My last night in Hawaii was my first night as a homeless person.
I had no plan, nowhere to stay, no tent, and my only possessions were on my back. I checked out of my four-night stay at the Northshore Hostel with only $20, some slices of bread, a few veggies, and a large avocado. I ate everything by the next morning.
I had decided I was going try homelessness when I was still living in Colorado. In Colorado, I was connecting with the homeless people and way of life. I was also unemployed, had very little possessions, and very little food.
Aside from the very definition of being homeless (I still had my apartment), I considered myself to be one of them. Or at least very close to it. And with my lease ending soon, homelessness became a realistic option.
I knew that eventually I wanted my journey to be without a home. I wanted to live life on the ground level. Experience what it is like to truly be homeless.
I knew that my minimalism path and desire to connect with these people would eventually lead me to the point of homelessness (if even for a night), but I wanted to be prepared for when it happened. I wanted my backpack to be equipped with all the essentials so that I could live a homeless (or nomadic) lifestyle full time.
I helped out in a “coffee house” in Denver that catered to the homeless. I put coffee house in quotes because it was a coffee house in the loosest of terms. It was more like a homeless hangout that was run by a man who looked homeless himself. I learned many things from being in this environment. What I remember most about the place was my initial reaction when I walked in. I was hit with a debilitating stinch that smelt exactly like you’d expect forty homeless people to smell. It was a musty, putrid, soil-stained, piss-soaked smell that still humbles me to this day.
I felt very out of place. I was by FAR the cleanest, brightest looking person in the bunch and most stared at me wondering why I was there. I made my way up to the counter to ask about the place and offer my help. I was offered coffee and given a tour. They didn’t need much help outside of food donations, which I couldn’t contribute at the time because I was so poor myself, but I was more curious about the people anyway.
I just wanted to sit amongst them and listen and try to feel what it felt like to live on the streets. It was as you would expect: an un-glorified, dirty, scrappy way of life. It didn’t discourage me though. It only fueled me.
I found that I related to homeless people more than I ever thought I would. These people made sense to me. I liked them and wanted to be like them, but in my own way. I, too, did not find a home in society to be fulfilling and instead found it to be a confusing, uncomfortable and an inhospitable environment for my ideals and lifestyle wishes. I, too, have felt an emptiness, hopelessness and worthlessness so deep and profound that it makes me feel that a sleeping bag on the street corner is all I can manage. I, too, have felt the absolute yearning for freedom and independence from any and every human and institution in America that it leads me to think that homelessness is my only option for happy survival. I, too, enjoy living life on my own terms and on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis where my only real need is finding food.
I empathized with their stories and saw myself in their worn out, tattered shoes. I felt grateful, blessed, and fortunate to have been given the life I had. And I knew, just as they did, that my life was given to me purely by luck (or by the fortunes of my parents).
I have always had a passion for the homeless and I remember being a child and watching them on the street corners and being endlessly curious about their story and how they got there. I always gave money when I had it, and in high school I would often buy them Whataburger meals and offer rides (my Dad was not too happy about the latter).
I don’t know why but I felt a strong calling to help them in any way I could. Usually it was with food or money. I figured this was their greatest need.
I lived in New York City for a summer in college and when I left I told my Dad that I’d never be able to live there because of the severity of the homelessness. It made me inexplicably sad. No matter how many hot dogs or take out food boxes I gave them or the amount of one’s I handed them (sometimes even twenties), I knew that I was only lessening the blow and not solving the problem. I felt genuinely helpless and I hated that feeling.
So I think part of my need to be homeless stems from my wanting to understand these people. I figured if I could understand them and their needs then I could solve homelessness in my own little way. It seemed food and money was a never ending cycle and me giving it was helpful, but not necessarily breaking the cycle.
The more I learned about their circumstances and pitfalls, the more I understood how they ended up where they are. Some planned to stay homeless, others were working hard to make it out of homelessness. Some were on the streets because it was the only environment that fostered their addictions, some were there because of disabilities or injuries that left them unable to work, and some were there because gentrification had raised their rent price and forced them out of their homes.
Although I have gained much insight from speaking and interacting with these individuals over the years, I have come to little decisive conclusions.
Every story is different and every circumstance equally so.
Each person is homeless because of a unique set of reasons, wishes, or mistakes that have put them in that position. I very quickly realized that they (along with every other person in this world) need to be seen as individuals and not lumped into some subgroup of society.
I quickly realized that while I may look cleaner, brighter, and “better off” than these individuals, I am in fact no better than them, I am them.
So often we as citizens treat people who are “lesser” than us exactly in that way. We often forget to see the reality of it and the reality of how we have become who we are. We are born where we are born and with the circumstances we are born in to without choice or pre-conceived selection. We do not have a say-so and we certainly do not do any work to be born into a certain family, country, or class.
So me being born into a hard working, upper-middle class white family with resources and the finances to send me through fourteen years of good education… was purely luck.
I am no different than the child that was born into a poor family with very little resources to rely on or to a family in Ethiopia who could not afford my existence and thus had to give me up to an orphanage. I am no different than any other human being on this planet. I was born with a greater set of circumstances, sure, but I very well could have been born on the opposite end of the scale.
So what gives me the right to act as though I deserve what I have or that I have some how earned this spot in life? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I will always have the safety net that my parents provide (no matter how much I have declared I don’t want it) and it will always come with love and support in my times of need. Not everyone has this blessing.
And while I think as we grow into adults (homeless people included) it is important that we learn how to navigate life and make a better life for ourselves (a life of independence and abundance), we cannot forget that there are people who started out six steps behind.
When I think about “Why can’t this person get himself or herself out of this poverty?” and start to feel more frustrated than sympathetic, I think about how hard it would be if I were in their shoes.
When I was in California, the woman I house sat for told me about a campaign that was happening in Seattle. It encouraged the people of Seattle to “Just Say Hello” to the homeless people in the area. The purpose and intent is to make these individuals feel welcome, feel worthy to be a part of the same society we all inhabit. A few kind words, some simple eye contact, and maybe even a handshake or hug is perhaps the turning point we need to bring humanity closer together. This, to me, can be more powerful than money or food.
The feeling of connectedness, love, and inclusivity is something all humans yearn for so why not share this with those who need it most? Why not give our love to those who could benefit from it tremendously? Why is it so hard to love those who do not look like us, dress like us, or have as much money as us?
Maybe all that is missing is love. Love for the disconnected, the unloved, and the excluded. Love for those that are struggling, those that are wary, those that are tired, and worn out. Love for those who are defeated, resourceless and camping out at Rock Bottom. Love for everyone we come in contact with each and every day be they clean, dirty, wealthy, poor, home or homeless.
[[Next time you pass by someone struggling, instead of pitying them, send them love and compassion. Make eye contact from a place of love and give an earnest "hello," you'll be surprised at how this might nourish someone more than all the food in the world.]]