Students experience homeless life in nation’s capitol
Sometime after 5 a.m. on Thursday, March 15, five Keene State students awoke to the yelling voice of a Homeland Security officer on the front steps of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. where they had spent several cold, long hours sleeping.
Just a block or so away, two more groups of five students similarly woke from their resting places. Once up, the students gathered their meager belongings which were stored in black trash bags and split into pairs to begin their first full day.
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For 48 hours, these 15 students experienced homelessness in every sense of the word. Without the basic necessities of food, water, or shelter, not to mention the non-essentials like cell phones and money we take for granted, the 15 were let loose on the streets of D.C. to experience the hardship that so many call “normal.”
Our Alternative Spring Break trip was more alternative than most; all seven trips set out at the start of spring break to make a difference in communities most in need, but we went a step further to experience the plight we were trying to fix.
Leaders Tim Brinkerhoff and Emily Montplaisir teamed up with Amizade to plan the trip, a global service-learning nonprofit whose name is Portuguese for “friendship.” The organization’s goal is not only to encourage students to give back in communities in meaningful ways, to but learn while doing so, with a heavy emphasis on the cultural experience of the city students stay in.
Because of this cultural significance, between feeding the homeless and being homeless, we got to explore the nation’s capitol. We yelled “Amurrica!” in front of the White House, unsuccessfully watched the sun rise on a cloudy day from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and had coffee with NH Senator Jeanne Shaheen. But amid all of our touristy fun, we discovered the homeless problem in D.C., the capitol of the most powerful nation in the world.
Anna Phillips, our Amazade leader who spent the week with us, emphasized from the start the importance of reflection in service-learning to be able to bring the experience back and make a real difference.
“One of the biggest portions of service learning,” she said, “is being able to reflect on what you’re learning and bring it beyond here.” After the week, Grace Healey has a renewed sense of gratitude for the life she was born into and what she is lucky enough to receive.
“I think overall I’m going to see everything I get in a different light and give back more,” she said.
According to So Others May Eat (SOME), a soup kitchen in D.C., there are more than 9,000 homeless people in the city. They try to do their part by serving roughly 850 meals a day, emphasizing the importance of dignity and a smile while serving.
We spent our first day of service at SOME, where a few would eat later in the week during their own homelessness. On the outskirts of the northwestern corner and a decent walk from the nearest metro stop, SOME is a small kitchen which strives to build community among. Not only did we participate in this community, but SOME opened our eyes for the first time during spring break about the realities of homelessness.
When we walked into the kitchen, which has been serving for 42 years, we were each handed a green apron and given a task by a lively crew which seemed more like a family. Brinkerhoff, Lizz Pockl, Logan Paré, and I had the opportunity to serve coffee and have the most interaction with those dining, walking up and down the long tables greeting people and having conversations. We met some who weren’t interested in talking to us, some who made us laugh, and some who shared remarkable stories with us. But the most significant thing we learned that day was that there is no face to homelessness.
Stop for a moment and think of what the word homeless means.
You likely envision a dirty person, maybe carrying a lot of things, rambling on about some nonsense. They’re probably old, they might smell, and you wouldn’t be caught dead having a conversation with them on the sidewalk. But this isn’t what we saw at SOME.
We saw people.
We saw people well put together, wearing suits or dress clothes. We saw people carrying lots of things. We saw people carrying bags. We saw people of all races and ages. One man was in a wheel chair. We didn’t see the face of homelessness, we saw the many faces of homelessness.
That first morning of service, we learned that homelessness is diverse, and each person has their own, significant story to how they got there.
Antonio McCoy was the host for the day at SOME. His task was to coordinate jobs for each employee that day and point us in the right direction while serving. He was upbeat, enthusiastic, and helped build the sense of community that made SOME so welcoming.
But McCoy had a story, which he shared with us after lunch was served. He had used cocaine for 30 years, living on the streets of D.C. With some new-found motivation and assistance, he went through a rehabilitation program, took a business course, got a job at SOME, and met his fiance, who he’ll marry in November. McCoy had lost everything, but managed to regain control of his life and take himself out of homelessness.
“I loved talking to the people that we met,” Healey said. “It wasn’t even just going to the organizations, it was hearing their stories. Antonio, his story- that’s amazing.” These are the faces of homelessness. This is what we learned. The following day, we volunteered at D.C. Central Kitchen, a large nonprofit which operates very differently than SOME to provide opportunity to the homeless. Rather than a sit-down location for the homeless to come eat a meal and have camaraderie, D.C. Central Kitchen distributes meals in outreach programs on the streets each day. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with homeless people, we took part in the production of the nearly 4,500 meals they distribute a day.
We chopped mysterious fruits, bagged cereal, and took chicken off the bone, all at a much faster pace than the kitchen was prepared for. While we worked, employees yelled for us to slow down because we all worked too quickly. After completing our tasks far too early, we joined some high school students from Kansas outside to clean nearly every object in the building on the sidewalk with a hose and a bucket of too many chemicals. Not only did we clean and cook, but we learned that in Kansas, they eat doves and squirrels. Apparently it’s strange that we don’t do that in NH.
After our morning’s work, we ate lunch and had the lucky chance of meeting the kitchen’s president and founder, Robert Egger, who was doing a photo shoot at the kitchen that day. We chatted with Egger about his revolutionary business model for the kitchen where he has made the kitchen independently funded, not run on donations, and how we can make an impact of our own.
Later that afternoon, he tweeted “Thanks to the #Keene College Crew. You all rocked @Dcck today.
Rock the WORLD from now on” with the photo we had taken attached. He even tagged Susan Albert and Erin Zoellick, who had mentioned him earlier in the day.
There was a stark contrast between SOME and D.C. Central Kitchen, where we could have very personal connections with people or mass produce meals.
For Pockl, D.C. Central Kitchen was powerful because of the outreach programs it provided, including educational opportunities and job positions for felons, who often aren’t hired elsewhere.
“I liked both of them in their own ways, but personally I thought that the DC Central Kitchen was producing more and having more opportunities for people who are not able to get jobs, especially for the people who are just out of jail,” she said.
Mid-week, we worked with Street Sense, a nonprofit newspaper created and distributed by homeless or formerly homeless people. Homeless people purchase papers for roughly 20 cents a paper or can earn them by doing tasks around the newspaper’s office, and then sell them on the streets for a suggested donation of $1. The paper is entirely written by the homeless and the homeless take home 100 percent of what they earn on the street while working as vendors.
At Street Sense, we met Reggie and Deena, a couple who has worked with Street Sense for years and have managed to pull themselves out of homelessness. After hearing from Allen Hoorn, the vendor and volunteer manager, about how the paper is produced, we followed Reggie and Deena through the streets of D.C. to sell copies of Street Sense to their benefit. We were each paired up, handed a stack of papers, and given a street corner to sell at.
Ambitious and bright-eyed, we set out expecting to sell the papers no problem. But what we didn’t realize was how invisible we would be to those walking by. In the end, we made more than $100 for Reggie and Deena to take home, but we struggled. Despite our bright blue ASB t-shirts and our completely normal appearances, very few people walking by even acknowledged our existence. We quickly found that people reacted in just a few ways: some pretended not to see us, some rapidly said no and walked away, some made excuses about why they couldn’t buy one, and a few stopped to ask what we were selling.
This difficult task, as well-dressed college students, gave us our first insight as to what we would experience during the 48 hour homeless challenge.
The National Coalition for the Homeless, whose headquarters are located in D.C., encourages groups to participate in its 48 hour homeless challenge, which puts groups out on the streets of D.C. for two days to experience homelessness in as real a sense as possible. On Wednesday evening, we packed up a few items in trash bags and took the metro out to the Coalition to meet with Michael Stoops before starting the challenge. We were assigned groups of two as well as larger groups for sleeping at night.
Basically, the rules were to embrace homelessness in every sense possible. No cell phones, no money, nothing like that. We were to panhandle for money, eat at shelters, and do what we could to survive homelessness for two days. We weren’t to tell anyone what we were doing, and instead, had to come up with our own stories about how we became homeless. Stoops encouraged us to interact with homeless people as much as possible and sent us on our way at dark on Wednesday night.
We were to meet at a CVS, given nothing more than a map and an address, at 9 p.m. to meet our guides and get in sleeping groups for the first night. All of the pairs made it almost on time, and we met André Colter, Steve Thomas, and John Harrison. Each of the three are part of the Coalition’s speaker’s bureau, which coordinates opportunities for the homeless or formerly homeless to speak to groups to advocate for homelessness awareness and educate. The three were assigned to us by the Coalition to bring us to a safe place to sleep both nights. But they each shared their stories with us as well, showing us more faces of homelessness.
Colter has been in and out of homelessness for ten years. He left his home as a young teen, seeking to find something after a life with no role model and no one to listen. He began to abuse drugs and alcohol shortly after becoming homeless, but has been sober for three years. Despite currently being homeless, he is finishing a Bachelor’s degree in business management and just started the processes to apply to graduate school.
Thomas became didn’t become homeless until he was 51 years old. As a boy, he tried to please everyone, and found himself trying any substance which was handed to him. He was always at a high risk for homelessness, moving more than a dozen times, and eventually lost his home and his job and became homeless. After a year and a half on the streets, a doctor from an outreach program found Thomas, and helped him get back on his feet.
Harrison became homeless a little more suddenly after his home caught fire when he was at work one day. With little financial stability, he was unable to find a new place to live, and quickly found himself on the streets.
But regardless of their situations, one thing was remarkable to us: how positive most of the homeless people we met was. They weren’t angry about their situations, they weren’t full of self-pity. Surely it wasn’t ideal, but they accepted it and did what they could. It was their positivity which inspired us to push through the next 48 hours.
Brinkerhoff was astounded by the reactions of those who passed us by without so much as a glance during the challenge.
“Sitting on the sidewalk with our trash bags and a cup watching people look at us and turn their head or pretend to talk on their cell phones was absolutely ignorant and also insightful,” he said. “I met many homeless people over week, and all they want is someone to talk to or even a smile to get them through the day. So next time you pass a homeless person, I challenge you to think of yourself and don’t be blind to the people who are looking to see the most.”
The first day was 90 degrees. We were hot, we were tired, and we had no idea what we were doing. Some were more successful than others; Christine Pitino and Torri Haddad made more than 20 dollars, and feasted the first day, eating everything from pizza to Krispy Kreme. Others, like Albert, went the entire day without eating.
The second day it rained, and time passed more slowly. We had figured out the times soup kitchens served (after most of us missed serving times the previous day), and fewer of us went hungry. We were no longer terrified of the streets, after having spent two nights sleeping outside with the rats, but we were exhausted.
We learned several things those two days. Logistically, we found that napping is essential and being homeless is a full time job. We slept everywhere. We slept in Franklin Park, at Freedom Plaza, in the National Mall, next to the Lincoln Memorial. If there’s a patch of grass in the Northwest corner, chances are, one of the fifteen of us slept there at some point during the challenge. We discovered that searching for food and finding a place to fill a water bottle and use the bathroom takes time and lots of energy. We walked more than 25 miles those two days, stopping to sleep often because of the toll the experience took both mentally and physically. Brinkerhoff found that butter packets from Panera can go a long way, and Zoellick had a fan club at soup kitchens.
But even more than these things, we learned how mentally draining being homelessness is. For those 48 hours, we were nearly invisible. Thomson told us that while he was homeless, he went three months without hearing his name called, and it quickly became clear to us how this was possible. We were ignored when we asked passersby the time. We were ignored when we asked for directions. The only kindness we saw was from other homeless people we interacted with.
Brandon Carta noted that while we struggled for only two days, homelessness is a day to day reality for many.
“The 48 hour homelessness challenge was rewarding because it taught me to break the walls I had talking to homeless individuals prior to this trip, however, I am glad it is over,” he said. “One this to remember though is that we got to pick when our homelessness ended, where as others cannot, and it is important to help as much as we can.”
We’ll never forget the cockroach-infested hostel we lived in at Cap South, that it’s always essential to make a path, or that sometimes you just have to drop the burger. We’ll remember being so familiar with the area we felt like locals, highway outreach, or that Dupont Circle was a home to most of us for 48 hours. But the most important things we’ll remember will be to smile and say hello to every homeless person we pass from now on. We’ll remember that while it’s important for us to donate our time and resources to shelters and outreach programs, it’s most important to remember people’s dignity and help preserve their very fragile sense of humanity.
Allie Bedell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org