Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inside the Invisible World of the Homeless

Several years ago I took a big cultural leap. I had been providing services to Chicago’s homeless population and I decided I wanted to know what it felt like to be on the other side of the services Breakthrough offers. I put on a pair of sweat pants and a union jacket and ventured out on the streets of Chicago posing as a homeless woman.

I asked a priest where I could find shelter. He sent me trekking nearly five miles south into an economically disadvantaged community. I wandered about for nearly five hours before a police officer pointed me in the direction of a storefront church. I collapsed exhausted on a mat next to nearly thirty other women. Several of them talked to themselves throughout the night. Others coughed and moaned and cried.

There was one bathroom with one shower for thirty women, no toilet paper or towels, no soap or deodorant. The next day, on the advice of several of the women, I started on what the homeless call “the trail”. I made my way from shelters to soup kitchens to ministry centers in quest of food, bathroom facilities and shelter.

I felt what it was like to stand in a soup line and watch as people passed by on their way to work without really seeing us. Volunteers passed me plates of food, but never asked my name or why I was there. None of the staff showed me any personal attention. I became a nameless, faceless, homeless person. It was like being behind a one way glass. We could see out, but it was as if others couldn’t see us. We were invisible to them.

I learned that the women on the street were not all that different from me. Though they struggled to find food, shelter and health care, they had unique personalities and fostered bonds of friendships with accompanying drama. Each had a story they were willing to share freely. Every morning they stayed at the shelter until we joined hands in a circle to say the Lord’s Prayer together, seeming hungry for the personal touch and the moment of spiritual reflection.

One afternoon as I walked from a library to the shelter, a policeman called out to me from his squad car and told me to come to him. I was aghast when he asked me out on a date. When I said no and walked away, he and his partner followed me in their car, continuing to call out to me over their loud speaker. I felt frightened and vulnerable. If they were to force themselves on me, what could I do? Who would believe me, a homeless woman?

I watched as women fought over their belongings and their space at the shelter. I felt anxious when a man told me I had to surrender my grocery bag with my water bottle and book at the door of a soup kitchen, wondering if I would ever see it again. I made friends and realized I could survive on the street indefinitely. Yet, I knew I was only there for a season. In just a few days I would go back to my own home, with my comfortable bed and my own shower, shampoo, lotion and coffee maker. I can never really understand what it feels like to be trapped, to have no options, to have no hope for a different tomorrow.

Most of us will probably never have to experience the challenge of homelessness. We have networks of support that we can rely upon in a crisis. There is much we can do to bring love, hope and dignity to those who struggle for survival. We can become part of a support network for those we find in shelters and on the street. We can join an organization or a movement that contributes food, shelter and clothing for those who lack these basic necessities. Most of all, we can give our presence, our listening ear, our friendship. We can look people in the eyes and ask them their names and listen to their stories. As we acknowledge them we begin to see the image of Christ in them and they in us and we both become more fully alive to the love of God.

Click here to join the Breakthrough Network of Support.

[This article is a part of the first edition of Here's Life Inner City's iHope Blog Carnival. For more information and to read other entries that focus on homelessness and poverty, click here .]