When my peers were taking study abroad trips in college and leaving for the Virgin Islands and Australia, I signed up for domestic exchange in Boston, MA. In January. Studying programs for the homeless.
Well, in any case, that experience gave me a whole new perspective on the homeless. They can be fierce and they can be distraught and broken. They can be irate and they can be gentle. They can be optimistic with every hope in the world and they won't hesitate to tell you to "fuck off." I often wonder what it would have been like to study homeless programs in sunny California vs. snow and ice Boston.
On a nightly basis I helped the administration of Boston's largest homeless shelter. On my first few nights I was perky and outgoing and smiled constantly, trying to be the best bright spot I could in the lives of these men, whether it was giving them a warm meal or handing out Vaseline in the clinic for cracked, sore feet.
"You gotta quit that," one of the security guards said to me. Short, cocky, and too handsome for his own good, he had been quite 'friendly' with me already, and I knew it was a matter of time before I'd have to deny him my phone number. He didn't mess around at the shelter: he monitored the metal dectectors, broke up fights, reprimanded the disgusting old man in the wheelchair when he made his vile comments at me EVERY night, and ushered the exceedingly drunk and the obvious drug addicts out the front door when they tried to get a room for the night. Not a fun job. But then he'd search me out in the clinic and talk to me in the same tone of voice I'm pretty sure he used with his mother.
"I gotta quit what?" I asked. It was 9:00 p.m. at night and the dining hall had emptied out, so I was helping clean off the dinner tables.
"You gotta quit being so nice. I mean, I know it's in your blood, and I know you're from Minnesota... but people don't look these men in the eye. They'll cross the street when they see them coming. You're a beautiful blonde woman, slim figure, gorgeous smile, and a wonderful personality - not to mention you smell great. If you keep being nice to them like you are, you'll make some guy's year because of the fact you even gave him the time of day, but you'll also give someone else too much temptation that they won't be able to resist."
I was silent for a moment. I never thought about it in that way: I am part of a world of people "like me" and they are part of a world that makes up "them."
When I went into class the next day I was a very vocal debater. For weeks I had been listening to the extreme liberal ranting of some students about how the large shelter I was working at didn't do society justice. They chose to study small, grass-roots organizations that served dinner to five to six men a night. The men were welcome to help cook the meal, the staff ate with the men, and everyone cleaned up together. Such a setting fostered dignity, they said, and helped the men get back on their feet. If they had been drinking, they weren't allowed in the doors.
"I tell you what, if I was homeless in Boston for one night, I'd be drinking, that's for sure. It's freezing cold out there and sanity is fleeting if you think too much," I said. A few chuckled, a few stared me down.
"How can you support that organization? They do nothing to give back to society but continue to enable the problem," one student said.
I wasn't receptive.
"Because, while you're baking bread for five hand-picked men from the street, I'm busting my butt with a handful of other people to get close to 900 men off the street, through the door, fed, and their medical needs addressed. Do you have any idea how one night on the street can violate your soul?"
"I totally do, that's why it's important to restore dignity..." he started to say.
"Yeah, you do that. Which, by the way you're doing to feel better about yourself, not really for them..."
He scowls at me. But before he opens his mouth I continue.
"But meanwhile I'm going to try to help a few dozen people so men holding master's degrees and men who never made it past eighth grade aren't raped or beaten when they fall asleep -- or! -- simply go insane because of hunger and bleeding feet and haunting memories of the house they used to own and the wife they used to sleep with and dog that used to crap in the yard they used to have. It's not that I have some amazing love for humanity. Last night a man vomited something unrecognizable all down the front of me and then told me to "pull my head out of my ass." Some of the men disgust me. But I guess, for the sake of this class and educational enlightenment, we differ on what we see as the definition of help. So tell me, how do you pick from the masses which five men out of 900 in this neighborhood deserve dignity the most?"
I reported for work that night at my shift and again, the man in the wheelchair licked his cracked lips at me and gurgled something to do with yoga, a cunt, and a thick penis. I notified the cocky Puerto Rican security guard and he gladly pushed the wheelchair-bound man back outside for me, swearing and cussing all the way the was wheeled.
And I was more confused than ever what the answer was.
Today I came across this photo. It reminded me of a homeless man I saw in Uptown last summer. He was holding a sign that said "Chuck Norris killed my family and I'm the only one left alive." Typically I give money only to organizations and not to individuals, but I couldn't help drop him some bills.
When I saw signs like that, and when I see signs like this, the living pulse of creativity reminds me that "they" are a lot like "me."
And I can't help but be afraid that depending on who ends up running the world, if I ever become one of "them" I'm worried that someone might not select me as one of the five that's let inside the 'dignity' shelter. Simply because some undergrad student wants to run a program that makes him feel better about himself, his value as a generous human, and his place in the food chain of humanity.