Wow, what a week it’s been here in D.C. At the start of the week we knew it would be a busy one, but I don’t think any of us knew just how busy it would be. Each day we’re split up into various groups and sent out to different places all over the city. I can’t even begin to name all of the organizations we’ve worked with so far. One of my favorite places to work, however, was an organization called Miriam’s Kitchen. Much like any other soup kitchen, meals were provided to the homeless throughout the day, as well as other supportive programs to help the clients get back on their feet. Though something special about Miriam’s Kitchen was that they offered therapeutic art classes nearly every day. Everyone was welcome to do whatever artistic outlet they wanted. Some painted, others wrote, and one man in particular seemed to be the master of beads. Down the street at one of the universities, there was an exhibit of many of the participants’ work and I was astounded at the amount of talent these people had. Being an artistic person myself, I really appreciated the use of art in trying to help the homeless and I enjoyed seeing what those at Miriam’s Kitchen had to offer. This week has really opened my eyes and gave me a new perspective on the homeless population.
Homelessness isn’t something I’ve ever put much thought into, to be honest. Where I live it isn’t a very prominent issue. I always stereotyped homeless people; pinning them as that they had become homeless as a choice and just didn’t want to help themselves. Until I worked more closely with the homeless in D.C., did it occur to me that some people are homeless by choice and some have illnesses or job loss that causes their homelessness. Working in DC gave me an entirely new perspective on homelessness. I worked with one man at Miriam’s Kitchen who had been homeless for about 20 or so years. He did bead work and made jewelry to pass his time. He made several of the girls necklaces which was very generous of him. He didn’t have much to offer but he gave us what he could.
Our week in Washington, D.C. opened my eyes to a culture and a people that I had previously written off as lazy and unintelligent. What I found out this week however, is that homeless people are neither lazy nor unintelligent. They are most often people who have been ripped out of their jobs and homes by our country’s faulty economic system. This fact scares me. It scares me to see the homeless population as the result of my strict brand loyalty and the support that my family gives to large corporations that rarely support local communities. The stories of the many homeless individuals that I had the chance to talk with during the week makes me question the effectiveness of our political and economic systems in our country. How can so many people be homeless in our nation’s capital? How can our society outlaw this group of people who are so in need of our help? One of the most valuable things I learned this week was that the mental illness and addiction characteristics that most people associate with people that are homeless, most often develop after people become homeless. I am very happy with the amount of work that we were able to do for the homeless population in Washington, D.C. and am very thankful to all of the organizations that we worked with this week for allowing us to come to their city and make a difference.
From the moment we stepped out of the vans I knew this would be a great week of service. We were going to be working with the homeless and organizations that would help them receive food and drink. I learned so much that I hadn’t before. I saw a man watching the cars go by on our first rainy day as he sat on the corner of the street pan handling for money. I saw him again the next morning at Charlie’s Place, in line for food. I was in charge of the front, which served food and talked with the clients. He was sitting at a table with another man as he read his paper. I sat down at the table and we talked for about twenty minutes about his past foreclosure and where he was now. Currently he has a low paying job but was still homeless, trying to make money to eat and survive. He wanted a better future but it all takes time. After our conversation, I have faith that he will make it through.
Our week in Washington, D.C. was really something different than what we had done on other service weeks and it was amazing. During our week I felt that we really connected with the people we were helping and almost the entire week was spent working directly with them. It was really an inspirational experience to be able to sit down and talk with the people we were helping and listen to their stories. Many of the people we met were very interesting to talk to and were extremely nice. This week was definitely a bias buster, throughout the week we saw some very hard working, smart, and well-meaning people who were homeless at no fault of their own. We also were fortunate enough to hear some peoples’ stories about how they overcame homelessness. After this experience I have noticed I have a much higher desire to return and help more.
Fortunately, this week we had many interactions with the people we were working with. One of the interactions that stuck out the most was when we had two speakers from the National Coalition for the Homeless come to talk with us. The main reason why they were there was to put away any myths that many people in the United States believe about those who are homeless. We went around the room giving one adjective that could be used to describe those people who are homeless. Some of the words were addiction, family, and mental illness. While those can sometimes be true, they are not applicable to all people who are homeless. What I found out during this talk was that many people who are homeless become drunk, addicted, or obtain some sort of illness because of the state they are in. They did not have that prior to being homeless in many cases. Another important idea I learned from our speakers was that being homeless could really happen to anyone. Lots of the people living on the streets are there because of loss of their job, foreclosure, or medical costs that were too high to pay. Homelessness is not something planned or ever really chosen, but instead a result. This is something that many people need to hear and understand instead of making preconceived ideas that these people have numerous problems, are lazy, or unwilling to make their lives better.
During my time in D.C., I ended up having a lot of time to reflect. I got sick for two days and had to miss out on some activities, but while I was out I thought about how I lucky I am. There I was in shelter, in a bed, with food and water close by when there could be and are people in the same city just as sick as I was with none of the comforts or securities. I knew I was going to be fine; I had a place to rest and access to medicine. But during my recovering time I wondered what it would be like to have a fever in the pouring rain, to not have medicine, to not know if I would get better or not. This reflection also made me realize how much I have grown in my time in the gap semester program; I have gained new eyes and new appreciation for the world around me and the things I have. As the semester continues I hope to continue to learn and understand all the things that I would have never noticed before.
Living near the District of Columbia I thought I knew almost everything about our nation’s capital. I had been to the government buildings, seen the monuments, toured the museums and even did service at food distribution sites. What else was there to learn? This week in D.C. showed me how much I missed by ignoring the people in plain sight. Homeless men and women sitting on the sidewalk waiting for someone to acknowledge them, give them a few cents, a few seconds of their time. In history class, we were taught about the Untouchables in India. A group of people I considered unjustly oppressed simply because of their own fate. How could anyone be rejected in society because of something out of their control? How are they denied jobs and access to the resources the rest of the country utilizes? Looking at these questions I noticed similar faults in our own society. The majority of homeless people do not choose to be without residence. They may have gotten fired or the price of a house became higher than their income. These uncontrolled changes do not make a person instantly a stereotypical alcoholic, drug addict, dangerous or lazy. Yet as a result of these stereotypes, we tend to make the homeless invisible, deny them jobs and in a way oppress them for no viable reason. After this week I cannot make a homeless person invisible, especially if they are asking for something as simple as a few cents. Lastly, I am glad I learned about the many food kitchens and service sites that D.C. contains and I would enjoy volunteering at these sites again.
After spending a week in DC immersing myself in the complexities of chronic homelessness in urban environments I gleaned many things pertaining to the diverse causes of the issue, and the possibility of stronger long-term solutions for those afflicted by it. Before arriving here my perspective on homelessness was very different than it is now. I never used to think about how homeless people got into the situation that they’re in. I would walk by homeless men and women and feel bad for them, but assume that the reason they were there was because there was something that they weren’t wiling to do to get themselves out of their situation. I never blamed them for being without a home, but I never took the time to think about what got them there. Largely, I just ignored the issue, preferring not to think about it. While we were in DC there was no way that I could’ve just continued to turn a blind eye to the situation. Confronted every day with two or three homeless people per city block I walked down, and knowing that I was in the city to help combat the issue, it was hard to not immediately feel a connection to people who I had intentionally disconnected myself from for so long. Working at food, clothing, and wellness centers throughout the city allowed me to identify with the issue of homelessness on a much more personal level. I was able to meet individuals and ask them for pieces of their stories. I learned a lot from everyone who I talked to, and rarely found myself judging anyone as just lazy, mentally ill, or unmotivated. Most of the individuals who I met had been living perfectly ordinary lives not too long before I met them, some people who I spoke to were actually new to life on the street. I learned so much more than the numbers of this issue. I learned that there are solutions to assist with putting an end to homelessness, and that it only requires us to open our eyes in order to see them and invest in those solutions. Living chronically without a home is unacceptable and preventable in this country, a lesson that speaks loudest through the people who have lived a marginalized life on the street for too long, and are ready to reclaim the lives they once had. After my short week in DC my perspective has been changed in a way that I don’t see changing back anytime soon. Think deeper about how you react to seeing somebody without a home the next time you pass someone on the street, and consider how you might be able to brighten their day.
Today we passed out lunches we had made guided by Bread for the Journey. I was nervous at first. We were a loud group and I felt meek, hiding behind grocery bags and city scowls. The first lunch I gave out I set beside a sleeping man. The next two I offered were rejected. One man only seemed interested in money. He questioned me, “How you got food if you go no money?” I had no explanation. These were simple questions proposed by what some call simple people. And the privileged intellect cannot answer. The misconceptions people foster astound me. The simplest questions in life require time and patience. Why do men walk by other men in need? How is it possible for a human to neglect a fellow human this way? We walked the Main Street flanked by brand name stores, and impressive businessmen, and flashy tourists. We walked the Main Street seeking what society always told me to avoid. The hobo. The panhandler. We reached a park and asked around. One man turned his head from me, pretended as though I did not exist and I was not offering him lunch. He reciprocated what he others like me doing as a whole. Now I was invisible. Now I was ignored and not worthy of a response, a smile, a moment of eye contact. I walked away rejected and I felt in my core that I knew why. The man was justified. How many people asking for loose change, beggars, pairs of eyes had I intentionally shifted my vision from meeting? Each encounter with the people here in D.C. taught me something and gave me a different and unique perspective on life.
This morning I woke up to a kitchen in need of 75 bananas. We took a group trip to the closest grocery store and all had something we needed to find. I quickly counted out 75 bananas with a friend, while others grabbed bread, deli meat, cheese, desserts, juice, and chips. As you might have guessed, we were going to be making a lot of lunches. We were participating in an activity called Bread for the Journey, where one makes bagged lunches and walk along the streets handing them out to the homeless. After finishing all the lunches, I grabbed three and my own and headed out on the streets. This activity was hard because all the stereotypes of the homeless that we had been working all week to diffuse were now helping us decide if someone got a lunch or not. As we walked, we spotted a man who was most definitely without a home as he lay underneath a window, surrounded by umbrellas. I approached him with a pounding heart and sweaty hands because my nerves had taken over. I made my friend do the talking since I was so nervous I’d do something wrong. The man gladly accepted the lunch and water. The group continued walking and my nerves quickly settled, so I decided I would do the talking for the next one. After handing out a few more lunches, we came across an abandoned cart outside of a restaurant that obviously once belonged to a homeless person. My friend and I placed the lunch and water on the cart hoping someone would return with a smile. We then looked at the clock and realized we didn’t have much time before we needed to be back, so we headed to the bustling park across the street. There, we found many people asking for lunches and gave out just about all we had. I believe my group returned to the house with only two lunches left, meaning we provided lunch for 16 people who might not have otherwise eaten.
We started off today by going to the grocery store to buy sandwich makings, fruit, and other snacks. We then headed back to the place we are staying and formed an assembly line to make five lunches for each of us. We proceeded to break into three different groups and head out to three different locations and hand out lunches to homeless people. This activity was stressful at first and I was a little bit unsure how people would react when they were approached, but after a while I got the hang of it. Two people from my group and I had a short conversation with the last man who we gave a bag. We listened to him talk for a little bit about his health problems. He told us about his infected foot which was caused by frostbite. This was my first conversation with a homeless person who I had met on the street and not through an organization. I really enjoyed this conversation because the man seemed genuinely happy to introduce himself and talk with us. Later in the day we gave surveys to homeless individuals through the National Coalition for the Homeless. This survey was designed to see if homeless people were being harassed and to protect their rights. This activity was even more intimidating than delivering sandwiches because we had to ask for a lot of personal information from these people. Another challenge of this was I was also not always sure if people were homeless or not. I gave one survey to a man named Charles who was a little hesitant to talk to me at first, but later seemed glad that people were thinking about the rights of homeless people. Overall, this was one of my favorite days because of the high level of interaction with people.
Today we worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless. After learning about the NCH’s history and big-picture goals, we were dispatched in groups of two throughout 4 locations of Washington D.C.. Our mission was to gather information on discrimination against homeless people in D.C. with hopes that this information will validate and support one of NCH’s legislative efforts. Immediately I felt uncomfortable about the task at hand – I personally avoid completing surveys as much as possible and felt uncomfortable targeting homeless people and asking them to answer somewhat personal questions. My partner and I were expecting the worse. Luckily, we first approached “Doug.” We ended up talking to Doug for about an hour and a half about the many factors that contribute to homelessness as well as potential solutions. Doug shed valuable insight on the efforts made in D.C., such as shelters, and spoke to their obvious benefits and not so obvious shortcomings. Much of what he shared was new to me and made me question if people in charge of large efforts to assist homeless people actually talk to the people they’re helping. His openness and wisdom made the conversation interesting and productive – despite the fact that we only got one survey completed.