Hello from the Faith in Action ASB! We spent most of yesterday driving down to Washington D.C., and then went for a short walk around the seminar center where we're staying. We ran into some recognizable buildings... as it turns out, we are very much on Capitol Hill.
Moving from an organization that focuses on advocacy to direct triage, we took the metro to a branch of Capitol Hill Group Ministry, where we met Dan, who'd been working there for six months. Dan was obviously very passionate about homelessness, but also felt like it was "an unsolvable problem... like sadness."
As he borrowed five of our group to prepare some food that we would later pass out, we talked about our personal reaction to this statement- while homelessness certainly isn't a simple problem, most of our group didn't see it as a totally unsolvable problem, though we might have to change our current culture in order to effect some big changes. When Dan came back, he agreed with us somewhat, but it does seem like he'd become a bit jaded with the attitudes of the government officials in the area, who are all looking for some single policy that will 'fix' this problem for good.
Dan works with chronically homeless people, who account for about 10% of all homeless people and are the source of many of the stereotypes associated with homelessness- carries around all their belongings, sleeps outside, often male, unkempt, sometimes veteran, has an addiction or mental illness- I'm recounting these in list form because, as it turns out, for the next couple of hours we had to heavily lean on the very stereotypes we had spent a term breaking down. We split up into small groups of 2 or 3, and, each armed with a subset of hot dogs, juice, oranges, pretzels, and water bottles, and went out to first and foremost "form a human connection" with homeless people, offering them some food or drink after the initial conversation if they so wished. As Dan put it, "When we run out of food, we will still be able to give out dignity."
It sounds noble, but my group spent our first 20-minute excursion sizing up people uncomfortably from afar, asking each other things like, "What about that guy?", "Maybe they're on a smoke break from work.", "That person could be coming home from shopping...". There were a LOT of feelings involved: we didn't want to accidentally offend someone who wasn't homeless, it didn't feel natural to interrupt someone who was talking with a friend or walking somewhere, we weren't sure how to approach someone or how we'd be received, and the entire act of profiling was outside of everyone's comfort zone. After the first excursion, only three groups had actually approached someone.
Still, we had a few more opportunities- first slightly further down for 20 minutes on Pennsylvania Ave., and then for an hour at Union Station. The reactions were quite varied- some people were grateful or interested in talking, a few groups got cursed at, other people were homeless but weren't interested in receiving food or interacting with us. We experienced a lot of dissonance- the city itself is a mix of extremely clean prestigious areas with neglected areas the next block over; the station had businesspeople and homeless people alike walking around; we experienced emotional dissonance, as we tried to reconcile our anger with the system with our vulnerability with our desire to make a difference; and there was certainly some physical dissonance, as several hours on our feet started catching up to us, and yet I certainly felt rather guilty for being hungry and tired when I couldn't be worse off than the people we were trying to help.
Some of the stories I experienced/heard from other groups, though there are a lot more I didn't catch, and perhaps people can elaborate on these or add their own stories later:
- Several people talked about their faith, which they held fast to despite (or because) of their circumstances. Shweta's group met a veteran who felt the apocalypse was approaching. My group ran into a man with a very positive outlook on life, who was just glad to be alive and trusted that God would provide for him. When Ariel asked a man if he had advice for us young people, he told us "Stay in school... and pray, a lot."
- Parnian, Phoebe and I ran into a lady wandering a bit aimlessly through a median. When we started talking to her, it became quite evident that she was not... when we asked her if she wanted anything, she said no and offered us cookies.
- Geo's group was talking to a very kind lady when, mid-conversation, a cop approached, grabbed the lady's unopened alcohol, and poured it out in front of them, throwing it away. Thinking their group was working with the cop, she wouldn't take their items and marched off.
- Similarly, others of us were talking to Aaron while he was tiredly sitting on the ground, and a cop approached and tried to intercede. Everyone hurriedly assured him that Aaron was with us, and he left, but it made the whole experience, and our feelings about profiling, more uncomfortable...
Before we started out, Dan explained that we would end at the CCNV so that we'd be depressed but motivated to make a change. It certainly sparked negative emotions- the area was a lot more neglected, and businesspeople walking through weren't making eye contact at all, the shelter turning away Inez and the clinic being closed so early, the homeless people there mostly hanging out with their friends and so our presence tended to be more intrusive than helpful, and the large, describedly inefficient shelter looming over us all. It had also started to rain by this point.
Talking over it later, a lot of the group members expressed confusion over the experience- there were so many feelings, opinions, other people's stories and issues and problems to sort through. It was visceral and made me (and a few others) incredibly angry, to talk with people about and watch the dehumanization that comes with homelessness. To really fully realize the immense struggles that existing, human people have to go through on a daily basis is not only disheartening, it's difficult to reconcile with the very privileged lives we lead and the very small help we were giving. It was frustrating when we didn't establish a human connection, because approaching someone on the street was too awkward, or the person wasn't interested in opening up to a stranger, or was offended by our interest. It felt like we didn't have the time or resources to properly care about someone or have a good conversation with them, and so, at times, our aid itself might have been dehumanizing, as we stereotyped people and tried to give them what we thought they needed based on that. It was difficult to try and shed our egos as much as possible, to focus on helping someone instead of any of a myriad of feelings we were experiencing with the situation, and in some situations, we weren't sure if we were helping at all.
Alice helped voice our collective feelings about the work with Capitol Hill, which was that, regardless of the intrinsic value of our work that day (which I certainly have a lot of mixed feelings about), its instrumental value was immense. Dan would probably agree with her, as he congratulated my group after our first, non-interactive 20 minutes for engaging our feelings, even if we didn't actually talk to anyone. The effect the day had on us was certainly palpable, even if we can't quite describe it clearly, yet. And I have to say that I gained a much greater understanding of homelessness as an individual issue, and hopefully the understanding that we gain from these ten days in D.C. will allow us to alleviate homelessness in the future, in whatever way we choose to proceed.
Geo shared an insight from the San Francisco ASB last year: we are not here to fix problems. Even if we help 0 people, the trip will still be valuable. I am still unsure as to how I feel about this. Definitely very lucky to have this opportunity, but also rather selfish, because if I'm not helping anyone, then I'm using them for their educational value, which I don't feel like I have a right to do. But do I just want to help people so that I feel like I have accomplished something important/meaningful/productive? because then, that is a selfish impulse also. Having actually helped someone is not something I think one ever has a right to expect from a situation, though, as Geo put it, it's certainly a bonus. And, as Kurt has framed it, as we go through the rest of this trip, we will continue to encounter people who, like us, are facing the problem of homelessness, and are trying to make a difference in the very differing ways they think will affect it best. So the difference we make (or not), the things we grow to learn and understand, and the difference we hope to make in the future will definitely be things to keep in mind as our trip progresses.
Still, I think that underneath all this confusion, there's a sense that today was a very good thing indeed.