I find it hard to go to bed Tuesday night as I am so nervous for Wednesday morning to come. Wednesday is the day my GSJ class will be living a day in the life of a homeless person. I toss and turn for most of the evening, although I have been in bed since 10 p.m.. I wake up around 6:30 a.m., a full hour before my alarm is supposed to go off. I slowly roll out of bed dreading the day already. As I check the weather, I complain about how cold my apartment is and I wonder how I will even survive outside today, wow a balmily negative four degrees. I pull out two pairs of leggings, two pairs of sweatpants, two long-sleeve shirts, and two sweatshirts to wear under my jacket. I almost feel like I am cheating by putting all these layers on, thinking to myself how a real person experiencing homelessness probably would not have this much to put on.
My aunt is staying with me this week; she can tell by the look in my eyes and my heavy shoulders that I am not excited for today. Right before she is about to leave she calls my name and comes into the bathroom, “This could be one of the greatest experiences of your life, embrace it”. As she leaves I look myself in the mirror and say, “Okay, only positive thoughts from this point on.”
I arrive at St. Stephen’s Shelter and meet the rest of my class in the “den” as they call it. We talk for a while with the Executive Director, are given a tour of the shelter and then split into four groups. I am with a group of six other women and our community educator, John*. John is a man who has formally experienced homelessness, but has been housed for over seven years now.
Our first stop on our day adventure is Youthlink, a center for homeless youth, where they help with education or employment goals, health problems, housing and everyday services such as showers and food. Next, we truck over to Salvation Army Harbor Lights. Here we spend timing learning more about John’s story and how he once had it all. We have lunch, which is nachos, and then a quick tour of the emergency stay rooms. The bunks line the entire monotone room, reminding me of what a concentration camp might have looked like.
Once again we bundle up to face the cold; we walk over two icy bridges, following John like ducklings behind their mother. We arrive at our next stop, which is Sharing and Caring Hands. We enter the building and I see that snot has run down into John’s face and froze to his mustache hairs, at first I am disgusted, but quickly turn my disgust to understanding. Sharing and Caring Hands offers shelter, food, meals, medical care and dental care. Before we leave , John asks us if we want to take the bus to our next location. I speak up asking to walk as I am looking for the real experience. The other women groan at me because it is a 30 minute walk to the next stop.
John takes us a back way, which is called the “gantlet”. He explains that he has been asked many times if the homelessness issue is improving and when asked this he responds with the answer, “We must run the gantlet”. This area is called that because years ago it was occupied with drug dealers, prostitutes and nearly anything else illegal one could think of, but now there is none to be seen. “Why?” John asks us, but before we can answer he says, “because they are being housed.” On this walk John shows us specific spots outside he used to sleep or just sit to get out of the cold. I am paralyzed by what he shows us as most of the spots could barely fit a dog, let alone a human.
We arrive at Lydia Apartments and meet with a wonderful man named James*. He tells us his story and about talks about the issue of elderly homelessness. Here, the vibe is very different from any of the other places we have experienced today: it is calm and quiet.
We leave here to go to the main offices of St. Stephen’s. I realize this is probably the last time I will ever be walking with John. We meet the other groups and I can see everyone is drained. We are asked to go around the circle and describe in one word what we felt after this day. All I can think is that I am tired, and I heard that word to describe the day from many other students. I am shocked to hear one student say grateful, how come I never thought of that? But, it’s true, I am extremely grateful for everything that has happened today and for everything I have. When it comes time again for me to share my one word, I will change it from tired to grateful, because yes, although I am tired, I am more grateful.
*names have been changed for confidentiality.
Written by Claire Thompson, Communications ’17