I stood there, harboring a chip on my shoulder and feeling like I was carrying a burden in my chest. School was entering the toughest part of the year, and I was still trudging along in sub-zero, arctic-like temperatures of Iowa. Stressed out and pissed off, the snow pummeled and angled for my eyes.
Over a foot of snow accumulated in two hours. I couldn’t see the concrete. Roads and pedestrian paths disintegrated. Cars revved and swerved with each degree shift of the wheel. I feared I’d be the accidental recipient of an absentminded or reckless driver.
A face mask crystallized my condensed breath. I blinked and shards seemed to puncture my eyelids. Although, without it, my nose would likely fall off. I could barely breathe – artificially choked by the restrictive layer like an asthmatic marathoner.
Snow drifts and plows lined the sidewalks. My momentum couldn’t carry me over the hills, so I looked like a football player running through tires. The tendons in my knees stretched and torqued under the trot. I could tell they weren’t happy with me — every time I stopped they screamed and ached.
What was I running to? My place of work: the homeless shelter. A beacon and bastion of hope – the warm solace where my weathered feet might warm. Even more, I was motivated by the fact that my brief discomfort was another’s quotidian life. The punishing cold and snow was an unfortunate norm to the population I came to serve. The homeless were suffering far more at the worst part of the season. I needed to get there and try to make a difference.
An academic year — summer to summer — passed since I started working at the shelter. I saw the seasons change, turnover in residents, and demographic shifts. People with pennies to their name would come in and seek shelter — some would be turned away for lack of room. Some would be paired with case managers, find work, and a fresh start in a new apartment. Sometimes the system worked, and sometimes it failed. Some homeless people were self-starters, and others needed additional help.
As a white guy from a middle-class neighborhood in the Denver area, my experience in life seemed to differ from many of the residents of the shelter. My parents worked hard, but also made time for me. They are still married after 30 years. And they consciously decided on neighborhoods with strong schools. Many residents came from broken families and piss poor educations.
I was born white, and with it, I gained an unearned privilege. Police would pay less attention to me. Teachers would pay more attention to me. Honors and advanced placement (AP) courses were always available, and I was encouraged to take them. Life was easy in these respects. I had difficulties growing up – often feeling like an outsider – but these paled in comparison to systemic racism, segregation, and lost opportunities.
In many ways, I grew to appreciate that shelters are society’s measly attempt at righting systemic wrongs. They focus on the bare necessities usually: a place to sleep and a daily meal. Occasionally, there’s a pair of shoes or gloves that will prevent frostbite.
How do we let people ever get this low? How do we fail to provide for those in need of greater assistance? Unfortunately, answers are complex. It requires changing the dialogues we have with others and in our own heads about poverty, income/wealth inequality, and homelessness.
On my last day, I hugged the staff goodbye and shook the hands of some residents I had gotten to know. My eyes welled up with sadness. A year of counseling and communication with one of the most vulnerable populations… It was overwhelming. I had continuously reached my limits as a counselor – newly defined due to this experience. Sometimes I couldn’t help as much as I wanted because basic needs were unmet. My role at that point became to assist in whatever way I could.
Today, I write about this experience in the hope that you’ll listen and advocate for those in need. The financial burdens of people without homes is great, but the systemic problems that lead to this place are even greater. Advocacy is the only option, and it goes beyond serving food at a soup kitchen or counseling. Change necessitates sociopolitical involvement, which requires us to write, vote, and get upset about it.
We live in a perplexing time of great wealth with horrific poverty. How the two exist and continue is a consequence of systemic, legal, and political action. To change it, we must use the same tools.
In Salt Lake City, there’s a movement afoot to change this paradigm. It’s called, “housing first.” Instead of judging people and calling them “lazy addicts,” Salt Lake provides housing to the homeless. Radically simple, isn’t it? They provide housing, which clears and cleans the streets, and it turns out that it’s cheaper than letting people freeze to death and/or suffering horrific injuries that need the emergency department as a primary means of care.
When you provide housing first, you stop judging someone for all their faults, and start seeing a person that is from a community – who had varying opportunities to succeed. And best of all, it’s affordable.
The sun is beaming down and a breeze passes through my hair. It’s pleasant. And then I think, what will it be like for those out there on the streets tonight? I never used to think that, but now I do almost every day.