Life Changing Spring Break
When I first learned that I will be going on the Homelessness and poverty site in Washington DC with ASB, I was excited. This is one of the most popular and most influential sites and I was incredibly excited to go on it. The experiences that I had on that site were much more than influential. They were life changing.
As an international student, I too was taking away by the American Dream. The faces of homelessness simply did not fit into that dream. But during Spring Break I got a taste of the real world and was introduced to the faces of homelessness that I’ve never seen before. I went on the site thinking about how strong I am and how nothing can break me. I was going to do the Homeless Challenge with my head held high. I was going to survive. For me, 48 hours on the streets of DC were like a big game of survival. However, the experience was so much different.
A few hours into the experience, I started to feel it breaking me down. I couldn’t get over the fact that I did not have a place to rest. It was 37 degrees and I just wanted a couch to crash on or a blanket to curl up in with some hot cocoa. My reality, however, was drastically different. We agreed to live on the streets, soliciting for food and change and eating at soup kitchens. We slept on the streets, either in a dark alley or under the statue at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Ave. That was my first reaction to being homeless: Insecurity and not belonging. The experiences that followed were even more overwhelming.
At first, I was having a meal at a soup kitchen, I sat in front of a lady who looked tired. She was in her mid-sixties and she was having her meal right there in front of me without looking up. I could see that she was exhausted and, quite frankly, sad. I could, for some reason, see beyond her rugged clothes. I could see her in fancy shoes, make up and perked up hair. I saw in her my mother, grandmother and sister. That was when I realized that homeless people are simply people. I could not help but imagine what led that lady to end up on the streets, but I think this was a very good first lesson to learn. I feel that homeless people are often considered less than human. We, unwillingly maybe, dehumanize homeless people without realizing that they are just people like us.That realization was one that changed the way I interact with homeless people and I how I view their experiences.
Fighting the stereotypes that surrounded homelessness was a big part of this trip, and we learned it the hard way; by being homeless ourselves. As I sat by the bus station at 10th Ave NE in DC, I was more aware of people’s shoes than ever before. I was shivering cold and quite hungry. I sat with my partner on the floor, both looking down. I could hear people’s shoes coming towards me yet none of them stopped. Whenever I looked up at an incoming pedestrian, I would hope that they would smile, or nod. Even without putting a buck in the cup. Just say hello. Maybe ask us how we are doing or why were we on the streets. We looked homeless but we also looked 20 something. It really made me angry. I did not understand how people could ignore two teenagers sitting on the sidewalk asking for pocket change. But then I remembered all the time when I walked by a homeless man on 21st St. here in Nashville and I pretended I didn’t see him. Being in his shoes taught me so much. Maybe not all of us have to give money, and not all of us have to build houses for homeless people, because I certainly can’t. But all of us can acknowledge them as people who deserve our sympathy. Yet again, they deserve to be treated the same way we would treat our next door neighbor. I understood that after having multiple people turn away when I would just ask them for the time, how cruel people can be.
More about shoes, after 48 hours of walking my shoes were worn out. My back was hurting, my feet were soar and I was a complete mess. It really amazes me how I used to think that homeless people are lazy. Being homeless isn’t just about chilling in parks. You have to carry all your things with you and travel from one end of the city to the other to find a soup kitchen or a food truck. It certainly isn’t easy. I missed sitting in my room and doing homework. I missed having lunch with my friends. It must be nerve wrecking to spend all your days in the cold carrying your life on your back, literally, from one place to the other.
The last conversation I had before I went to sleep on the streets for the last time was with a homeless guide called Steve. He shared with us his story. He tried to teach us that homelessness can happen to anyone. Sometimes it takes one bad choice in life, and some other times it isn’t even a choice. This world is tough, he told us, and some people just fall and have no one to pick them up. He also told us that on Pennsylvania Ave. between the White House and the Capitol, there are more than 200 homeless men that he knows personally.
This really made me wonder about the society that we live in and whether we are giving back as much we are taking. This entire trip made me question the social standards that I live by and the multiple blessings that surround me. I feel more aware of my surroundings and I feel that I will never be the same. To say the least, I will never look at a homeless person the same way: this trip has literally changed my life.