My Homeless Experience
Why would I title this blog, My Homeless Experience? For those of you who don’t know me, I am a college educated, suburban, married mom. Having been though the experience of my husband being laid off, I am frugal beyond where I need to be: simple, clean my own house, rarely eat out, coupon like crazy (I have the stockpile proving my obsession), but… I have never had to bear the burden of being homeless, the feeling of sodden clothes, or the worry of darkness and sinister strangers (never homeless, although, I have spent a night sleeping on a sidewalk holding a spot in line for a coveted opportunity for my child to attend an over-achieving, creative charter school). On our recent High School Mission trip to Chicago, I was able to gain first-hand insight into this world of homelessness. Our morning spent in a “homeless immersion” at Facing Forward, an outreach program whose mission is to make connections with homeless and help them transition into housing, along with our work within communities like I describe in the next paragraph, transformed my perspective on what it feels like, not just what it looks like getting off of the streets.
Before I describe our immersion experience, take a moment to imagine this scenario –
You are a 34 year old divorced woman with three children (one of whom has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and requires medication and counseling). You are employed earning minimum wage and filling in with your neighbor’s cleaning business when work is available. Your children are all “functioning,” yet, the oldest (12 years old) has taken on a role of parent in your absence and is a bitter, mouthy teenager. The kids are lonely and not immune to the influences of living in a poverty stricken neighborhood. Even with the government assistance you receive, day-to-day existence as a single parent, mother of a mentally challenged child is exhausting physically and emotionally. You worry knowing that you are living on the edge of life crumbling, but are simply doing the best you can. Then life throws you the ultimate low blow – your apartment and all of your possessions and paperwork are destroyed in a fire. Your life (before the fire) is what life looks like for most of your neighbors and friends - there are very few happy, intact, two parent, two income families. The beauty of this plight is that those around you are compassionate to your situation, however, they are over stretched, over burdened and your middle child who is mentally challenged (let’s face it, enduring a house fire has not been a good thing for his condition) has pushed each generous family to the limit. You are left homeless.
So, here is our immersion experience…
Me and 5 adult leaders gather our 30 teenage troops, leave our posh surroundings of Forth Presbyterian and board the public bus on our way to Garfield Park neighborhood. By the way, life on a cot in a beautiful modern building connected to the 100 year old gothic style church and manse on Michigan Avenue is not only my opinion of posh, when we arrived there was a cocktail party of the elite world of interior design happening in the open space where we were to spend the next week living. It truly is an architectural masterpiece you should not only Google, but try to visit. When we arrived, there were no directions given, it is intended to be confusing. We were each handed a large manila envelope filled with solo red cups (each one representing your kids), a wallet, and a piece of paper describing our situation (much like the scenario I described above). From there we were herded to a make shift shelter (which was the size of a very small waiting room). Cardboard scraps were taped to our shoes, cotton balls stuffed in the toes (in attempt to make them uncomfortable), and most of us were asked to get out of our seats and sit on the floor. The only thing that united us was the fact that each one of us was homeless – we had unique scenarios, differing amounts of documentation and money in our wallets, some of us employed, some not, some with a bus pass some none, all seeking the prize in the “game”, a key to an apartment. But remember, none of what I just described was mentioned. On the contrary, we were told that each day was 5 minutes long, we needed to be back at the shelter by 5 pm or we would be sleeping on the streets.
Each day begins with a mad dash to the school (which you can drop off your kids as long as they are over the age of three and potty trained). We learn that around the building there are offices that have been transformed into specific social agencies that could provide assistance. We also quickly learned two things: 1) Nothing can be achieved in this process without identification or money. 2) If you drop your kids (red solo cups) or stack them on top of one another, you will go to jail for a day. So our days are spent navigating the system without guidelines, support, or resources. Our belongings were stolen, the shelter was closed, we were quarantined for a day in the shelter for a measles outbreak, we were shorted money owed at day labor, we were rejected and lied to, offices were closed, employee’s were grumpy – at the end of the experience, I had nothing to show for my efforts except a mounting level of frustration and state identification. I can honestly say, that I thought I understood the “system” and it still would have taken me a month of five minute days to get myself organized.
I walked away from this experience with a range of thoughts and emotions. From my immersion scenario, I imagined that I already felt somewhat demonized for being an unmarried mother and blamed for my circumstances – almost guilty. But why? Each one of these children was not part of an immaculate conception – where was the other part to help bear the burdens? I couldn’t help but consider the children – when was there time and energy to do all of the things we know help children learn and grow if so much of your time is spent navigating the system? Raising healthy children is a challenge, much less one with schizophrenia. Where were the resources to help navigate this world? One of our days was spent picking up trash in an impoverished neighborhood – I am not alone in the fact that most of what I picked up was empty bottles of cheap liquor. I have made the mistake of judging the homeless, in fear, not looking them in the eye, but after this experience, I can say it could not only drive me to drink, but I am sure it would put a lock on my heart, make me feel bitter, hopeless, undignified, and ashamed. I think these are the people Jesus would have been feeding, loving, caring for in our modern world. Somehow, he had this gift of knowing what it would feel like to live like this, not only what it would look like and I believe this motivated his every action. Thanks Facing Forward for giving us the opportunity to feel the plight of being homeless. Thank you to those that work with this population as they are truly bringing the message of Christ into the world.