Blogs from Washington DC

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What is it that you avoid noticing in your everyday life? For me, it was homeless people. Throughout my life, whether it was from media or what I was told, I believed that every homeless person was dangerous and used the money they received from donations on the street for drugs and alcohol. Due to this, whenever I went to the city I tended to walk quickly and anxiously by any homeless person and ignore their requests for help. After my week in D.C., I reflect on this mentally and am overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment in myself. Had I took the time to actually interact with a homeless person, my views and perceptions would have been much different. For this, I feel truly fortunate that our last week of service was spent at our nation’s capital doing just that. Through a variety of organizations, I had the opportunity to break rid of assumptions and help homeless people in many ways. My most memorable moment was working for Bread for the Journey; where we prepared lunch for ourselves and a homeless person and then ate with them. I spent about an hour and a half with a man who migrated to America from western Africa in the 80’s. As time flew by I felt all of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions about homeless people drift away and the only thing I was thinking about was how I was sitting on a bench in the park having an ordinary conversation about the weather, driving techniques and college majors with a middle-aged man. In that moment I also observed the amount of people either walk by without noticing or people give me a strange look as to why I was sitting there with a homeless man. As I was leaving, I found my eyes welling up with tears. Why is it that I was born into privilege and at a lesser risk of becoming homeless than this man and thousands of others in D.C. alone? I have been blessed my whole life with opportunity and this man seemed happier than I was with what he had and the hand he was drawn in life. Taking the time to become more connected with the things that I take for granted and tend to avoid has been an eye opening experience for me and I challenge you, the reader to recognize the things that you avoid noticing in your daily life and question why you do, because chances are, you’re avoiding it for a reason that will seem silly once you examine it further.

Our outreach run leader finished giving us last minute advice as I looked around anxiously trying to find someone to leave my outreach bag with. There were many homeless men and women sitting along the benches that surrounded the Dupont Circle Park. Stepping away from the group I looked down the bench and made eye-contact with a man reclining against his bags. As I walked over thoughts quickly raced through my mind.

            “What do I say?”

            “What if he is mean?”

            “How do I start the conversation?”

            “What do I do if he’s high?”

Standing four feet away I timidly looked up and asked how he was, what his name was, and if I could sit with him. He answered, “Good, told me his name and, yes.” I sat down next to him, placing the plastic bag of toiletries and food on my lap. For the next thirty minutes we sat and talked about a wide variety of topics from the changing D.C. to double majoring in college. By the end of our conversation the white plastic shopping bag on my lap was forgotten. He and I, perfect strangers to one another, had shared real conversation with one another. After saying goodnight and thanking him for his time I remembered the bag in my hand. Lifting it I asked him if he would like to keep the bag. Smiling, he accepted and said thank you. Walking away I couldn’t help but to feel incredibly humbled. I had just received legitimate advice on double majoring from a homeless man. As we began our return to The Pilgrimage I knew that all of my assumptions about the homeless had just been shattered. I couldn’t wait to see which other assumptions would be blown away as well.

Four dollars and ninety-six cents: I never thought that just under five dollars could make such a difference. That four dollars and ninety-six cents gave me and another student the opportunity to help twenty-four people and sparked numerous conversations, all by handing out a case of bottled water. As we walked through the park handing out bottles of water I didn’t expect to feel as accomplished and rewarded as I did. Every person we handed a bottle of water to was extremely appreciative and accepting. Each person that talked to us asked us how our day was and they were all upbeat. I had never thought about how people experiencing homelessness receive and find simple necessities like water. When they hold up signs for money or for food I had never thought about how they get water. Water is essential to our existence, how can someone get by without this simple necessity? The conversations were amazing and the smiles we received were priceless. Handing out bottled water, which many of us take for granted, was truly a wonderful experience in D.C.

It is the first night in Washington D.C and our main focus this week is homelessness. We had two speakers come and talk to us tonight about when they were homeless and their experiences. Our second speaker came walking in slowly, limping behind his walker. He explained to us that a few years ago he started getting arthritis and had a degenerative disc disease. As he started talking about his childhood and past he had a sad look on his face that showed what he was about to say wouldn’t be a happy story. He explained to us the events leading up to him becoming homeless which included the lack of family and love. His dad was never around and he was abused daily by his mother, who never wanted him to begin with. This lasted for years even past high school his mom found a way to put him down and lower his self-esteem even further. He also said his substance abuse problem, due to his mother’s neglect, led him to becoming homeless. Hearing his heartfelt story really impacted me and changed my view on homeless people. One thing he said that really stuck out to me was that homelessness does not discriminate. Anyone can become homeless through bad decisions and unfortunate events. He had a good job after high school but choosing to spend his money on drugs led him to homelessness. This really impacted me because it made me realize truly anybody can become homeless.

On Monday night when we heard our first speaker from the National Coalition of the Homeless and my perspective on people who were experiencing homelessness was changed drastically. Our speaker had worked at NASA, was once making six figures, lived in a mansion, and had a wonderful family. I would have never expected him to become homeless. A series of unfortunate events led to his situation in life now but it opened my eyes to who those experiencing homelessness truly were. Homelessness really can happen to anyone. Those who are experiencing homelessness now are ordinary people who have recently faced tough times. They have families, stories, and past histories just like the rest of the world. They are humans too and we should all treat them that way. Learning about homelessness in D.C. was a life changing experience and I hope to continue to share the stories of those affected by homelessness.

IMG_2978It was Thursday morning when my group and I went to work at SOME (So Others Might Eat). We all had different jobs, and I was a part of the kids who worked in the food line making plates. Everyone’s reactions were different when they reached their plates; some remained straight faced and mumbled good morning back while other’s face lit up with joy at the sight of a hot plate of food. One man who stuck out to me I watched get up from his seat, and head over towards a full-time worker. He asked her calmly and politely when seconds were available. She reluctantly answered that no seconds were offered. I could see the sadness on her face from repeatedly having to deny these people more food, but there were more people waiting in line. All of a sudden an overwhelming sadness drained into my body. This nice, pleasant man who had been dealt a rough hand in life, who probably has not been homeless his whole life, had just been denied for what seemed probably like the millionth time. I had believed so many awful stereotypes about homeless people before this week and due to that I used to ignore them and do anything to avoid their attention. After this week of working and interacting with so many homeless people my views have been forever changed. Almost every single person was kind and compassionate towards me even though they had probably been rejected by society multiple times. Homeless people are not all drug addicts or alcoholics, most are people who have simply have had obstacle after obstacle thrown at them by life. So, watching this man get denied a 2nd plate of food destroyed me a little. He was so gentle and kind, more kind than I have ever been. And this got me thinking “Why me?” Why was I born into privilege, money, and the luxury of three meals a day and this man was not? I’m not any better than him, we are equals, and yet he has to get up every morning and plan how to get through the day to survive. Though at first this made me extremely saddened and angry it also later on then uplifted me. Yes, I am privileged and have more possessions than most, but with this privilege I was so fortunately born into, I can help others and help make change. I have the resources, ambition, and passion to help these beautiful human beings. Whether it is something small like buying them a sandwich or offering them change or something bigger like volunteering weekly and joining organizations, I can help start to eradicate poverty and make a change whether that be for 1 person or hundreds. I am so appreciative of this week and what I have learned and cannot wait to help change society’s views on the homeless.

Today we worked at SOME, So Others Might Eat. SOME provides breakfast and lunch for people who are homeless. My job was to hand plates of hot breakfast to the people walking in the door. As I handed a plate to one man, I looked up at him and suddenly realized that I recognized him! It was our speaker from the National Coalition of the Homeless that talked with us the night before! I said, “Hey! Nice seeing you again!” He seemed slightly surprised to see our group again but replied with, “What’s up Elon?!” When we first met him, he seemed anything but homeless. He was outspoken, kind, energetic, and seemed like he had everything put together. He told us about the advocacy work he does for the homeless and everything he has accomplished including helping homeless people earn the right to vote in all 50 states as well as DC. Since he was so accomplished, it didn’t really hit me that he was homeless until I saw him at the food kitchen. After this experience, it really validated what he told us, “homeless people are the same as everyone else, they just don’t have a home.” They are caring, hardworking, funny, and overall good people, they just don’t have a home. This experience was very impactful on me, and I know I won’t forget this week in Washington DC.

This week has been extremely gratifying for me because I have so many opportunities to meet the people who I am helping. It makes the experience so much better for me when I get to see the smile on a person’s face when they receive their food instead of thinking about their smile while actually preparing the food. Friday the 10th, I was lucky enough to prepare and serve the food. McKenna’s Wagon, which is a van that goes around the city of D.C. serving food to people who are homeless, was a lot of fun. I was personally serving hot food but my group gave out drinks, sandwiches, and snacks. Another group member and I had a great system going. He would scoop the rice into the bowl, pass it to me, and then I topped it off with three ladles of stew and some utensils. Although our efficient system was fun, my favorite part was speaking with the people who approached the table. I started a conversation with one man asking him how he was. As our conversation continued, he told us about his father who was embarrassed to come and get food for himself. When I heard this I felt bad. Did he not want to come to the van because of the judgment society makes towards the homeless? This made me think about all I’ve been learning and how I can try to change people’s mindsets about the homeless. This man soon ended the conversation by graciously thanking us. He then crossed the street bowls in hand and passed one off to his dad who received it with a smile.

Tonight, I served at McKenna’s Wagon. We had a brief orientation on what we would be doing, divided into groups, loaded the vans, and were on our way. I was assigned with the task of handing out sandwiches and snacks. There were a lot of people that came through, but one person stood out to me. She was an older woman, very frail and gentle, and very kind. She politely asked me for a ham and cheese sandwich and I gathered the other snack items together and handed her the bag of food. Then, she looked at me and said, “ If you could spare one, could I get another banana?” I replied, “Of course!” and handed her two more as well as another sandwich. She thanked me endlessly and had the biggest smile on her face. At that moment, it hit me that this sweet woman would be sleeping out on the streets or in a crowded shelter tonight, and my eyes were suddenly filled with tears. All I wanted to do was help her get a warm bed to sleep in and take away all of her problems, but unfortunately I cannot, which is just as equally heartbreaking. This experience made me wonder how she became homeless, and what her story was. It made me truly understand that homelessness does not discriminate-it can impact anyone. And, it made me realize that I wanted to help put an end to it.

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D.C. has been a very impactful experience for me in the sense that it opened my mind to the economic problems that surround our country on a daily basis. My most impactful interaction was meeting a basketball player and college alumni from George Washington University on the side of the street, homeless on DuPont circle. We engaged in conversation about how homelessness is being perceived in today’s society. Tunnel vision and ignorance are the main issues that the homeless see towards the wealthy of D.C. The moment that touched me the most was that the man said, “one day you think everything’s fine then the next day hits and next thing you know you’re out of a house.” They never chose to live like this but it was a series of unfortunate events that led them to their current situation.

My time at Thrive DC was amazing. An awesome program that provides breakfast, hygiene products, washing/drying machines, and showers to homeless in the area, I knew it would be a very influential day before it even started. Arriving at 8:30 AM, we began our day by setting up tables and chairs as well as wiping them down with disinfectant. We then set up a table that would hand out tea and another that would be giving sandwiches as supplements to everyone’s breakfast. After people began arriving, it was my job to help a select few receive their breakfast by getting their food and bringing it to them before a line started. I found this to be extremely rewarding work and had great experiences speaking with many of the people I served. Ranging from a blind homeless man to a large man who had trouble walking, I was able to speak to a wide range of people doing this and listen to their stories.

For my first day of work in a soup kitchen I think I did pretty good. Of course I only had to make sure that the coffee cups weren’t running low and make sure that everyone got a number for the food line but it was an important job. Throughout the day I engaged in some discussions with homeless people and during my time with them I gained such a different perspective on the homeless that I never saw before. I learned through my talk with an older man that some homeless people have bachelors and masters degrees in their fields and that because of bad luck they lost everything. When I thought of the homeless community the first words I would think of were uneducated and stupid. After working at the soup kitchen I understood that the popular thinking that the homeless lacked education was incorrect, and as the week went on and because of my talks with different individuals, I learned that actually a good amount of the homeless population do have some sort of higher education than high school. Also during my time in the kitchen one of the staff told me that contrary to popular belief some of the homeless do have a job but in Washington DC a minimum salary job can sometimes not be enough for housing which was a shocker to me. I had never thought that the homeless could have jobs.

During my time at Thrive DC, I dealt with issues I have never experienced before in my life. Being a fluent Spanish speaker, I had the opportunity to translate for some of the homeless Hispanic population when needed. I would be called to the front whenever someone needed something but didn’t speak English. Two of these times especially stood out to me. The first was a mother who was desperately looking for her mentally ill son. He had run away in the middle of the night about 4 days ago and she was seeing if he had come to the shelter at all. She told us she was worried because he was most likely hungry and cold by now. She told us his name but also warned us that he wouldn’t even acknowledge it because he didn’t recognize it at all. I didn’t know how to react. The best I could do was photocopy her sons ID she had brought with her as well as take her name and number in case he showed up. I couldn’t imagine how she felt when she walked away, most likely on to the next shelter, looking for her missing son. The second time, I was greeted by a very nervous man that handed me a Guatemalan passport and worriedly asked me if it had expired. It had expired in August. He thanked me with a very sad look then took out some papers with various amounts of money typed on them and walked away scratching his head. I stood there confused and wondered what problems he may have encountered due to his expired passport. These two encounters showed me first hand and on a more personal level, the hardships these people must face. Hardships that most of us can never imagine or may even call our worst nightmares. As sad as these were, they changed my point of view on many of these people and their lives. Something that will last the rest of my life.

Drawing

We were asked to draw a picture at the end of our week to express our experience and what we learned. The man in the suit represents everyday people who walk by homeless people pretending that they are invisible. That person used to be me. I was very uncomfortable when walking by homeless people not knowing how to respond. Most of the time I would just avoid the whole situation by crossing the street or looking at my phone.

The two faceless people who are lower down are homeless people. I did not give them faces because they are invisible to many people. I also made them lower than the man in the suit because many people feel they are above homeless people when in reality it could happen to anyone.

The words in black are all the stereotypes about homeless people. Although sometimes I found these stereotypes true throughout the week, a majority of the time they were just normal people with bad luck. In many cases the homeless I had talked with had college educations and were successful at once.

In the middle of the piece it says “HUMAN” in all caps in red. This is to show that it doesn’t matter if the stereotypes may be true or not, homeless people are still human and deserve to be treated as such. After this week I will be sure to always acknowledge the homeless I encounter, even a smile makes a big difference.

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