Inez is a homeless man who wanders around our nation’s capitol in despair. We met him on the first official day of our trip, and what a bizarre day to say the least. If I were to hand you a hot dog wrapped in foil paper, a bottle of water and an orange and then instruct you to wander the streets of Washington, D.C profiling every person you saw in an attempt to identify the one in the most need of the aforementioned food, how would you begin your search?
Words cannot properly express the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach as I scanned the streets while pausing on every black and brown face to evaluate “how homeless they looked.” Imagine, if you can, the awkward situation of approaching someone on their smoke break and offering them some water---a seemingly innocuous gesture, but one where there is no denying the implications--- you think this person is homeless. And even if it’s true, is it not a humiliating experience to have someone explicitly acknowledge our destitution? The minute you meet the eyes of the person to whom you’re offering food, there is a mutual understanding that you’ve made an assessment about their well being, about their status as a person and about their ability to provide for themselves. I assume for most of us, accepting charity would imply a level of humility bordering on embarrassment. Not exactly the most dignifying of experiences. Nevertheless, we wandered from the shelter in Southeast Washington to Union Station, where we met Inez, randomly approaching strangers offering them food and attempting to offer them, as our guide put it, “some dignity.”
I have trouble with this interpretation of our service. Dignity is not something of which I ever thought as mine to give to another human being. I certainly do not expect to be dignified by any of my peers and have always considered dignity to be something one merits on their own accord and by their own standards. When we met Inez, I did not think of him as an undignified man. However, his need was evident. His clothes bore a filthy tint, he smelled of a bitter mixture of body odor and vodka and he limped from an injury he sustained a week prior. The man needed food, he needed shelter, he needed medical attention and he needed a shower. I don’t think he needed our pity. What he needs is agency. The agency to provide for himself, the agency to overcome his alcoholism, to seek better healthcare and affordable housing. Perhaps what he needs is dignity and perhaps dignity will enable that agency, but not the kind of dignity we can give to him with a hot dog and an orange.
We walked Inez, on an injured foot, to a shelter where he was rejected simply because they didn’t have to take him. I was told this particular shelter only “had” to take someone if the conditions outside were hypothermic. Eventually, we called an ambulance for Inez. I don’t know if he ever received the medical attention he needed or if he continued to drunkenly and aimlessly wander around DC until he passed out from dehydration. I do know, however, that there are many people like Inez in cities across the country. Wandering from place to place, bench to bench, park to park but never really getting anywhere. It hurt me to see Inez in so much pain. He suffered from pangs reaching far deeper than his physical ailments. It was clear to me that the man with whom I was speaking was a broken one, and it hurt to not know how to fix him. My encounter with Inez reminded me that pain comes in many forms and that the homeless do not benefit from our condescension. We have to come to terms with the fact that the pain of the homeless is our own as well. It hurts America to allow people like Inez to wander our streets without basic care and resources. His pain is our own and until we internalize this notion, the issue of homelessness will forever seem foreign and lack the civic engagement from those of us with enough privilege to make a difference.
Back to the concept of pain and its different forms. The pain from which Inez suffered is also historical. As an ecuadorian immigrant, Inez is a product of a troubled nation hurt by corruption and poverty. He suffers from the wounds of the historically marginalized, of the underrepresented and of the poor. He sustained an injury to his foot which caused him to drink excessively in an attempt to cope with the pain, but the pain with which he is trying to cope is also caused by the lack of hope afforded to all people in his situation. I cannot fathom how much it hurts to be ignored on the street as strangers overlook your despair and suffering. I cannot fathom that invalidation. Inez related to me his struggle with alcoholism which was something triggered by the depression ensuing the loss of his job just under a year ago. Inez’s story embodies the pains of our ailing country: depression, unemployment, immigrant poverty and the uninsured. It is an unfortunate reality that he is not an isolated incident of misfortune because to some extent, millions of Americans share his pain. It highlights the need for solidarity amongst us all and to alleviate destitution in this country. We need to work together.
It pains me to reflect upon this. I have felt exhausted the entire trip because witnessing so much need drains my spirit in a way that nearly disables any capacity for critical reflection. The inefficiencies within our system are too overwhelming. However, that’s when I remember what Kurt said about how we never know from whence hope will come.
This trip has been particularly inspiring in that respect: a collective of religiously, racially and intellectually diverse students at a leading institution have come together to think critically about all of these issues. That is what gives me hope. I am inspired by the compassion of each of these participants and am proud to witness the toll our experiences have taken on our desire to effect change. We will all leave D.C with a renewed sense of purpose. However, it is important to remember that we aren’t special. The solidarity that was formed over the course of our ten days of service, the passion that was sparked, the gut reaction to want to change things can be replicated across the nation. As participants of this great experience we must try to spread that solidarity and internalize the pain we have witnessed in order to better communicate the need for activism, the need for civic engagement and the need for collaboration. The only thing remedying my pain at the moment is the potential for change, and I am proud to say that this trip has no shortage of medicine. I write to share my rambles, but more importantly to share my thanks. You’ve given this cynic hope, and for that, I am eternally grateful.