The World of Homelessness (Day 1 Overview)

theworldofhomelessness

It’s been a pretty crazy past month and a half, so I apologize for those of you who have been patiently waiting for the monthly blog post to come out.  As many of you know, I am preparing to write a book on my experiences with poverty, and for the last few years of researching this topic and working in the field, it seemed as if there were still missing pieces to how poverty worked, why it was there in the first place, and what are the real solutions that can scale from the macro-to-micro levels that anyone can participate in.  But it wasn’t until I became incarnational, or “one of them” that suddenly the pieces that seemed to float around in my head began to piece together to form a more complete picture of poverty.  I’m still working on a lot of the theory, making it more accessible and more interconnected with Scripture, so please bear with me.  But let me just say that from speaking to several homeless outreach directors, speaking at various churches, and giving a presentation of the current content I have so far, the unanimous response as been this: mind-blowing.  There are so many facets that we as observers and outsiders could have never possibly considered unless we ourselves had to endure the hardships and difficulties that many of our friends do on the streets on a regular basis.

If you haven’t been paying attention lately, I went on a one-week experiment being homeless to assess our community’s efforts and understand the circumstances of being materially impoverished.  Here were some of the guidelines of my experiment:

Items I brought with me besides the clothes on my back:

–  Empty backpack (no supplies)
–  Old smartphone (cracked iPhone 4)
–  Flashlight
–  Sleeping bag/Tent

Objectives:
1.)  Find and live within a homeless community, either on the streets or in a camp.
2.)  Progress from living in a homeless camp to sleeping on the streets, to finally sleeping in a shelter (Lighthouse Mission).
3.)  No phone calls/texts/emails/etc. from friends/family and no help from those who are aware of my experiment unless they were planning on serving the homeless of their own accord anyways.
4.)  Experience the urgent need for food, toiletries, clothes, warmth, and shelter.
5.)  Visit as many local ministries/government programs/outreaches surrounding the downtown region of Bellingham, and assess them in the spheres of poverty they are attempting to alleviate (community, circumstance, spirit).
6.)  Experience and document changes in how businesses, and the general public change their behavior around me.
7.)  Hold up a sign asking for help on a street corner.  Stripping down my personal identity in Christ and becoming vulnerable, allow the world to tell me who I am during this time for two hours.

What I was not out there to do:

1.)  Evangelize
2.)  Be preaching or acting like a spiritual figure or counselor
3.)  Show off to the homeless how their lifestyle is easier than what I or others may assume it to be.
4.)  Be on vacation.

Alright, with all the guidelines set in place, let’s go day by day, overviewing what the experience was like for me.

Day 1:

I arrived downtown the night before around 10 pm and rendezvoused with Bob, one of our long-time homeless friends.  He had been staying in a fairly distant homeless camp inhabited by 5 or 6 other homeless people about 5 miles away from downtown.  That night, I was introduced to the crew when we got to the camp.  It was mesmerizing how big, organized, and family-oriented the group was.  They immediately took me in as one of their own, and fed me some baked beans and pork chops that were cooked over a barbecue that they had found dumpster diving.  We stayed up that night sitting around a campfire looking up at the stars, talking about Jesus and what their life has been like.  After a couple hours, I set up my tent next to Bob’s and went in for the night.

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The next morning, I woke up incredibly hungry.  The sky was darkening and it looked like it would rain later that night.  My clothes were already starting to feel a little gross after wearing them for a day.  I needed to get toiletries, food, and some sort of tarp to weather proof my tent.  Breakfast at the Mission was at 6 in the morning, so I definitely skipped it.  So I began biking into town with the bicycle that Bob lent me to use, and I began heading down to Lighthouse Mission.  I ate my first meal there.  To be honest, it felt really embarrassing.  Lining up, getting a meal ticket, and then going to the dining hall in single-file lines felt like elementary school all over again.  So while I waited in line, I decided to go talk to one of the supervisors working at Lighthouse Mission who actually knew me and knew what I was doing for this experiment.  He gave me some incredible insight into the mentality of the homeless.  “You are at an advantage because there’s places you can go to that most homeless people wouldn’t think to go to.  You could go to Viking Commons at WWU, or the public library, but what I noticed is that the marginalized go to marginalized places.  They would never feel comfortable going to those places I just mentioned, so they stay away from them.”

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I can’t remember exactly what I ate, but it wasn’t exactly the highest quality.  Either way, I was thankful for the food as I scarfed down an entire meal.  I took an apple to go with me before leaving.  I then went to meet up with Bob at the park to figure out what we were going to do for resources.  We had to choose between the Opportunity Council or the Hope House, as they were quite a distance away from each other and the rain was going to come in any minute.  So we decided to go to Opportunity Council first since it was closer.  There was no intake or conversation, just a quick “where can we get ___________” and the receptionist would point to us the pamphlets sitting on the counter.  I picked up a couple all-day bus passes and a couple shower passes to use at the YMCA between 8:30-9:30pm, and a complete pamphlet for all the resources and hot meals being offered in town.  This pamphlet was key for me in visiting and assessing each ministry.

Hope House was a good hour’s bike ride from where we were, so we couldn’t go there.  Hope House is the Catholic Church’s clothing and resource ministry for the homeless.  I really needed a new shirt, socks, and undergarments.  Deodorant would be nice too.  At this point, I had ridden about 7-10 miles, and there was no way we’d return in time for dinner.  So to kill time until dinner at the Mission, I sat at the park talking to different people.  As I got to hang out not just with the homeless but as one of them, I began to notice all kinds of peculiarities within the culture, namely the factions among the homeless.  Some of the larger divisions of the homeless are these:

Givers vs. Takers:
In retrospect, this is actually one of the most common factions among the homeless that has always been right in front of my eyes, but never noticed until now.  The Givers are those who share, who see everything and anything precious and salvageable.  They put anything they find to use, and they never throw anything away.  They constantly share what they have, even to their own detriment.  Takers are those who find nothing precious.  Everything is disposable.  They’re the kind of homeless that complain about the kind of food you give them, and they don’t share.  It’s a system of constant taking from one another, and in more ways than just material possessions.  Givers are less in the public eye, as they don’t want attention drawn to them.  Takers want attention.  They desire to be feared, respected, but deep down, they want to be known.  They’re also more typically seen in public, and therefore shed a negative light on the homeless population that isn’t accurately indicative of the actual mentality of the homeless community in its entirety.

Young (newcomers) vs. Older “Veterans” of Homelessness
The generational divide is also a massive point of division between the communities.  The young versus the old; they see each other as threats.  The young long for parental figures to help them “master” the streets as a form of self-empowerment, while the older generation sees the young as reckless, spoiled children who are ruining the fragile respect the general public may have towards them by their often destructive behavior.  They see the younger generation as dead weight and a drain on their energy, constantly cleaning up after their irresponsible messes.  So the older generation distance themselves from the younger, and as a result the younger generation has developed a resentment towards the older generation; an unhealthy sense of betrayal and competition for who really mastered the streets.

I realized a few things: the comments some people make that “homelessness is a disease” no longer rings true to me.  Seeing the divides (and there are far more that I haven’t mentioned in this post) among the homeless, not all homelessness is the same.  In fact, it was then that I no longer believed that statement anymore, because homelessness wasn’t the real problem, the real disease was sin, and homelessness is a symptom of it.  People will still sin and live self-destructive lives whether they live in a doorway outside or in a luxury condo.

A couple of the homeless friends I was camping with invited me to come back to their camp for a barbecue, so I decided to skip dinner.  But as the hours waned on into the night, I began to wonder if we were ever going to eat.  I dug a trench around the tent I stayed in and set up tarps over my tent to cover the rain as I waited patiently for someone to tell me when we were going to eat.  I had ridden a total of 30 miles that day on my bike, dug a trench, and only had a single meal.  Exhausted and not wanting to be rude, I decided to fall asleep hungry.  I could feel anger and impatience rising the longer I waited, so I decided it would be best to just sleep and hopefully eat something in the morning.

That’s it for my Day 1 summary.  There’s still 6 more days to write about and as you can see, each day had a massive amount of activity and learning.  I’ll do my best to finish out this 7 day blogging series of my experiment, but I hope this post was informational and helpful.  Please feel free to email me any of your questions at risinghopestreetministry@gmail.com.  There’s still so much more to share, so stay tuned and thanks for reading!

 

Jon

About Jon Ng

Jon Ng is the Ministry Director and Founder of Rising Hope Street Ministry. He has been actively leading Rising Hope since October 4, 2012.