There were times during Urban Plunge when I wanted to say, “okay, this is enough. I give up, I don’t want to do this anymore.” I wanted to shower, I wanted to sit, I wanted a cup of tea and I wanted solitude. I didn’t want to wander around the city streets anymore; I just wanted to rest.
Then I realized that that was the point, and it was only a glimpse. We only scratched the surface of homelessness.
We heard stories, we walked through cold rain for miles, and we waited outside until we were allowed to eat. We got turned away from bathrooms because you have to buy something in order to use the restroom at 90% of the places we went to. We saw drug deals go down. We saw people selling individual cigarettes outside shelters. We saw people asking for money. We saw people sleeping in doorways or on benches. We saw so much.
And to some degree, we experienced. The degree to which we experienced the everyday life of a homeless person is as far as I want to go. It was hard. It sucked being constantly surrounded by people when you just want peace and rest. It sucked trying to figure out where we were supposed to go when it was cold and raining and my feet hurt and the library was closed.
But the discomfort I experienced pales in comparison to what my friend Michael faces everyday. It pales in comparison to D asking for us to bring an extra blanket for his mom if we have one. It pales in comparison to the thousands of people who rely on food banks and shelters and rehab facilities. It pales in comparison to the overwhelming loneliness of Steve or Will or Carlile.
Urban Plunge taught me more than I could have anticipated. I went in with almost no expectations. I knew I would have to get out of my comfort zone more than usual, and oh how quickly that happened. I left SPU with its population of 80% females and went to Bread of Life Mission for dinner on Friday night where I was one of three women in the entire building. I had not mentally prepared for this. I knew that my clean clothes and face, and my bright blue jacket would cause me to stand out, but I hadn’t even thought of gender. I didn’t realize just to what degree I would stand out. My team members, Peter and Virmel, were both men who despite their cleaner clothes and nicely quaffed hair were more capable of blending in. I couldn’t help but feel isolated from the get go. And it only kept happening.
And yet despite the inevitable isolation and the loneliness of many of the people I met and passed by, we were able to find glimpses of community and family within the homeless culture. The second day, Saturday, we went to an outdoor meal site underneath a bridge. We sat on a curb waiting in line to be let in to get a hot meal at 2 in the afternoon when a man around the age of my father approached and asked me if I wanted coffee. I was cold, tired, and suffering a headache due to lack of caffeine, so naturally I said yes. He proceeded to sit next to me and tell me about his daughters, and his life, and ask me questions. His name was Lorenzo and he was the first person I had met by myself who was open to talking and sharing and wanted to ask about me. He told me about a church I could go to for lunch the next day and treated me as if I were his newly adopted daughter.
So then the next day when we saw him again, he introduced me to someone as his “step-daughter” and I was in awe. I didn’t know how to react to my new family, but I felt so loved and accepted in such a short period of time. One of the other Plunge groups met him as well, and thank goodness. On the last full day of Plunge I wanted so badly to find this new friend of mine but I couldn’t. But luckily, they ate dinner with him and told him about my unending caffeine headache, and his immediate response was giving them a small jar of coffee grounds and a note for me. I was cared for. I was accepted. I was loved like a daughter and I was nearly brought to tears when they gave me this gift. My heart was so full, and my life had been changed.
But despite this wonderful new friend, and many of the kind people I met who shared their few belongings with my team and I, my heart was bothered by so much. There were two very specific people I met who challenged me more than anyone else.
The first was Steve. Steve was 70 years old and we met him at about seven at night by Lake Union. When we first explained Urban Plunge to him, he was bitterly condescending. He laughed at us and didn’t want to share his story. I told him we wanted to talk to him about anything and his response was “yeah…and what? What church are you from?” but we weren’t from a church. We didn’t want to shove a pamphlet in his face, we wanted to talk to him and learn from him. After about half an hour of being told we would never understand, he changed the subject and talked about music, books, coffee, boats, and all sorts of things. He hardly broke eye contact with me for the greater part of an hour and a half, and I just listened. It was all I could do. Before leaving, Peter asked him for a bit of advice, after a slightly sarcastic response Steve said, “be careful, look out for yourself, and pay attention to your surroundings.” And later that night, my heart broke. When was the last time someone sat and just listened and just let him talk? How many other people passed him by without caring? How many stories does he have to tell that I didn’t even get to hear? How much wisdom would he have to share with more people who just haven’t asked?
The second person who challenged me was Michael. I met him at the Millionair Club where my team and I ate lunch on the last full day of Plunge. He knew I wasn’t homeless despite the fact that I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth in days. He just knew. Once again, I didn’t fit in, and once again I was one of few females. But he asked me about my experience. At this point I felt like I had been learning a lot and was feeling pretty good about the day ahead of me. I told him that the experience so far had been really eye opening and he shook his head and said, “okay that’s great, but what are you going to do with all this new found knowledge?” I admitted that I was unsure and asked what he suggested. His response: “Advocate. You have a voice, so use it. No one is going to listen to us, but you’ve sat and listened to people, you say you’ve learned so much. Do some research and advocate. Speak up for us because we can’t.” I was utterly speechless. We talked for about an hour after this before he left but I couldn’t forget what he said if I tried.
Advocate. Research. Speak up.
I can’t sit here silently but I also have no idea where I can start. My heart is bothered. And I am blogging. Because I’m hoping that whoever may read these words of mine will remember that the homeless are human too. And instead of sitting silently, we need to say something, to do something, to be the change, not just acknowledge the problem. Because not every homeless person falls into the stereotype of drug addict or alcoholic, I met plenty of people who didn’t want to be homeless, who weren’t addicted to hard drugs. They didn’t ask for this, so why do we have the audacity to blame them for it? And who are we to judge? People are people and that goes for homeless people too.