The plunge was one of the harder experiences I've had to go through in recent years. I saw such extremes in terms of behavior, interaction, and treatment towards the homeless population. The discrimination, the stares people give you, the humiliation, the condescention but also the kindness and respect and the human spirit. When I received food from a man and his wife early in the plunge, I was overwhelmed with relief and joy because I knew I was going to have something to eat that day. You also saw, however, the humiliating looks, and the feeling like you were "on stage" all of the time. I say this to mean that it felt like people looked at you, and judged you instantly in their minds based on your appearance and situation. Questions like "Why are you on the streets?", or "Why can't you get a job" surfaced in my mind. If it hadn't been for the nice people that took time to talk to me and give me whatever they could, I would have felt totally invisible.
One of the things you realize when you are out there is that you appreciate the little things. The twenty dollar donations are nice (I received two) but its when people buy you a meal or a snack that a personal connection and relationship develops. I felt like that person recognized me, and went out of his way to make sure I was okay and it was as simple as buying a salad at a local restaurant that most likely wasn't that expensive for him. I appreciated everything I received, and gave any left over money or food to people actually experiencing homelessness. I learned also to appreciate all of the often times unrecognized gifts we all receive every day such as food, clothing, shelter, and water. Having this experience has taught me, maybe more than anything, to be grateful and thankful.
I also learned that simple recognition, a good morning or a hello or even a smile, are ways to recognize the existence of people experiencing homelessness without giving them money. I also realized that as many of the tradtitional homelessness stereotypes that are true about select members of the homeless community, you can't generalize it to the population. Everybody has their own story, and for many like Steve from the National Coalition for Homelessness, alcohol and drugs were a way of relieving stress from his very difficult life. I don't believe one should assume though, that when you give money to a homeless person, you are funding a drug habit. That is not true in many cases I have learned on this trip.
The juxtaposition and the irony of all of this also stood out to me. Here we are, in the nation's capitol, and i saw people outside the Capitol building and the White House homeless, sleeping on the streets while the rest of DC is beautiful and affluent and bustling with new apartments and new attractions. I saw such wealth, such class, such beauty, such a world class city, but yet such extreme poverty and homelessness often times in the same place.
Homelessness can be solved, and can be eliminated, we just have to recognize it, and start listening and bringing a voice to the homeless community to instead of assuming as to how to solve it.