Until today, I had never actually had a conversation with a homeless person. I’ve brushed off many with a curt ‘no I can’t help you‘ or ‘I don’t have any change‘. And that was only, if there was no other possible way to completely escape their advances. But that’s the extent of it. Near zero contact has not stopped me from developing notions about what they are like. You read ‘stuff’, you hear ‘stuff’, you see ‘stuff’ … albeit from a distance. That ‘stuff’ has informed my picture and opinions.
When a friend was looking for volunteers to help interview the homeless on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless today, I felt called to step outside my safe distance and help out. I showed up rather apprehensive at 7am at the Palmer Way Station, which feeds over 300 homeless every weekday morning. There were already 50-some shivering early birds in line waiting for the food service to begin at 7:30am.
Notion: Would they even understand what I was doing, or asking? Would they be spaced out or drugged up? Don’t most of them struggle with significant mental illness and substance abuse issues? Reality: Most of them were snappy and precise in their answers – even witty in some cases, e.g., when the interview process requires I ask them if they were male or female – no ambiguity evident in that line today! I did smell alcohol in one case, and some may have been struggling with mental illness, but their behavior was not disruptive or their functioning obviously impaired.
Notion: Would they treat me respectfully? As a ‘have-not’ would they hold me in contempt as a ‘have’? Would they somehow be rude or try to scam me? Reality: They were very courteous, friendly and straightforward. Many wanted to tell me much more than the questionnaire was asking. “I have two job interviews today, wish me luck”… “See this hand is missing three fingers, it’s hard to do some jobs”… “I was in the Marines. I want to work, but nobody will hire me”.
Notion: Wouldn’t they be disheveled, in need of a bath or clean clothes? Would it be hard to get close enough to talk to them? The smell? Reality: Most of them looked remarkably well-groomed considering they had slept in the park or on the street last night. Getting close was comfortable and easy. They mostly appear to be availing themselves of the homeless services in this city.
Notion: Wouldn’t they act shrunken, downtrodden, withdrawn, weather-beaten? Would their age on paper be much younger than their looks? Reality: Many were very cheerful and outgoing. In most cases they looked their age. Mostly not weathered or beaten down. More weary and resigned, with room for hope.
Notion: Isn’t this often a life-style choice? Aren’t they ‘lifers’? Once they’re homeless, isn’t it almost impossible to get off the streets? Reality: Very few had been continuously homeless the past 3 years (that was a question on the survey). They had many episodes of being homeless. It seems to come and go.
After the 40 interviews I conducted this morning, my perspectives have changed. My biggest take-away is that this group has many more facets and dimensions to it, than I had ever imagined. They became more accessible, more human, more like you and me than I had ever imagined.
I’m glad Cathy asked. I’m glad I said yes. Once again I learn an old lesson anew. Preconceived notions crumble when tested against reality! I should have known, but had been too fearful and unsure how to get closer.