Learning About Homelessness… From the Homeless
Until last summer I worked an organization called Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which serves the homeless in Austin and in five other cities across the country. A couple times a year, the MLF leadership takes employees and other members of the community out onto Austin’s streets for something called a Street Retreat.
Street Retreat participants leave behind their money and credit cards, take no food, and pack the minimum they need to survive for 48-72 hours. (Most leave their phones home, but a couple MLF employees keep theirs in case of emergencies). During the retreat, participants spend time sleeping, eating, and hanging out with Austin’s homeless population.
I was completely unprepared for it my first time out…which I guess is kind of a good thing. I went out there with a limited working knowledge of what it means to be homeless; in my mind I always assumed it was something like camping or following The Grateful Dead. That is: not always comfy or clean, but also, kind of an adventure with opportunities for plenty of good times.
Instead, I came home angry.
Angry that there are thousands of people living on the streets of my city (and every other major city in this country) who are ignored, overlooked and derided for simply not having the resources they need to improve their lot in life.
Angry that people in our society are far more concerned about bickering over HOW to help these people than they are about actually helping them.
Angry that people judge the homeless mercilessly–even those of us who try to help them–without truly understanding what limitations they are working with.
Know this: What I experienced out there was NOT homelessness. I experienced some of the discomfort of homelessness, and I experienced some of the services that are provided to the homeless. But I had no desperation, no dependencies, and no real fear for my life or health.
I learned so much about what I DON’T know about homelessness on the Street Retreat. And for that I am truly thankful.
A lot can and does happen out there in 48-hours. As the It’s impossible to recount it all, but I will tell you about some of the highlights from the last time I participated:
Friday night, my co-worker Sarah got a call from one of her street friends named Sherry who said she and her boyfriend would meet us at Trinity Center at 7pm. A small group of us headed over to meet them and we sat on the corner of 7th & Trinity for a good two hours just chatting. While we were there another homeless dude calling himself “Creeper” joined us and kept us entertained with bawdy, inappropriate jokes while puffing away on his Red Bull flavored e-cigarette. (“It’s cheaper than cigarettes and better for you!” he said.) A nice couple pulled up to the light and shouted out the window, “Do you guys want some food?” Creeper jumped up and grabbed the bag of leftovers from the driver and everyone tore into it sharing the random selection of tamales, vanilla ice cream, and peppermint bark. Cops drove by staring at us hard, and lots of folks heading down to 6th street for a night of partying eyed us warily, but we ignored them and carried on with our impromptu sidewalk party.
Later our small group of Street Retreaters headed down to the ARCH (homeless shelter) to see if anyone we knew was out there. It was pretty quiet, so we walked up toward UT to see if we could find anywhere to camp along the way for the night, but there weren’t many spots we could stay without getting a ticket. Sherry had told us that the church up on the campus wouldn’t kick you out if you slept there. And also, they were serving a breakfast the next morning.
In the morning, other homeless folks started gathering at the church early, and by 9am we had a crowd. The fine folks at the church had bagged a cold meal for us (usually they have a hot breakfast but their kitchen was being remodeled) and served up plenty of hot coffee. We hung out there at the church until about 11am and just socialized.
I met a really cool guy named Darryl who is Jewish and has fantastic taste in music. He told me about lots of concerts he went to here in Austin and back home in New York. Darryl volunteers twice a week at the church. He was going down to Shoreline later that day to get their free lunch, then heading over to the hospital to visit an old friend of his (also homeless) who was in bad shape. I asked him why he was homeless—it seemed inconceivable that such an articulate, funny, smart person would be living in a tent. He said ever since his wife died four years ago, he’s had a hard time keeping his shit together. He lost his apartment, and sometimes works at the Habitat for Humanity store—but hasn’t been able to keep himself in a stable situation.
I also met this other guy named Steven who I actually met at that same church on the previous year’s retreat. We had a very extensive conversation about Star Trek, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. He recommended a couple other science fiction TV series that I hadn’t heard of, and we had a lively discussion over which Star Trek series was the best. (I went with TNG, he said Voyager.)
We walked all day Saturday. You can’t really loiter anywhere downtown without getting a ticket, so you have to keep a move on even when the only thing you want to do is sit. We walked at least 10 miles each day we were out there. Our homeless friend Ellis (who now works at Mobile Loaves & Fishes and is living in his own home!) guided our little group that day. He showed me a shop downtown where the owners are cool with non-customers using the bathroom, and he toured us through a couple little spots I never even knew existed in Austin.
Around midday, we were exhausted from the lack of sleep and all the walking, so we went to Republic Square Park. The weather had warmed up to about 60 degrees and I found myself getting really drowsy after a while, and dozed off. I got about an hour of snooze time in a warm patch of sun. I woke up to find that we had all fallen asleep, except Ellis who was watching over us and keeping an eye out for cops like a protective mother hen.
That nap was the only decent sleep I’d had that weekend.
The thing about being out on the streets all the time is that there is no place to use the bathroom. Most places make you buy something first, and there are few public restrooms to be found. I’m not kidding when I say that it was a major source of anxiety for me—trying to figure out where and when I could go to the bathroom all weekend. Not only that, but the bathrooms you do get to use aren’t always that great. I’m just sayin’…I even had to pee behind a dumpster one night. But it’s not like I was the first one to do it. The whole place reeked of urine.
When you gotta go, you gotta go.
Saturday night Sarah got a call from her friend Cathy who lives in her car. She met us at McDonald’s and we all sat outside for about an hour visiting. None of us bought anything while we were there, but luckily they didn’t shoo us away. Cathy’s boyfriend tried a little panhandling for us but no luck. We had some food that we got off a Mobile Loaves & Fishes truck earlier so no one was starving, but we thought some hot food would be good.
Food options are limited out there. I ate four PB&J sandwiches over the course of the weekend, and had very little fresh foods except a couple bananas and oranges I got from the MLF food truck. It’s definitely hard to provide fresh veggies and fruits consistently, but that’s what those folks really need. That’s one of the reasons Mobile Loaves & Fishes has the Genesis Gardens program. Not only do they employ homeless folks, but they distribute a good variety of fresh veggies and fruit on the MLF food trucks during peak seasons. The best food on earth—organic, fresh produce—for the people who can least afford it.
Sunday morning we got up and headed to IHOP. We’d all managed to panhandle enough money and pool it together to afford a real breakfast, so we decided to meet there at 7am. It was downright luxurious to sit in a warm restaurant (yes, even an IHOP) with a bottomless pot of hot coffee. The waitress we had actually served the street retreaters last year and remembered us. She told us any time we are coming that we should call ahead and she’ll come in to serve us even on her day off.
When we were done with breakfast, we headed to Church Under the Bridge –a big church service and breakfast held for the homeless under the I-35 overpass each week. They had a band and tables of food, and lots of seating.
From there, I caught a ride up to north Austin. My weekend was over.
I love that my friends and family are so enthusiastic about the work I’ve done with MLF. It warms my heart to know that such a valuable organization is appreciated and celebrated in the community.
But it worries me when people call us things like “Brave” “Angel” “Shero” – and tell me they admire us and that what we’ve done is amazing. That kind of praise leads one to believe that there’s something special about the people who do this kind of work. I assure you, none of us are angels or heroes. I am as deeply flawed and imperfect as any human being can be–maybe even more than the average human. Me and the rest of my Mobile Loaves & Fishes colleagues aren’t particularly special or gifted. We all make mistakes, have bad days, and fuck up royally on occasion.
Loving people, even the ones that look scary and smell bad isn’t something only certain people can do. We all have this capacity—we’re all fully capable of opening our hearts and building relationships with the homeless and impoverished, and I invite you to join us in doing just that.
So much of the dysfunction that exists in this society is a result of smarty-pants people who have no fucking clue what really happens on the ground and in the lives of the people they are supposedly ‘helping’ or ‘protecting’.
Anyone working in social services, public policy, or law would do well to get down off their high horses and out of their ivory towers and go spend time directly to the people they are supposedly serving. I’m not talking about interviewing people in a clinical setting, I’m talking about meeting them where they are and letting them show you what they are dealing with in real, practical terms.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes is an organization built around relationships with the homeless. Years ago, MLF founder Alan Graham used to just take sandwiches out in a minivan and look for homeless people to hang out with. He talked to them and found out what was they needed, and built the organization around those needs.
We don’t go out there to “Experience Homelessness”; rather, we go to understand what we can do to make a difference in the lives of the people stuck in a cycle of chronic homelessness. By spending time with them on their terms, on their turf, and letting ourselves feel the discomfort and indignities that they go through every single day, we can come back to our non-profits and our community centers and do things that really work for those folks.
I have seen first-hand the kind of transformations that occur when people who have previously felt lost and abandoned are suddenly showered with love and respect. It’s not something you can legislate or make a one-size-fits-all program for. But it is (and I don’t use this word lightly) miraculous.
It takes me almost two days after I get home from a street retreat just to get to the point where I don’t want to sleep all the time. The 48 hours I spend out on the streets are exhausting and physically uncomfortable in every possible way. My brain feels foggy from the lack of sleep, I get blisters from constantly walking around and my whole body aches from sleeping on concrete and carrying a backpack the whole time. Taking a hot shower and lying on my bed—two simple things I have always taken for granted—feel like heaven.
But ever since my first retreat, much more than my body has been in recovery. My soul is pretty tender, too. After experiencing just a little bit of what these homeless men and women live with every day of the year, I now see clearly how bad we are at trying to solve the big problems in our society, even when our intentions are good. It’s been very humbling.
How many people who are currently working on issues of homelessness have ever done something like a street retreat? How many people that provide services to the homeless have tried to get to appointments, stand in long lines, and find basic necessities in the face of constant exhaustion, physical discomfort, illness (mental and physical), and chemical dependencies without transportation and the support of people who actually give a damn whether you live or die?
How many of us have begrudged a homeless person for having a phone or some other ‘luxury’ item without stopping to realize that it may be one of their only possessions and they are using it to survive? How many of us — even at our most compassionate — just hand some cash to a guy on the side of the road without ever looking in his eyes?
You want to help the homeless? REALLY help them? Here’s what I suggest:
Smile at them. Ask them how they’re doing. Tell them you hope they have a nice day. Keep some small bills in your pocket and hand them to panhandlers– and don’t worry about what they are using it for. They are using it to survive. Keep some bus passes and bottled water in your car to give out when you’re driving across town…and look at them in the face when you hand it to them. Acknowledge that they are human, that they are living a shitty, shitty existence and that you hope they stay safe out there. Ask if they need something when you’re walking into the store if you see one standing outside. Volunteer with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, CARITAS, or other organizations that serve the homeless population. Pray for them. Pray with them. Vote against laws and policies that make life even harder for them.
Our homeless friends have consistently told us that the most difficult part of being homeless is that they are ignored by everyone around them. They feel invisible, unlovable, and shunned by the majority of people that live in our city.
Alan Graham, founder at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, always says that the root cause of homelessness is a profound loss of family. It’s true. Most of us would turn to our families if we had no place to go. These folks don’t have that, for whatever reason. A lot of what we at Mobile Loaves & Fishes do for the homeless folks we work with is just stuff their families would do if they had them: we take them to doctor’s appointments, help them check their emails or set up Facebook accounts, help them find work or get into a rehab program. We’re not doing magic over here–we’re giving people boots so that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
And perhaps most importantly, we’re loving them. The homeless population is STARVING… for love. They live in a hostile environment where the greater population ignores or derides them. There is very little trust among the homeless –they are watching their back all the time. Authority figures are not there to protect them–they’re there to make sure that the homeless don’t bother the ‘good’ people of Austin.
I’m not spouting some hippy-dippy love and daisies bullshit here. I’m talking about love for your fellow man and woman–treating people who have nothing to offer you and who you may even feel threatened by (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) with dignity and respect. That’s what’s missing in the ‘solutions’ for the homeless that so many of our great social engineers are overlooking.
And that kind of love can’t be bought or legislated.