Solidarity and the Homeless Challenge – by Matt Gatti, NCH Intern
From May 28-30, I completed the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Homeless Challenge, spending forty-eight hours on the streets of Washington D.C. with nothing but the clothes on my back and a black trash bag containing an old sleeping bag. Knowing that I would be working for NCH this summer as an intern, I decided to make the challenge a prerequisite to my two months with the organization.
So, I spent two days on the street. I panhandled, dumpster dove, ate at shelters, walked through the pouring rain, hung out at libraries and museums, got kicked off street corners for panhandling or simply loitering, and slept on the pavement with the rats. Those forty-eight hours had their ups and downs. On one hand, panhandling was embarrassing and shameful. Sleeping outside on the street was miserable, and I began to smell my own body odor after only a day. On the other hand, I was on the receiving end of incredible acts of generosity and got to meet some great people. One particular morning, a woman purchased me and my friend breakfast as we posed as a couple. Another time, a shelter staff spent at least twenty minutes trying to find an extra blanket for my friend whose covers had not been sufficient the previous night.
Now, I refuse to try to convince anyone that I completely understand homelessness after just forty-eight hours of immersion. I knew going in that after two days I would head home to my friends and family. With this in mind, I was only ever on the lookout for my closest, most immediate needs. I never had to figure out a way to get off the street because I already knew how I would do so. I do not truly understand what it means to be homeless, without any kind of safety net, and I probably never will.
Despite this, I found great value and education in this experience. Growing up in the D.C. area, my contact with those experiencing homelessness never expanded far beyond serving meals on McKenna’s Wagon or slipping a dollar to a panhandler on my walk to the Metro. These experiences are a part of only one lens from which one can view this issue. There is a large difference between serving a meal at a shelter and eating a meal at a shelter, and that is what I would like to suggest. In the shelter setting, we too often allow barriers to disconnect us from one another. We become service providers and service recipients, and this alienation hinders our ability to live with and interact with each other. We forget the only real difference that separates us is housing status. The Homeless Challenge allowed me to experience a small dose of solidarity with the almost seven thousand people who live without a home in our nation’s capital.