From October 10-12, I participated in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Homeless Challenge. I spent 48 hours living on the streets disguised as an unhoused person—sleeping outside, panhandling, and walking blocks and blocks to access food, a bathroom, transportation, and other services.
On our first night, my partner and I walked for hours in the rain. We slept in the rain with minimal coverage. My shoes and socks and waterproof jacket were soaked; my skin became like prunes. Despite the cardboard we collected, I shivered throughout the night, completely unprepared. I lay awake for hours. In the middle of the night, I got up, in need of a bathroom; I went to a fast food restaurant—like I have done in the past—but I was denied, even when I offered to purchase something. Shocked and discouraged, I walked to a fancy hotel, where I was given a key to the bathroom. For the first time that night, I felt like a human being.
The next day, I experienced this similar feeling of overwhelming gratitude when strangers helped me. I was allowed to sleep on the floor of a worship center because it was raining, and two hours of sleep at night is not enough to compensate for all of the walking we had to do. A kind volunteer at a feeding program gave me crackers, peanut butter, and cookies. One woman slowed down her car and offered us a ride and food. In the afternoon, four or five strangers reached into their wallets and gave me what they could. I made $9.43 while panhandling, and I was relieved to know that I could eat again that day. In the evening, I was welcomed by a sit-down restaurant’s owners, despite the disgust of the other customers. A $5.00 salad had never tasted so good.
Some people were less empathetic. I was kicked out of a fast food restaurant and into the rain on our second morning. Strangers sneered and laughed as they watched us. When we went to the library, I was sprayed with some sort of perfume (without my consent) due to the aroma I had acquired after not showering, applying deodorant, or brushing my teeth for three days.
I recorded the names of the businesses that treated me like a second-class citizen (as well as those that treated me as human). I wanted to expose them and take revenge. They made me feel angry and lonely because they could not see past my stench and my grime and my grimace. They were privileged enough to ignore me, and they did.
But what good would it do to retaliate? I, too, have not been compassionate enough, and I have allowed my prejudices to distort my view of the homeless. One woman, who sat across from me at a feeding program, talking to herself erratically, may have seemed strange to me before the Homeless Challenge. But when I really saw myself as her equal, and when I took the time to watch her get up and laugh as she danced to the music playing in the background, I thought she was beautiful. She had found her own happiness, amidst despair.
I met some pretty amazing people on the streets. Unlike me, they could not quit homelessness after 48 hours. They were not able to pick up their belongings, reach into their wallets, and take a taxi home. They did not get to shower or wash their clothes. They could not shut the door, turn out the lights, and climb under my pink sheets and blankets. They were left outside to sleep on the concrete, vulnerable, exposed, and ignored. They did not choose to be homeless, and I hope I will never really know how difficult it can be.
What I do know is that homelessness is a horrible situation. It is horrible after 24 hours, it is horrible after 48 hours, and I am guessing that it never really stops being horrible. No matter how many nice people and charities there are, no matter how appreciative I am of the people who helped me complete the Challenge, homelessness will always be horrible. We, as housed people, must do everything we can to eliminate homelessness and show the same compassion to those who helped and protected me on the streets.
One way you could help is by asking your family and friends to donate to the National Coalition for the Homeless, perhaps even through a fundraising page like mine. You might also consider hosting events for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week 2013 (November 16-24) to raise awareness in your community. For more information, visit the NCH website.
No one should have to live the way that I did. Together we can end homelessness.
By Emily Kvalheim, NCH Intern and American University Class of 2015