When new volunteers come to PiN, they meekly approach me, and begin to dance around a question; I already know what they are going to say. They ask things like, “How is it that he can afford a phone? I mean, how do you even pay a bill when you live on the streets.” Sometimes they ask, “Where do they take showers? Where do they sleep exactly?” Or they say, “I’m sort of struggling being here. How do you know who really needs help and who is looking for a handout?”
I guess I could have a lot of reactions to these questions and statements. More than anything, I get excited. I am energized by these conversations for four reasons:
1. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
As a graduate student, writing papers and reading is basically my life. I like to talk about the subjects that are close to my heart and I have written a lot of papers about poverty. Simply put, knowledge is power, and stereotypes and stigmas are for cognitively lazy people. I know I speak for all of our staff and volunteers when I say we are happy to dispel any myths or notions you might have, and answer those questions you feel bad about asking. Which leads me to number two.
2. FILLING IN THE BLANKS.
Being immersed in this population for the past year as a core volunteer and staff member, I feel like I can actually speak to the whys and hows around these conversations. That guy with the brand new Nikes on; he fished those out of a dumpster. The girl with the fancy Dr. Dre headphones; they don’t actually work. Someone gave them to her and she wears them so she can be left alone. See all those middle aged men in line for breakfast? They are the product of back-to-back recessions and have had trouble competing in the job market. I like to fill in the blanks. The logistics always surprise people. The biggest surprises are sprung from naivety or ignorance, which takes us to number three.
3. MAJORITY CULTURE IGNORANCE.
I think these questions and conversations are a testament to the majority culture’s ignorance about the homeless subculture and poverty in general. The homeless are in survival mode… always. Simply strip a person down to zero material possessions, surviving on basics to make it on a minute-by-minute or day-to-day basis, and treat him like an animal or completely ignore him, and you have an accurate picture of how a homeless person lives in America. While we relax in our comfy homes, have the luxury of gas in our cars, and choose from ample amounts of food in our refrigerators, what about this way of life can we possibly even begin to understand? This leads to number four, because assumptions can be dangerous.
4. QUESTION EVERYTHING, ASSUME NOTHING, AND ACCEPT THE PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU.
The number one reason I don’t mind these questions is because I have had these questions. I still have these questions. You wonder why someone is homeless. You assume what took them there. You theorize that mental illness, drugs and alcohol, or a sheer lack of drive has led them to their current plight. Name the stereotype, I have probably pinned it on a homeless person; yet, I have had these stereotypes destroyed by those who have college degrees, world travels, solid upbringings, and lengthy career histories. All of these qualities strike me as “non-homeless.” I’ve realized it is not my job to qualify someone as “in need” and I am not qualified or called to judge people. You cannot judge a book by its cover and sometimes all you have to go by is the cover itself. I have learned that if they want to tell their story, they will. Truth be told, the why part of the story would break your heart into a million pieces. What really matters is where would they like to go and how can we help them get there.
Here is a statistic about homelessness you won’t hear. In my time at PiN, of all the people I have encountered who happen to be currently homeless or poor, 100% of them are someone’s child, sister, brother, friend, husband, wife, mom, dad, boss, co-worker, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa… It is a perfect storm in life that has led them to the streets. Homelessness is multifaceted, complicated, and unfortunately, there is no blanket solution to fix it. However, we can give people back some of their dignity by building a relationship with them and be willing to walk through the muck of life with them. I can serve them a meal, laugh with them, be their recovery group facilitator, pray for them, or encourage them when they go in to apply for a job. It took many choices and circumstance to make them homeless and it may take twice as many to lead them out of it, but it can be done.
I challenge you to educate yourself and to get involved. Assume nothing. Fill in the blanks. Find out what the poverty demographics are like in your area. Research what your city is doing for those who are homeless or living in poverty. I would encourage you to find a way to get involved in your church or community to make a difference. Find a way to offer your skills to those in need. If you’re in the Hampton Roads area, come serve with us on a Saturday or Sunday. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.