Friday, March 25, 2016

Plunge Reflection- Isabel Miller

I was very scared for this challenge. I couldn't believe that I had signed up for something as seemingly crazy as this. How would I stay safe? What if I couldn't find anything to eat?
But I'll tell you something; it all turned out okay. For the better even. It was a challenge worth doing, because however small, it was a window into how people experiencing homelessness live and feel, and how other people treat them.
I learned so much that I could never have guessed otherwise. It was a revelation that McDonald's could be such a haven, as a warm place with filling, warm food and an easily accessible bathroom. I was surprised at how much it hurts when a man pulls his daughter closer to him in response to your cardboard sign asking for help.
Anyway, I should probably start at the beginning. For the first day I was paired with a guy named Andrew, hands down one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. I was excited to get to know him better, and happy that I was paired with a man, because it made me feel a lot safer in wandering the streets of Washington D.C. We came to the National Coalition for Homelessness, where we were starting, with the clothes on our back, one phone per pair (though it was off and only used for emergencies), and trepidation. We left with the instructions to experience as much as we could and two blankets in a black trash bag to be used at night.
My Gucci Purse for two days
One of the hardest things to deal with, not only at the start, but throughout, was to decide what to do. There was no structure, no classes, not even a knowledge of what time it was unless you asked someone. I've never felt so keenly the idea of killing time. It's like you're trying to force the day to go faster so that you can escape the drudgery, stares and uncertainty, but you also fear the night and the cold. So you try, at least in your own head, to kill the concept of time, and simply get through the moment, and figure out how to be okay.
So, even though we were at a loss, and didn't know the city, we decided to start towards the main hub of downtown, to really dive in and experience homelessness. Also to try and find food. Unfortunately, we immediately went the wrong way. Whoops! We managed to find our way to the Vatican Embassy, which as a Catholic I got super excited about, but they were closed because it was Sunday. It was still quite exciting, but also interesting because I think both Andrew and I were unsure of how we would be received as two homeless people wandering into an embassy, even that of the Vatican. Andrew asked if he should stay back with the trash bags, and it hit me even then how hard it is to constantly feel unsure if you are welcome, or wanted. To be homeless felt like constantly being a source of shame to the people around you, like your existence was uncomfortable to them, and it would be easier if you were gone. I'd never experienced that before, but it only continued and grew as the challenge proceeded.
We went here!
Eventually, Andrew and I made our way further into the city and away from the Embassies, and by God's grace and a stroke of luck, we found a park where they were passing out bagged lunches to those who were experiencing homelessness. It seemed like a church group, and they'd written positive affirmations and encouraging messages on the bag and on post-its with the lunch, which I remembered doing with my own church groups. It was surprising how quickly my normal sense of pickiness about what I ate disappeared, even in one day, because I knew that this might be the only food I ate that day, so I scarfed down my something and mayo sandwich on white bread quite happily. The water bottles in the bags were a Godsend too, because we had no other way to stay hydrated till that point. We continued to carry those bad boys around the rest of the Plunge, and refill them when we could, which was surprisingly scarce.
Andrew and I walked and talked, and tried to talk to some people experiencing homelessness, which was beautiful in how helpful they were and how much they wanted to help. We tried to find our way around the city, and tried to scout out anything that might be helpful, like cardboard or barely touched food in the trashcans.
I definitely became a hoarder throughout the experience, trying to use the most out of every resource I could find because I didn't know when I'd get another one. What's so easily disposable when you know you have resources becomes inestimably important when it might be the only one you get for a long time. For example we found two cups rolling around, and though I would never have touched them normally, we grabbed them and carried them around with us, using them to hold things, to panhandle, to prop up boxes, etc.
One thing that I was struck by almost immediately was the very great pleasure of knowing you'd have somewhere to take off your shoes at night, somewhere to take your coat off and not have to carry it around or be scared that it would be stolen. I had never thought of that before, but with how much my feet hurt, I couldn't think of anything but taking my shoes off at night, but I knew I wouldn't be able to.
It's the small things. 
Once we found some good cardboard, Andrew and I made ourselves a nice sign, explaining that we needed money for food and for bus tickets home, since our cover story was that we were cousins, had come with our last money thinking that we had a relative here, but they were gone and we were stranded. It explained why we didn't know the city, and sounded plausible. It also explained why people probably wouldn't see us again. But I digress.
We made our sign on a box, found a nice spot next to the museum of Women in Art, and began to panhandle. Two young kids asking for money for food; you'd think we'd get sympathy, concern, at least an "Are you okay?". Nope.
Okay, well sometimes. There were a few people who were so exceptionally kind that it made me feel like the world really is a beautiful place. But there were an astonishing majority of people who so intently ignored us, even when we made an effort to speak to them, who made it clear that to them we didn't exist, that it sometimes made me genuinely worry that I'd gone mute and just somehow not noticed it. I wanted to weep with the weight of people's apathy and uncomfortableness with the two of us. Eventually we made a sign in addition to the original that said "Even a smile would help". We got two people out of the hundreds that passed us that made an effort to smile at us and pointed to the sign. Of course, there were others that helped, and were kind, but it was astounding how much a smile or a hello back meant, even when they had nothing more for us.
At the 48 hour reflection when we wrapped up (I know I'm jumping ahead!), one of our guides, who had himself experienced homelessness, talked about how many people say that they don't know what to do when they see someone out on the street. I myself have been one of those people. I am ashamed to say that I have walked past people, afraid that if they saw me seeing them, they'd want something from me. But this guide said, "It's not rocket science. You say hi. You smile". I'm paraphrasing, but I think this is vitally important. It's not hard. It's as simple as doing what we've been taught since kindergarten; say hi and treat them like a person. Be open to seeing them as people. Even if you can't give money, you can give love and dignity. You have that power, and it makes such a difference.
See? It's super easy to smile!
We panhandled for two hours across the street from a church with a clock tower on it, and made nine dollars (I think). It was cold and windy, and kind of depressing. Except that there were moments and people who made it beautiful, and broke the mold. When you are homeless, I think that you see the very worst, the apathy and fear, of people, but you also see the very best. The love, the generosity, and the genuine care about other people. It doesn't seem as strange to me anymore that people experiencing homelessness can believe so deeply in the good of the world still, because they see it every day, along with the worst. But at least for me, the good shone through even more, contrary to most things in life. There was no pattern to people who helped us, but I appreciated all of them.
However, one man in particular stands out from the panhandling that we did. He came up to us and said, "I don't have any cash, but I can buy you a meal." We were surprised, at least I was, but we were hungry, and so we said sure. We went to the McDonald's right near our corner, and he just said, "Get whatever you want". So I tried to get two hamburgers and a small fry, and he immediately said, "No, get two large fries, just double everything. And do you want a drink?". I had felt so small, and I wanted to make sure I didn't take advantage, but he made me feel so human and so loved. He ended up getting two large coffees, two large fries and two burgers. Even further, I noticed that it cost him $14 dollars to do all that. That's one meal at Noodles.  That's not even a book at Barnes & Noble. But it made me feel so loved, so seen, that it was priceless to me. I was floored that it was so easy, but so powerful, and I'd never done it. It was amazing, and humbling. I will always be thankful for that man, and he touched my heart by his random act of kindness even more than I think he'll ever know. The kindness struck even more than the ignoring and the outright rudeness.
Andrew and I ate the wonderfully warm food, we panhandled some more, gave away one of the fries, and one of the coffees to those who were actually homeless, and then we moved on, trying to stay warm and see the city. Because our sign was a box, we carried that around with us. How to explain the shame and self-conciousness that comes with literally carrying the embodiment of our homelessness on that day? Before that, people could only guess, but when we had that box, it was painfully clear who and what we were. When we got the Lincoln Memorial, neither of us wanted to go in, because we knew the stares that we'd get, that we'd already been getting. Later, it occurred to me that it was a little bit like carrying the cross. The humiliation, the stares, the alienation. It was a poetic metaphor for the stigma of homelessness, though at the moment, it only felt like a sore put in the spotlight.
For the purposes of time and sleep tonight, I won't go into every specific of what we did that day, but the events and ideas that I've highlighted encapsulated a lot of it. There was unexpected kindness and tenderness, and the opposite from many surprising sources. That night, we slept under the awning of a Macy's entrance, since it was set to rain/snow that evening. We as a group of six (having met at predetermined park), found our cardboard and huddled together in the night. None of us slept well and it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even when faced together.

We were tired, we are a little less cold because the day was nicer, and our feet hurt. At least mine definitely did. For the second day, I was paired with Aria, yet another person I had really wanted to get to know, so I was happy to be paired with her. I was also asked to give my phone to another pair, because otherwise they wouldn't have one, and since we would have had two, I agreed. I think that was God's way of taking my safety blanket and saying "You're going to be okay. Just trust me. Really be in this experience.". It turned out to be a good thing, I think, and I'm glad that everything worked out how it did.
First, Aria and I went to S.O.M.E, which stands for "So Others Might Eat", which serves a ton of people food everyday. It was so good to get warm food, and sit down at a real table, cafeteria style or no. But because of how many people they served, it didn't really feel all that human. It was like a manufacturing line, but everyone's surly and distrustful of one another. It felt a little bit like being herded like cattle. We were advised by the staff to keep our belongings close, and even though they tried to separate men and women by table, it soon become diverse across every table. Also, there was a man who was upset that our cookies were bigger than ours. We had "connections" it was suggested. Or, you know, randomly bigger cookies.
The Cookie Guy
Anyway, both Aria and I were pretty tired from the ridiculously long walk to SOME (and the getting lost), and so when we bumped into the National Guard Museum, we decided to check it out. 
Apparently, it's not a super well trafficked museum, so for most of the time, we were the only ones in there. So when I came to a row of cushy benches, I accidentally fell asleep, holding our bags and metaphorically snoring. I say this not so you can judge me for sleeping in a museum, which I would normally never do, but so that you can see the toll being homeless takes, even after a day. You turn on survival mode, where you take any and every opportunity to sleep in a warm, safe space, even if it's only for twenty minutes. There's the shame, but also the necessity, and the fact that quiet and safe places were hard to come by. Moments in the bathroom anywhere were precious because they were private, unlike the majority of moments on the street. 
Aria and I visited the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, saw where Congress meets (and where they grow Narcissus plants, lol!), and tried to rest our ridiculously tired feet wherever and whenever we can. Similar to the first day, we encountered the kindness and apathy of strangers in a very tangible way when we panhandled, trying to figure out dinner for the night. Interestingly enough, Aria and I panhandling for half an hour made the same amount as Andrew and I panhandling for two hours. A very, very nice man with his family gave us the leftovers of their meal at an Italian restaurant, and that's what Aria and I shared for dinner that night. When we tried to give some of the money we had collected to a woman who was tucked into a cranny, obviously living on the streets, she refused, saying that she had seen us panhandling and didn't want us to suffer. 
In order to use the restroom, we bought two small hot chocolates at Starbucks, which was $6 of the $9 we had made. Six dollars seem like far more when you have so little. Luckily, someone earlier had been kind and given us ten dollars in addition to the 9 made panhandling, so we were okay. Nonetheless...
All in all, we had a good day, and I really, really appreciated having Aria as my partner. That night we slept in a park and felt the awfulness of not bunching together, and the continual cold. I honestly cannot fathom how people can function after such an awful night's sleep every night. It is amazing that they do anything but try to warm up all day. 

Walking, finding, surviving, and holding on was really the essence of my experience, and I'm so glad that I had it, even though aspects of it were quite difficult, because I feel like I can understand a minuscule bit of what it is to be homeless. I can see someone on the street and not fear, only think what would I want them to do? I feel empowered to say hi, to engage and interact. I know that even if you drop me in a completely unknown city, God will take care of me and I will be okay. I know that people, all people, even those who ignored me and others, are beautiful and important, and I know that I want to treat them that way whenever I can. I've learned all this and more, and as  I grow and continue in this life, this experience can help shape the ways in which I interact, and the importance I put on homelessness as a social ill that needs to be remedied. 

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