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Lessons learned in becoming invisible

 Street Sense (USA) 24 January 2019

Following the suggestions of the organizers of the Homeless Challenge, I had gone for five days without a shower before I arrived in Washington. I also had a dull headache brought on by my caked layers of filth and stench. And I was already suffering from self-consciousness. (1642 Words) - By Pete Danelski

Street Sense_ Homeless challenge

Student, Laura, Panhandling in the streets on Washington DC while doing the 48 hour homeless challenge. Photo: Jane Cave, Street Sense

This was all before the 48-hour Homeless Challenge even began. While my fellow students and I tried to make light of the situation, there was nervous tension about what would come.

The introduction we received when arriving at the National Coalition for the Homeless headquarters further intimidated me, not by anything the formerly homeless guides told us, but more by what they didn't tell us. We were provided only with a meeting time and place before we were paired up and relinquished to Washington, D.C.'s streets. Standing there on the corner of some strangely lettered and numbered intersection, an overwhelming powerlessness washed over me. I began to realize how little I really knew. Attending a Philadelphia public high school provided me with a basic knowledge of a standard city grid, but the nation's capital city layout all at once rendered me helpless. This apparent abandonment marked the beginning of my 48-hour journey into homelessness.

Already feeling detached, my partner and I headed toward the Georgetown area, in hopes of finding college students, to whom we could relate, at least in age. We also set out to try our hands at panhandling during this time. The two hours we spent asking around for change hurt in a way I never before felt. People ignored us when we asked them directly. One woman very literally ran indoors as we approached. The reactions I received from men, women, boys and  girls of all ages, skin colors and ethnicities instilled in me a feeling of degradation I never knew could exist within a human being. Rejection and blatant rudeness from my own generation stung particularly hard. On any other day I could very well be flirting with these girls or joking around with the guys we encountered, but now not one fellow college student would acknowledge our existence. These were my peers, and their behaviors forced me to question and analyze my own. Being brushed off in this manner all at once left me feeling hurt and unworthy.

When a few generous souls finally allotted us some pocket change, I felt rich and grateful, as if I owed some lifelong debt.

By afternoon, fed up and finding the thought of another rejection unbearable, stopped outwardly asking for money. Instead, I set up a sign that said, "HOMELESS SINCE AUGUST 2009, PLEASE GIVE, ANYTHING HELPS," sat down and let others come to me. Although the looks of pity I received still stung, I kept my outward pleas from being shut down and ignored. At the time, this breakthrough felt like an extraordinary accomplishment. I salvaged some of my pride, however little.

By the evening, the day's relentless panhandling left us with an approximate sum of $25. I could not wrap my head around this fortune. Finally we could provide for ourselves by purchasing our own food. Although prepared to spend our hard-earned cash, it took hours to find dinner, for no food court would let us in. We were not allowed to spend our own money, simply due to our looks. Finally finding a CVS, we bought a jar of peanut butter and crackers. We gorged ourselves. I doubt I will ever forget the appreciation and the enjoyment I received from that meal. (editor's note: Homeless Challenge participants are encouraged to donate any leftover panhandling change to other homeless people or to programs that help them.)

As night fell, we slept by a subway entrance, on top of the flattened cardboard we collected throughout the day. Our guides warned us to distance ourselves from any food in order to avoid waking up to rats crawling over us.

For breakfast, we traveled to a shelter. The shelter dining hall's similarities to that of my college cafeteria took me back. I heard the same arguments over sports, the same mocking banter. For the first time, I saw, under the hurt and agony of homelessness, playful, enjoyable people.

My second day contrasted greatly with the first day's emotional whirlwind. I spent it mostly in Franklin Square, a park covering roughly one city block and seemingly inhabited solely by the homeless. This is the point where the boredom finally, and quite harshly, set in. For hours, I watched non-homeless men and women pass by and through the square as if they could not see the colony of homeless surrounding them. As the day's hours dwindled, time inside the park stood still, and we remained out of sight to the world. The previous day's resentment, pain and insecurity, without question, remained inside me, but my lack of physical and mental movement overwhelmed any thoughts of action left I possessed, leaving me to accept my new societal role. My goal shifted exclusively to surviving while sacrificing as little of my remaining humanity as possible.

My journey in D.C. taught me what it means to be invisible, an experience that the majority of our nation will never understand. I came out of the challenge with no groundbreaking theories on homelessness and no key to ending this social epidemic. What my time in D.C. did provide me with is unfathomable gratitude for the blessings I receive on a daily basis and an earnest understanding of the weight placed on homeless men and women.

I must admit we all took part in an experiment while still having a safety net. If any of us got sick, we could very easily contact the coalition and arrange a pickup. In addition, for all 48 hours, somewhere deep in my soul, I know I remembered that outside the challenge's self-imposed circumstances, my life waited for me. That safety net is not real for anyone on the streets.

There were transcendent moments, too, when someone found the decency to look me in the eye. Between food trucks and shelter, my hunger became surmountable. Those who gave spare change humbled me, but what left me awestruck was the sheer power within a smile and glance flashed in passing by a stranger. If challenged to advise how to help a homeless man or woman you may encounter on the street, I would say to smile and ask about how their day is going so far. Human interaction is more valuable than any amount of money and holds the potential to bring the invisible into sight.

Sidebar: A Challenging 48 Hours on the Streets

By Mary Otto

The group of students and young staffers from Gettysburg College checked in at the National Coalition for the Homeless halfway through their 48-hour Homeless Challenge dirty, exhausted, but already wiser.

For 24 hours, they had been living by their wits, and the kindness of strangers, panhandling, catching a little warmth in libraries and Metro stations.

Experienced homeless people could tell they were new to the streets and guided them to the soup lines. But with their torn clothes and bags, they got suspicious looks when they ventured into department stores to use the restrooms.  In between, they walked for miles.

At night, they laid down the cardboard they had gathered while Dumpster diving, spread out their bedrolls and slept fitfully on the pavement outside McPherson Square Metro station.

"I am so exhausted," admitted student Laura Koening "I can't wait to go to sleep again. But I'll be sleeping on concrete."

They knew they were only homeless for another 24 hours. But they had learned some important things about the vulnerability that goes with having no place to really be.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the NCH sees this among the participants of every one of the dozen Homeless Challenge groups he organizes each year. A weekend "is not enough to change someone's life," Stoops said.  "But it makes them appreciate what they have and what it's like to be homeless in our society."

Stoops himself  was one of several homeless activists including Mitch Snyder of the Community for Creative Non-Violence who lived on the streets for six months during the winter of 1986-87. They successfully lobbied Congress for the passage of the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides federal money for homeless services.

After that, Stoops got the Homeless Challenge program started. Since 1988, over 2,000 people have taken part. Participants include students from over 200 different schools, Capitol Hill staffers and public officials, candidates for public office and social workers. Many make the challenge part of a weeklong immersion learning experience that includes volunteering at local homeless programs, listening to a panel of homeless men and women talk about their lives at an NCH Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau  presentation and lobbying for homelessness legislation in Congress.

Stoops believes the Homeless Challenge program has helped many participants get more involved in homelessness and social justice issues. He believes first-hand experience is a great teacher.

"It's important to become an expert at whatever you are passionate about."

Turning to his latest charges he coached them on.

"Has anybody gone to Starbucks to ask for free coffee?" asked Stoops, "Has anyone asked for a job yet?"

"I definitely want to get a job," said student Ankit Aryal. The student knew his patched jacket and matted hair would work against him in the job market. But he would give it a try. Then Aryal and the others resolutely shouldered their bags and bedrolls and headed back out into the gray afternoon, to learn more about homelessness.


Originally published by Street Sense ©

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