Reflection on Hope
The 48 hour homelessness plunge was a heart-wrenching and exhausting experience. The way I can best describe it is that my heart has expanded greatly, but all the space that it's grown is empty space still waiting to be filled. I feel honestly discouraged, confused, and overwhelmed. My lack of knowledge and understanding has been further confirmed. It humbles me, but I try to remain hopeful because I have seen hopeful people doing such good here. Our two guides from the National Coalition for the Homeless are people that have experienced homelessness and now work to help others. If they keep their heads up and continue to work with grace and perseverance, then I must too.
We use one massive term, "homelessness", to describe thousands and thousands of individuals, grouping them into this one label. The thing about homelessness is that it is not a class of people. There are people from so many different paths and stories. Some of us felt a bit uneasy about making up a story for ourselves and our partner for why we were homeless, but our guide had the perfect words to put us at ease: "Remember that whatever story you are embodying, it is someone's story. Someone out there is living what you are describing in your story." We were encouraged to soak that in and feel the weight of our own stories that we created.
Early on my first day, Isabel and I stopped to hang out with a homeless man at a park. He was telling us some of his story and he asked about ours. One question he asked was, "Were you in college?" I froze in panic because I wasn't sure if I was allowed to have gone to college if I was experiencing homelessness. That panic told a lot about my assumptions. Internally I had an idea of what a "legitimate" story for a homeless person was. But there is not one story that is more legitimate than another! Sadly the average passerby is skeptical and tries to make a judgement of whether the person asking them for money is suffering legitimately enough to warrant a bit of their change. Ugh. Putting that to words makes me feel sick inside. We know nothing. Our skepticism, ironically, actually forces panhandlers to tamper their stories in ways so as to incite peoples' sympathy and giving. Later on in the plunge, I met a man who had been in college and was two semesters away from getting his degree in design when his roommate screwed him over, running off with practically all his money and having not paid a dime of the downpayment for the place they were staying. There is also a man here in DC living on the streets with a PHD.
So yes, people are allowed to have the stories that they do, be truly homeless, and be treated like real people.
Intersectionality of Oppression and Priviledge
The other thing that I wanted to share from my experience is a realization that makes me very uncomfortable. On the second day I was sitting with my partner, Kaele. I wondered about how much of an effect my other visible identities affected how people saw me and responded to me being on the streets. I am a young, somewhat fresh looking, white man. Furthermore, Kaele is a young, fresh looking, white woman. At one point of the second day (in response to some advice given by another person experiencing homelessness), we had Kaele panhandle by herself. She made $60 in an hour. I can't help but wonder if maybe people make the assumption that she is just on the streets by some awful luck or misfortune. And I wonder if when people look at an older black man who seems to have been on the streets for a long time, if they make different assumptions. This leads me to another observation--why are the people experiencing homelessness so disproportionally black? Almost all of the people that we have seen on the streets here in DC have been black males. And at all the places that we volunteered later on in the week, the majority of the clients that we served were black. Our guides at the National Coalition for Homelessness talked about how a lot of other social justice issues intersect and react to result in homelessness. I can't help but notice that race and racism must be important factors in the conversation of homelessness. Our campus colleague, Lacey, made a point in reflection one night that maybe homelessness would not be such an under-considered issue if it were more of a white problem. Maybe she is right. It hurts my mind and my heart. The best thing I can do, though, is not brush it aside. So I plan on continuing to be confused and uncomfortable as I try to learn more.
To end my reflection, I want to give rise to one of the most encouraging things that I noticed on the plunge. An honest, no-bullshit, human-to-human conversation can be a powerful force in someone's day. A smile, a good handshake, a "good to see you!", a laugh, a look in the eyes, or some playful banter can be like sunshine to someone. As my friend Aria perfectly put it, "As long as you have kind words, you are never empty-handed".