It is now day four of the D.C. Catalyst trip and I am e.x.h.a.u.s.t.e.d! All of us are feeling the last three days weighing on us heavily, clinging to our feet that refuse to stop aching, our minds that scream for endless hours of sleeping, our bodies that cry at even the thought of moving, but mostly our hearts that ache and scream and cry for the people we have had the honor to meet, share stories, and serve.
The Homeless Challenge was everything I expected: cold, sad, lonely, confusing, frustrating, hurtful, difficult, embarrassing, grueling...the list could go on, but it was also so much more. I will share one take away with you all.
It was awe-inspiring to see how much little things that people do make such a difference in both positive and negative ways. For example, people gave us money to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner; people came to the parks to serve us dinner; an employee allowed us to use the restroom even though there was a sign that said it was for customers only, an employee at McDonald's looked me in the eye, smiled and greeted me like a regular customer, and the library security didn't want to search my bag before I entered. I could go on forever, but I will share this story instead.
Melissa and I enter the museum looking to find something cool to look at. We walk through the golden double doors that open upon us nearing them and I feel a small amount of dread. Dread that someone may see our trash bags full of blankets, the state of our hair, or the state of our clothing and shoo us like flies at a July 4th picnic. We sat on some benches with our bags at our feet and notice how no one is entering the area of the museum we are in. We sit for some time resting our feet and chit chatting about all the things that happened that day until we decide to see the rest of the museum. As we enter the nest exhibit area we are immediately picked out by the security guard—my heart jumps in my throat—then she smiles and the fear rising inside me slowly melts away.
"Did you know we have lockers that you can put those bags in?"
"No, we didn't"
"They are over there (as she points to the other side of the information desk) just ask over at information."
Melissa and I are all too eager to shove those unsightly bulges into the small lockers and take some time to leisurely stroll through the exhibits and corridors without all the stares, without all the aversion. Once we make it through a few exhibits, a covered courtyard, and the gift shop, we realize there is something wrong. People are willing to come close to us, even bump our shoulder when they walk past. There is also a shift of regard. (Now this is hard to explain, but stick with me.) When we were in full-homeless character there was a vibe coming off of everyone we passed. It strikes me now, that I felt the way you would expect the weird kid in class feels as everyone else is sharing stories about his weirdness unbeknownst to him/her. That vibe is gone.We feel normal. This realization made me aware of what it actually felt like to be homeless.
My partner and I talked about how much of human life is about setting goals and filling our days with things to do because we need to feel useful. We then spoke about how in losing that we lose our sense of purpose on this Earth, we lose our sense of dignity, we lose our sense of belonging, we lose our sense of contribution and worst of all we lose hope. We lose the hope that we are making a difference in the world. I felt I had lost the right to occupy space on this Earth. Others refused to let us sit in their establishment, they ignored us, darted their eyes away from us, refused to let us use the restroom...etc. These may not seem like huge acts of cruelty, but they are because it goes back to the principle that we are all human and for being alive we deserve dignity and respect. Each and every human, including those experiencing homelessness, deserve to be treated well.
It was amazing to realize the positive effects something as small as letting someone use the restroom, or smiling at them could have when you know the story of how this person; who smells like they haven't showered in three days, is carrying a trash bag full of God knows what, and who has dirty and disheveled hair; ended up at this particular McDonald's at six a.m. Equally amazing is the amount of damage these seemingly slight actions could have on that same person. This challenge is not over because being aware is only half the challenge now it is my duty and honor to take steps to action. I hope you will join me.
I am forever grateful to David, the man that gave us money when we panhandled for breakfast; the lady that gave me and Gordy her FiveGuys order, the lady that gave us her chips, the afore mentioned do gooders, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and our guides. I also thank everyone from D.C. for being our test subjects, so that we may learn the error of our ways, reflect on our humanity and enact change.
- Patricia Mata