as a social worker, i consider myself to be a listener of people’s experiences, a collector of stories, and an observer of change. while i may not be able to fully understand each person’s individual experiences, i’ve been attempting to understand my own. i’ve spent the last nine months talking to people during outreach on the streets, at homeless camps, panhandling sites, and at community shelters; more importantly, i’ve spent the last nine months trying to listen. i’ve come to learn of individual life experiences and series of events that lead people to life without a home. these lives are often characterized by trauma, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, loss, inadequate social support, and difficult emotions like anger, shame, and hurt. i’ve also come to learn that these individual life experiences are also most often characterized by perseverance, resilience, resourcefulness, and kindness.
in these conversations, i’ve learned that living without a home is often accompanied with judgement and criticism from others. it comes with name calling, avoidance of eye contact from passerby’s on the street, feelings of invisibility from being overlooked, negative assumptions being made about their worth and character, and often physical destruction of the little property they may have left. i recently talked to someone who tearfully recalled the items that were thrown at her and the names that were called as she sat on the corner selling magazines. i have observed wonderful people lose their lives to substances despite a lifetime of efforts of trying to quit. i’ve witnessed good people make terrible decisions as a result of their addiction and i’ve watched people slowly regain their lives after moving off the street and into their own home. i’ve seen a reduction in mental health symptoms, a decrease in use of alcohol or illicit substances, and a flicker of hope after having basic needs like food, shelter, and safety being met. i’ve observed children who spend their summer at day shelters for people experiencing homelessness and the impact it has on their development. and i’ve stood with and watched men silently cry after moving into their own home after decades of homelessness.
i read facebook posts and see pictures of a society who mock fellow community members because of their situation. i listen to generalizations being made about individuals who are homeless, their work ethic, and worth. and although i am no expert, i hear conversations demonstrating a lack of education on issues surrounding homelessness including addiction, mental health, recovery, affordable housing, disability, and government assistance. i have observed how systems make it incredibly difficult for people to rise out of poverty, obtain employment, and gain financial stability. i have an increasing awareness of the laws and efforts put into place to criminalize homelessness and i’m learning about the impact of racism in our justice systems and the outcomes of youth that are marginalized by it.
and throughout all of this, i have also seen the impact of people working together; of communities uniting to provide resources, support, and encouragement to others experiencing homelessness- to their community members. as a result, i have witnessed a reduction in chronic and veteran homelessness, an increase in understanding, and a realistic goal of eliminating this social problem. i am learning that widespread change is possible and that we all can be part of the solution. i am learning that as humans, we naturally want to connect with others, and that by learning about other people’s stories, we can begin to understand the complexities of each person’s situation and offer compassion, healing, and support rather than condemnation, discouragement, and marginalization.
i think sometimes we get so busy judging other people’s choices and focusing on our political affiliations that we lose sight of the uniqueness of a person’s experiences. i believe that when we begin to cluster people in large generalizations and negative stereotypes, it becomes easy to write off an entire population of people. what i know is that our lives, communities, and world are enriched when we bridge the gap between our differences and try to connect with one another. and i believe that our personal judgements- regardless of the situation- are also opportunities to look inside ourselves to challenge our assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices, values, and lack of information. i’d like to think that if we all just took the time to genuinely listen to another person’s life story, we might recognize the similarities of existence that we all share.
i hope that my life message is one of compassion and love. of understanding and non-judgement, of openness, curiosity, and acceptance. and while i fail regularly, i know that i will continue to try to be quick to listen and slow to judge. i hope to respond with patience and to be a light during another person’s darkness. i hope i continue to grow as a person because of the people who decide to touch my life with theirs.
i hope to sit with others in their brokenness, confusion, and times of need with grace, sincerity, and presence. i will continue to challenge myself to deepen my understanding of the diversity of the human experience and the limitations in society’s structures. what i know is that love begets love and kindness fosters kindness. what i know is that when we choose to love others we allow ourselves to see the good that exists in all of us; and when you see this inherent goodness we can begin to treat people with respect, kindness, and love…. we can help people to become all that they truly are.
i challenge you to open your heart, your mind, and your ears.
i challenge you to respond with compassion and to act with love.