For the first time in my life, I wanted to be invisible.
I am the youngest of four children. I grew up in a culture and on an island that prides itself on family values, belonging, and community. After I broke out of my “I only like my mom” attachment phase as a kid, I grew to love all people– speaking with them, smiling at them, introducing myself to them, and making friends with them even if they didn’t have a desire to. I was a social butterfly, and up until today, I still am. I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin. I’ve always been able to hold my ground in conversations and carry myself in an array of social/public situations. I have this fascination with the concept of human interaction, and I truly believe it to be a vital part of life.
Last week Tuesday was the first time in my life that my passion and desire to be present to people disappeared. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want the attention or conversations or smiles. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be invisible.
St. Stephen’s Human Services is a non-profit organization that helps secure housing and other services for people who may have or are experiencing homelessness or other forms of risks that may lead to homelessness. The organization hosts different programs that allow the community to engage in the work that they do. One program that is sponsored is A Day In The Life. For one full day from about 9am-4pm, participants of the program walk the footsteps of those who experience homelessness.
Last Tuesday, the Saint Joseph Workers had the opportunity to experience A Day In The Life. After a brief introduction to the program staff and educators who guided us for the day, three groups went off to experience a world unfamiliar to us. We walked. And Walked. And Walked in 25 degree weather, all across Minneapolis. I was in a group of four and our first stop was Harbor Light Center, an overnight shelter and transitional housing unit sponsored by the Salvation Army. The center does a great job at providing what it can for people who are in most need. However, the amount of people who experience homelessness in the area is so great that resources at the center are often strained. We walked into the overnight shelter where adults come for the night. I was floored, my stomach turned, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw what I thought was a prison cell. Blue and numbered bunk beds with worn-out mattress pads were crammed in a large room. We had maybe a few feet to walk in between each bunk bed. The room was empty for the morning, but I could not envision what the place would look like come 8pm when people were allowed to return to the shelter.
We left Harbor Light to visit Youthlink, a drop-in center for youth ages 16-24 who are experiencing homelessness. My spirits were somewhat lifted as we entered the building painted with bright colors and decorated with inspirational words. The center served three meals a day, provided counseling and educational services, and created a very hospitable and inviting environment for all those who walked through the doors. We had the opportunity to speak to one of the staff members who shared with us the cheers and challenges they encounter at the center. Youthlink is a wonderful resource for young people; however, I couldn’t help but think of the number 1700. 1700 is the approximate number of reported youth that are experiencing homelessness. I couldn’t help but leave Youthlink still confused as to why? Why 1700? And what can be done that isn’t being done to get that number to zero.
$2.20 is the average amount of money that a single person on the food assistance program receives per meal. For lunch on Tuesday, our group of five had a budget of $11.00, roughly $2.20/person. We decided to pull our money together and buy a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and a bottle of juice at a nearby CVS. It’s amazing, the countless amount of times we overlook simple things like utensils, plates, napkins, and eating spaces that all play a role in having a meal. We checked out of CVS with just enough money for the three items– how we spread the peanut butter, what we ate on, and where we ate were challenges that soon presented themselves as we left the store. Lunch was probably the hardest part of the day as I realized we really didn’t have anywhere to go and eat. Not having anywhere to go….this was a strange feeling. Our group decided to walk towards the heart of downtown and into one of the buildings where it would be warm. As we walked pass the shops and restaurants with our loaf of bread, peanut butter jar, and bottled juice I began to feel uneasy. I began to feel like there were a million eyes on me, and not for positive reasons. We finally got into one of the buildings and sat in a corner on the floor. We used a Walgreens rewards card to spread the peanut butter on the bread, and we passed around the large bottle of grape juice for everyone to share. We sat there for about five minutes before a security guard kindly asked us to move to the benches twenty feet down. In the thirty minutes that we sat to have lunch, I found myself scarfing down my food so that no one could see what I had in hand. I found myself pulling my winter hood over my head to cover my face. I found myself counting the seconds until we could leave the building filled with people, shops, and restaurants.
I felt excluded. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I was on exhibit for everyone to see….Although I consciously knew that my situation wasn’t as it appeared, I was still filled with these unsettling feelings. And for the first time in my life, I wanted to be invisible.
It struck me as we left the building, “these feelings are real and are being felt by people every single day.” I quickly recalled the times that I stood on the other side of the situation with a Starbucks cup in hand or with a bag of takeout. I thought about the hurt I caused by my stares and the pain I contributed to as I continued to silently walk by.
We continued walking to two more family shelters, transitional, and permanent housing units before we ended the day. As we made our way back to our debriefing session, thoughts of a warm and comfortable bed, a nice meal, and a hot shower came to mind. But it wasn’t long before these thoughts were interrupted with the image of the blue bunk beds at Harbor Light or with the memory of my lunch experience and the feelings that continued to stir inside.
I was walking home that night, knowing that I was walking to a home where I did belong. I was walking, knowing that there would be a bed, food, and shower waiting for me….I was walking knowing that there are thousands who would continue walking that night, the next morning, and long after that–not to a bed, or meal, or hot shower waiting for them…Just simply walking, continuing to live the life that I only got glimpse of last Tuesday….
Homelessness and other social issues that plague our society do not discriminate against race, religion, gender, or culture. I learned that on Tuesday. But why do we? Why do we continue to stereotype and form judgments about people we see on the streets before we truly experience a day in their lives? It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not just.
Our actions and our silence contribute to this cycle of marginalization against people we deem “different”, but the truth is, if everyone spent a day in the life of the other, we would find no difference. We would find that we are one in the same.
As we further journey into this season of Advent, and as we prepare our homes for our family Christmas celebrations, let us remember the true meaning of the season, Christ’s presence in our world. Let us remember the call that God makes to all of us–to love without distinction and without limits. Let us keep in our thoughts those who will be without homes, and let us change our hearts to be compassion-filled for all those who continue to be at the margins of society.
Jackie Salas, SJW Justice Office Program Assistant