Again, due to internet shortages, we’re catching up: this is from Saturday 4th June.
Today we did the activity which is probably thought of as the most challenging for our young people. It’s called the Homeless Plunge and is about relating to the difficulties of being homeless and gaining a better understanding of a day in the life of a homeless person.
It began last night. No brushing our teeth. No changing our clothes. No brushing our hair. Some of us chose to sleep on the concrete/linoleum floor of the room at the front of the building which is used as a drop in centre during the day. As I’m sure you can imagine, we didn’t get much sleep. Partly because of the cold (no blankets allowed), partly because of the discomfort (no pillows/sleeping mats either) and partly because our neighbourhood never sleeps. There was noise throughout the night: sirens, arguments, music and men soliciting the services of vulnerable women. We were woken at 5am, split into teams, given a trash bag (translation: bin liner) to help in the pouring rain and sent out into the city.
Before I go any further, let me explain how I was feeling about this whole thing before hand. I’ve been dreading it all week. I knew it was going to be painfully difficult and challenging and I really didn’t want to have to endure it. I was concerned about using resources that people who are legitimately homeless need and hurting them by “playing” at being homeless. I was also stupidly arrogant enough to think that because I have ministered to homeless people for two years, I know what it’s like for them and, because my heart already breaks for them, I don’t need any more reason for empathy. So I basically came to the conclusion that the whole thing was stupid. A good idea in principle but ultimately stupid. And then, as we spoke about it with the staff last night and spent some time in prayer I realised that the stupid one was actually me. I was afraid of going way out my comfort zone and it was ridiculous to think that I will ever know what it’s really like to be homeless. Instead this would give me a glimpse and be a good exercise in examining my pride.
We left the base at about 5.20 and headed to the BART station which has an underpass type bit. We sheltered out of the rain there for a while, careful not to wake those who had spent the night there. Then we headed to one of the food handout places back in the Tenderloin called Glide. It’s probably the most famous service centre in the city, doing three meals a day, gospel service on a Sunday and lots of other services for the community. Standing in line there was a little odd. It’s obvious of course that we’re not actually homeless and we drew some attention but nobody gave us any trouble. I don’t think any of us particularly wanted to do it – we all felt bad for taking resources that people who are actually in need could use – but we really felt this was an important thing for us to swallow our pride and experience.
After Glide we walked towards the civic centre and there bumped into a homeless man who had spoken to us at Glide. He showed us around the buildings there and then stayed with us as we sheltered once again in an underground station. For almost an hour he hung out with us, telling us his story and letting Tom smell his weed! We sat on the floor of the BART station for almost four hours as people walked past in a hurry for a train. We were cold, wet and miserable. For me, it wasn’t a feeling of boredom but weariness and a kind of apathy to everything. It was interesting to see how quickly you become completely de-motivated, an insight into why people who come onto the streets clean, eventually end up abusing substances and have little motivation to ge themselves off the streets again.
We found some respite in the central library which was warm and provided something to do at least. There we saw a women with three children, probably around 9, 8 and 5. All of their possessions were piled high on a pram and she was doing their washing in the sink in the bathroom. It was heartbreaking.
Then we realised teh huge impact the weather has on the day of a homeless person. As soon as the sun came out our mods lifted. We walked to china town and spent our two dollar (about £1.40) allowance for the day on the cheap food there. An orange has never tasted so good! We spent some time on a bench in a park square in Little Italy and then on the beach front at the wharf. Finally, we had made it to 5pm and we went to In’n’Out to meet the others and have our celebratory meal!
I was highly skeptical of the impact that 12 hours could have but it really was interesting and useful. I don’t think it has made us fully aware of everything that a homeless person faces but we at least caught a glimpse of the isolation, the lack of dignity, the boredom and the hopelessness.
And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20