, and few shelters set up specifically for males. On the flip side, women have several day centers and places to go to be off the street during the day, several shelters that are specifically for women, and places to eat that have separate rooms in which only the women can eat.

5.     I've perceived that there are two perspectives that one is subjected to during the homeless challenge. The first is the opinion of the general public, an opinion I thought much about and dreaded long before the challenge. I knew that once I was on the street, people would immediately start looking at me a different way and treating me a different way. The other perspective is one of the most profound things I took away from this experiences. The other perspective that I did not anticipate for the challenge was the perspective of the homeless population. I ignorantly never thought about what the homeless population would think of me when I attempted to blend into their community. Truthfully, the reactions I received from members of the homeless population were much more common and much more intense than those I received from the general public. I never thought about how I would possibly be invading their space and apparently so rudely be attempting to generalize their identity as homeless individuals. This realization of the looks I got from homeless individuals was a reality check for me: the homeless population was more humanized than ever.

6.     Since doing the challenge, I've found it much easier to make eye contact with people sitting on the side of the street asking for change or food. I've also found it much easier to smile and say, "Good Morning! How are you today?"

7.     Drivers in DC are among the most aggressive I have ever witnessed... they are GLUED to their horns.

8.     I am now closer to being an expert in which places have free bathrooms (you can guess how I've gained this status).

9.     Exhaustion + Dupont Circle = Dandelion jewelry.

10.    Steve Thomas (aka Big Daddy) and Andre Colter are probably two of the coolest people I have ever met.

11.    Homeless people have serious chess skills. Seriously. It's freaking intense.

12.    The US Senate is actually beginning to recognize the issues surrounding homelessness; while the rest of society still has yet to follow, I can only hope in a future of recognition and understanding of the issues that are homelessness.

13.    I learned this from Steve the first night: The top stereotypes surrounding the causes/faces of homelessness are: a) substance abuse, b) mental illness, c) laziness, d) uncleanliness. There are many people in the housed population that are: a) substance abusers, b) mentally ill, c) lazy, and d) unclean. So, Steve asked, why does homelessness exist?

14.    The police in DC do NOT care if you have had a good night's sleep or not. You ARE waking up at 5am, whether they have to bang their baton on the wall, yell in your ear, or clap in your face (I experienced the latter).

15.    During the entire challenge, I had the privilege of assuring myself that within a few days I would be able to sleep on a warm mattress located indoors, I would be able to take a shower and brush my teeth, and I would not have to worry where my next meal was coming from or where the hands that prepared it had been. Those who are homeless are not able to indulge in such luxuries; and after taking that first shower for the first time on Wednesday since Sunday, I fully realized the true value in a warm shower. I literally felt like a million dollars. I feel so sad that such small things that so many take for granted every single day can be such a far away dream for those without a home.

     Going home, one thing that I know that I can do to help out besides the obvious being aware of the issues and volunteering at service centers is keeping a list with me of shelters and locations to find food and how to get there. Homelessness in Saint Paul isn't very evident during the daytime, but if I encounter a homeless individual, I want to know that I will be able to provide him or her with a list of resources to make his or her hardship a little less painful, embarrassing, lonely, and miserable.    

     I encourage you all to reflect on what things you take for granted every day and learn to appreciate more the things that you do have. I know that I am thankful for every shower, nap, sleep, and meal that I have been given. I know that many live everyday without those luxuries, and I have learned (and am still learning) to appreciate my blessings and use my empathy and passions as a means to work towards a world without homelessness.

Until that world becomes a reality,


1 comment:

  1. I am so proud of you....and am so happy you sought out this opportunity. Without a doubt you are making a positive imprint in our country. Thanks to you and your friends for daring to make a difference!