Saturday, March 28, 2009

The True Faces of Oppression

I decided to come on this because I thought it would be an excellent way to spend my spring break. I would be in a new city and I would also get a chance to help people. Coming on this trip would mean serving two of my greatest passions in one week, traveling and helping humanity (any way I can). From the first day I got to DC, I felt energy unlike no other state I've ever been to. I felt a renewal of strength, and a spirit of hope had awakened in me that I couldn't quite understand. I was in the nation's capital! This is where the hope of a nation is born! Although this was true, something was very wrong! All through the city there were homeless men and women camped outside in every single corner and on every street, even on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. People with nowhere to go laid outside the nation's capital waiting for hope to be awakened. How can a city that arises so much hope contain so much disparity?
Coming on this trip, I knew I was going to be "helping" the homeless, but I didn't know how much I would interact with them. I had no idea that I was going to be working with them (as they are not helpless), instead of "helping them." I believed I was going to be "helping" the homeless, although my heart was in the right place, I believed I had something to offer, I believed I had some divine knowledge I would've offered, a wonderful talent I would've performed to give anyone who interacted with me a sense of peace and happiness! As I approached these homeless individuals, I came to see that I had so many prejudices that I had not been aware of. These homeless individuals weren't at all helpless! They are able-bodied people who are trying to pull themselves back up with the little resources they have. Suddenly it became clear to me, I wasn't' here to help fight for them because they had already began fighting for themselves. I came to fight with them! I came to add on to the many voices that have already begun crying out that homelessness is preventable and unnecessary. I added on to their voices to make it louder, massive and stronger.
As I interacted with these men and women I saw that they were exactly like us. They had once been to college and lived in the dorms. they've gotten degrees, they had once been wealthy and loss it all because of the bad economy. They have families who love them deeply, they have nieces and nephews who still expect their uncles or aunties to bring home presents when they go home occasionally, and in return these homeless uncles or aunties try their best to find valuables to take home to their loved ones! They have hope for the future, dreams for their lives and goals to achieve. These individuals are just like us, they laugh just the same and being homeless has not killed their spirits (thank God). They still joke and know how to be social. We're all the same, the only difference is that at the end of the day we have a place to rest our heads, we have a home and a bed to go back to, and they don't. I should add that I "helped" one individual at one of the shelters by giving him a hug! A man asked me for a hug as we were leaving and I was honored and couldn't believe he had asked me for a hug! I jumped on him and didn't want to let him go. I made someone smile that day from giving him a hug, I will be a part of his story for those few seconds I spent hugging him, that is wonderful!!
Working with these great men and women wasn't enough for us Hamline students. We had to see what it was like on the outside. In order to begin this story, I would like to clarify that, I wouldn't say I now understand fully what it is like to be homeless, because it would be an impossible thing, but I now have a better sense of what being homeless is like than when I first came on this trip. We spent twenty four (24) hours on the streets of DC learning what exactly goes on outside of what we've been told and outside of what we've seen from afar. For the first time in my life I had experienced what life would be like if I had nowhere to go. Please keep in mind that this does not mean I fully understand what being homeless is like, as this was not the intention of our trip. In order to be an advocate, we had to know more than what the textbook or statistics offered, we met the homeless and spoke to them and heard their concerns, they told us about themselves and treated some of us as friends, proving to us that we were all just the same and that there is no reason that anyone shouldn't get the best of life like we had been given one way or the other. We went to the different sites where they offered assistance for homeless men and women and saw what they are doing to help. We went in public areas to see how we would be treated if we seemed like the stereotypical homeless man or woman and applied to jobs to see how we would be treated. The answers were shocking.
We went into the fancy restaurants and bookstores and it was clear that we didn't belong. I went into a bookstore with my partner and I had a sleeping bag inside a trash bag and this attracted attention. I walked in and the cashier was looking to see what I would do next. I took up many magazines and sat in a hidden corner where I wouldn't be seen, but just when I took a seat, one a sales person came to another man who was sitting a few steps away from me, and told him to leave. He seemed as if he was homeless and seeing this broke my heart! We left the bookstore after about 3 hours and the same sales person who had told the man to get out looked at us and seemed very upset because we had entered this store and looked in every magazine we wanted without buying anything and as he caught a glimpse of my huge trash bag I said, "bye", but he didn't respond! As we passed through the streets I saw people watching me and I almost felt like I had to prove myself worthy of being in the same space as others with better clothes. Why should I have to prove myself worthy when it is clear that we are both of the same species with only the differences in appearance? People on the streets walked past the homeless as if they didn't even exist, the homeless asked for change and some would give them and some pretended like they didn't hear them, there is nowhere to go at the end of the day, there's nowhere to lay your head after a hard day and this is horrible!
Coming on this trip is one of the greatest decisions I've made in my life! This trip has put us on our way to being global leaders in combating social justice issues. It has made some of us activist, educators, some thirsty for knowledge and change, it has made some prioritize, it has made us re-evaluate what we do in our lives and the effect it has on others (like ignoring the homeless on the streets when they ask for a little change, you do see them so why not acknowledge them?). It has re-affirmed others knowledge of homelessness and re-affirmed others faith in the system by simply knowing that someone on Capitol Hill cares about the issues of homelessness and willing to listen to our concerns. Some of us came on this trip having little or no knowledge about homelessness and we're leaving having gotten first-hand account of homelessness from hardworking and empowering individuals which has inspired us to want to do more.

Jonetta Morris

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