Adjusting clarity: choosing to see what others won’t

*Thank you to those of you who responded to my Facebook post! I had much better direction in drafting this post, and I hope I was able to answer most of your questions. If not, feel free to reach out to me personally with any more. As you will notice by the length of this post, I have a lot to say about the issue of homelessness and how it relates to us as individuals and as a nation.*

I can remember the first time I saw someone experiencing homelessness.

I was probably 10 or 11 and my family had spent the day at The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. It was near the holidays and so after leaving the Science Center we drove around the city looking at the holiday decorations. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something laying on the sidewalk. I turned to look and saw two people wrapped up tightly in sleeping bags. It was winter. There was snow. Other people continued walking past them on the sidewalk.

The second time I remember feeling confronted with homelessness was when I was 13 and I saw a man with a sign panhandling by the side of the road. I went home and journaled about it. What could an innocent 13 yr old do? I was too young, I told myself, to do anything. Big issues like homelessness were best left up to adults and people with life experience. It wasn’t my place.

And oddly enough, neither of these memories surfaced in my mind until long after I had been in LA, but I have no doubt that they subconsciously influenced the calling I felt to move to Los Angeles.

What does homelessness look like in Los Angeles? It means that I can’t walk a block without seeing someone sleeping on a bus bench, or laying on the sidewalk. It means that there are only a couple thousand shelter beds for the 45,000+ people living homelessly in Los Angeles county. It means that in many parts of LA, you will see giant encampments of tents and furniture and structures forming little pocket communities. It means that no matter how many times I drive through Skid Row, it always takes my breath away in a bitter wrenching of my heart. It means that for people working in social services, we are confronted with the reality that we may have the passion and the know-how for helping those who want to get off the street, but we do not have nearly enough resources and so there are always people even we have to leave behind.

In a year of doing street outreach, I have seen almost every end of the spectrum. I’ve worked with clients as young as 12 years old and as old as 80. I’ve worked with people who have been homeless for 1 week, to people who have been homeless for 30-40 years. I’ve worked with Caucasian, Latino, African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American individuals. I’ve worked with clients who have moved to Hollywood with nothing but a dream before discovering that Hollywood will break dreams instead of making them. I’ve worked with clients who have physical disabilities. I’ve worked with clients who have severe mental health concerns. Clients with mild mental health. Clients who just fell oin hard times and either lost their job or couldn’t pay rent anymore. Clients who have extreme substance abuse addiction. Clients in gangs. Clients escaping domestic violence. Clients who became homeless after aging out of foster care. Clients who are homosexual. Clients who are transgender. Clients who cannot speak English. Clients experiencing 4 or more of these.

The people experiencing homelessness that I work with often tell me how desperately they just want people to understand them. To know that the homeless community is one of the most diverse populations you will ever find; you can never label them as all the same. To know that it’s not so simple to “just get a job” because minimum wage or part time work would never afford an apartment in LA and that it’s almost impossible to make it to job interviews without clean clothes, a shower, decent transportation.

I had a client beg me to take a few loaves of bread from a huge bag that had been dropped off by a woman from a high end bakery. She probably thought she was being helpful, but what can a bag of loaves of bread do? She gave him no meat, no water and I guarantee that he won’t be able to eat straight loaves of bread for a week with nothing else. (We couldn’t; so why do we assume that they are any different?)

So this is part of the problem. People wanting to help, but not knowing how. People with good intentions, but the wrong understanding of homelessness. People who join committees to address solutions to homelessness, but join for the wrong reasons.

The area I am contracted in is East Hollywood and Los Feliz. Los Feliz is a wealthy, white-gentrified community who, in my opinion, funds a street outreach team because their idea of solving homelessness is to get it out of their community. They are desperate to stop seeing it. This has made for many uncomfortable meetings and encounters with community members who disguise their disgust and discomfort with a semblance of concern and consideration. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor is a depressing truth. A lot of Angelenos rationalize that if they don’t see it, then they can pretend it doesn’t exist; that it isn’t a problem.

So my team and I find ourselves trapped in the middle, advocating for individuals in a system not created to help them, and reporting back to the people perpetuating the system…I have not been able to reconcile this with myself.

I’ve been asked multiple times if I’ve just stopped seeing homelessness in LA because it’s so overwhelming, and honestly I have not. I think that if I worked a different job, or if I grew up here, I might have started to look past. But my job trained me to seek out the corners and the shadows and to see the people that others don’t see and now it’s not just part of my job, it’s a habit. It’s become a habit for me to see people. We are a society that more regularly looks past people, not at them, because the truth is that it is exhausting to choose the alternative.

My coworker Moises often told me before he moved to a different agency that, “You don’t need some super master degree to do social work. You just need to have good common sense, a willingness to work hard, a commitment to take care of yourself too, and you need to really care. You need to care about the people you work with.”

I clung to this idea, as I often struggled with feeling inferior because of my lack of education. I don’t really feel that anymore as my year comes to a close. As my team experienced a lot of transitions, I ended up becoming the primary point-person in my contract area two weeks before my 19th birthday. I was the only one left who had been there in that area all year, and knew the people living homelessly in East Hollywood/Los Feliz. A few other (new-ish) team members switched over from another contract to join me, but I had to step up in a way that I doubt many interns have experienced. I feel confident in what I have learned and what I continue to learn. I still ask a lot of questions. I rely a lot on my teammates (which is the point of being on a team) But I have learned how to do my job. 

At the end of the day, my peace doesn’t come from counting the number of people I talked to, or the lunches I gave out, or the phone calls I made, or the referrals and transportation, and meetings for reporting and funding. My peace comes from knowing that I am building real and trusting relationships with people who often don’t ask for or need much more than that. I had an elderly client try to offer me a few pairs of jeans that had been given to him. I assured him that I didn’t need any and that he could give them to someone else. He sighed. “It’s not fair,” he said, “It’s not fair that you do so much for us, for me, and that I can’t give you anything in return.” Fast forward a few months, this client is now reunited with his family out of state. He calls me a few times a week to tell me about his garden, his grandkids, and to check in on how our team is doing. His health is finally stabilizing, he has a home, and he is safe. His daughter had been begging him for months to come live with her, but he refused out of stubbornness and not wanting to be a burden to her. The day he called me on the outreach cell to let me know that he had left LA, and was living with his family was one of the most beautiful things I have felt all year. There is nothing like the feeling of knowing someone you care deeply about has made it home. That’s what it’s about. Not the numbers, and the funding, and the politics, and the money, and the overwhelming grief that some days bring.

I’ve encountered God more on the street and in the homeless encampments where I work than in most churches I have ever entered and that is how I know that He is present here in the places where so few people want to go; He is here and has been here all along. 

So what do people experiencing homelessness want?

To be seen. To be respected. To not be disposable. (And honestly? To have a place to take a long, hot shower.)

In summary, here are a few lists of how to understand and approach individuals experiencing homelessness.

Don’t:

  • Ever tell someone experiencing homelessness to “just get a job”
  • Buy into the single-story that all homeless individuals are the same.
  • Be afraid. You may be surprised by the kindness and grace of people who live on the street. You will be, actually.
  • Judge. For the sake of all of humanity, don’t judge those experiencing homelessness. You don’t know them. You don’t know their story.
  • Be offended if someone living homelessly doesn’t want your food/money/conversation. They have bad days too; they have been taken advantage of. Be grace-filled and give them their space without becoming angry as well.
  • Stigmatize mental health. Learn, learn, learn. If there is one thing I have appreciated more than anything this year, it is my raw understanding of mental health in various forms. And more often than not, the man talking to himself on the corner is wonderfully kind. Learn his name. I’ve worked with a number of clients who, during hallucinogenic episodes, can be pulled back into focus for a little while just by hearing their name spoken by someone who knows them. He’s not dangerous. He is severely misunderstood. 
  • Be careless. It is important to be mindful when working with people who live on the streets. Always pay attention. Be comfortable and cautious at the same time.

A few more tips:

  • Make eye contact and smile. You have no idea how much simple acknowledgment does for the soul.
  • If you have a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness, shake their hand if they are ok with it. Human touch is a powerful and precious gift that so many miss.
  • Let your kids ask questions. My site coordinator and his wife let their daughters talk to people experiencing homelessness. They let their girls ask them questions. Not only is this a way for a child to learn, but I think about how the innocence of children is something that society has locked up as unavailable for certain groups of people. People living homelessly love the chance to talk to children.
  • Instead of giving money if they ask you, offer to buy them a meal. Panhandling perpetuates a cycle of dependency, but food is something that every human needs.
  • Research what homeless services are available in your city. Educate yourself and then if someone asks you for help, you will know how to refer them to somewhere they can get help. Often the people who need it most aren’t even aware of the resources they have available to them.
  • Donate to agencies that you know are credible. Homelessness isn’t just another social issue because you will find every single other one wrapped up in the lives of people living on the streets. I personally see homelessness as the manifestation of our greatest failures as a nation.

It is a blessing to know that those of you reading my post do care. That in light of all the ugliness, we can still make the choice to be kind and loving. I deeply appreciate all the support you’ve continuously shown me,  and I hope that you have learned and/or been challenged by some the things that I have felt and experienced this year.  

One month yet to go 😦

Much love, ❤

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One thought on “Adjusting clarity: choosing to see what others won’t

  1. Rowena- this is one of the most moving and helpful reflections I have ever seen. Thanks so much for sharing and for helping us to understand the reality of homelessness a little more. Blessings during your last month in LA. Thanks again for all your thoughtful and challenging posts.

    Liked by 1 person

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