Last night I was homeless. I slept outside on a baseball field in the middle of the city surrounded by a few hundred other homeless individuals.
It was part of a fundraising event for the Edmonton Youth Empowerment and Support Services (formerly named the Youth Emergency Shelter) called “Homeless for a Night”. Participants, like me, signed up for a team and collected pledges to sponsor us in the event. On the evening of June 1, 2012 we all gathered at Telus Field to experience a night of what “homelessness” might look and feel like, and to raise financial support and awareness for youth who face that reality each day.
I arrived at the event and made my way on to the field looking for a spot I could camp for the night. As I sat out in left field, I looked around at the different activities, games, and tents set up with food and live music playing to entertain the participants for the evening. It was great hospitality and entertainment for us participants, but I couldn’t help but think to myself: I kind of doubt homeless people get food and entertainment. I could have easily eaten dinner before I arrived. Maybe they should have given all this food out on the streets instead of to us who only have to endure being “homeless” for one night. But, the sponsors of the event were likely providing this out of appreciation to those who raised money to support the shelter…. and it was nice. So I set my cynical thoughts aside.
I went and sat at a table underneath one of the food tents and fell deep into thought pondering whether I could actually see myself being ok if I ever was stuck with no home to go to. As I sunk deeper into my hypothetical musings, a group of ladies seated at the other end of my table caught my attention and asked if I could move to another table so their friends could join them. I obliged, but felt slightly uncomfortable, and out of place, having no one to sit with and being shuffled from the table. But I picked up my things and moved to the next table with just a polite smile.
Later, I wandered back to my sleeping bag on the field and sat down to read my book. A group of friends began throwing the frisbee around nearby. A few times I ducked to avoid being hit by the flying Frisbee. After about the third time of being hit, I began to feel a bit annoyed. Can’t they see me sitting here? Why don’t they move to that open space over there away from me and the other people sitting around me? Apparently I’m invisible to them. But apparently I also did not feel I could say anything to them. Who am I to tell them where to play? So I kept quiet and eventually got up and moved to another spot on the field away from their game.
These were only a couple insignificant incidents but they left me with this irritated and discouraging, lonely feeling inside. I felt like I clearly was lost in this crowd. Nobody knew me. Nobody cared who I was or where I sat or that I had made my place in that spot on the field first. For the first time that night, I felt like this might be what it’s like to be homeless. Sleeping outside was one of the low concerns on my mind at that moment. What bothered me more about this “homeless” situation I was in, was the way people treated people.
I imagined a similar situation could take place when a homeless person set up a camp on a street outside a local shop. I wondered how often he might be asked to move to a different location, and likely not as nicely as the ladies at the table were to me. I wondered if he felt invisible, out of place or annoyed when passers-by tripped over him or hit him with their carelessly discarded litter, just as I began to feel when a small disc hit me just a few times. This thought tugged at my heart strings as I began to think about what my made-up homeless man might go through on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps for him too, finding a place to sleep at night was the least of his concerns. Perhaps his biggest daily struggle was simply surviving people.
As we focus our missional efforts on abolishing poverty and ending suffering in our world, financially supporting charitable organizations that work for the same cause is a great thing and providing shelter for those without is greater! But it is not the only thing we can do. Regardless of how much money we have to donate to charitable causes or how many empty rooms we have to spare, we all have the ability to help people who are homeless by simply making them feel at home wherever they are. Providing a warm smile, respecting their right to exist in society just like the rest of us, and upholding their worth as persons may make their daily struggle a little easier.
After one night of being “homeless” (sort of), I am absolutely no expert on homelessness. However, I do know that having to find shelter each night would not be a stress-free lifestyle, or one I’d want to live. We might not always be able to change the dark living situations these people face each night, but I think we can all do something to make the days a little brighter.
“Be kind to one another.” (Ellen Degeneres)