I’m not exactly sure how you’re supposed to break it to your mom that you’re willingly sleeping in an unlocked, abandoned building on the North Side in sandals and without a sleeping bag in an attempt to understand homelessness a little better, but in case anyone wants to know how to do it the wrong way, listen very carefully.
Dial your mother’s phone number. Tell her exactly what you’re going to do. Don’t try to sugarcoat anything, considering all moms practice voodoo mom magic together and always have a way of seeing through these sorts of things. Upon questioning, it might be necessary to repeat the word “willingly” a few times. This next part is imperative. Say the words, “I love you, bye,” and in that order. You might have to use your outside voice.
Friday night, I did sleep in an unlocked abandoned building with the words “trap house” spray-painted on the door. Organized by L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry, this night was a pre-cursor to the largest homeless camp cleanup in the history of the city of Pittsburgh. I set up sleeping quarters on pieces of mismatched cardboard on the second floor of the building – nothing short of in shambles and absolutely dilapidated. The window closest to me was broken open. I shared a single blanket with three others.
But this article isn’t about me. None of it is, really. It’s not really about you, either. It’s not about your classism, your standards or your rules. It’s not about adding some community service experience to your resume. It’s definitely not about “feeling bad” for those that identify as homeless, or even about compassion, really. It’s about logic.
I want to snatch all of the socially constructed ideas about homelessness into my hands and throw them like rocks off every bridge in Pittsburgh. I want to wipe the slate clean when it comes to homelessness and deconstruct every assumption in the world that exists surrounding this “condition” that the world views as so foul. I want to ask why it’s here, and why we see a group of people we know nothing about as absolute refuse, as unnecessary, as incommodious.
Unless things have changed since the last time I checked, millennialism is kind of all about eradicating marginalization. I think it’s accurate to believe that as a generation, we reject ideas of compartmentalization. Continually yelling, “Don’t assume anything about me!” into the void is kind of our thing.
Why does this precious ideal only apply to our sexuality or gender, religion or spirituality (on some days) and our political affiliation? Why is there a lack of translation when it comes to how much money we have? Why doesn’t this apply to where or how we live? Why is this nonexistent when it comes to how we look?
When we are literally forced to look at homeless people, the words sick, lazy, ill, user, indecent or filthy can be placed in any slew of combinations, and I think that would be a relatively adequate assessment of what we see.
The second you assume something about anyone, you’re wrong. Even when you feel like you’re not assuming anything, you’re still wrong.
The fact that there are people sleeping on streets who want to be sleeping in beds should make you absolutely furious. This is when it is absolutely necessary to look inside ourselves and ask, “What is wrong here? What is missing?” instead of pointing at them and demanding to know what’s incorrect.
As a generation that vehemently believes in the idea of leveling the playing field and creating opportunity for everyone, we do a pretty poor job when it comes to homelessness. In a world of social justice warriors, we fail to address the social issues that are at the roots of understanding forms of homelessness – poverty, affordable housing and disabilities, to name a few.
Concurrently, there are some people who identify as homeless who do not want what we think they want. Too often, we indulge in the idea of giving homeless people the things that make us contented. Too often we decide that they need all of the things we need.
We say, “Here, homeless person — have a job, a suit and tie, a house and a car payment.” But isn’t life about meeting people where they are? Why is it so hard to reject these suppositions and accept these humans as simply that – humans. They are people with stories, and sometimes they want to be listened to and thought of, and other times they want to be left alone, just like you and me.
Why are we so repulsed by people who sleep outside? Why is it so hard to reject our suppositions and expectations? Let’s listen to each other’s stories. Let’s try to make those stories better.
Perhaps in a perfect world.