Hot, tired, smelly — and deeply grateful. In a nutshell, that’s how I felt after spending a night on a sidewalk off the Drag and a day and a half walking more than 16 miles on the streets of downtown Austin. Organized by Mobile Loaves and Fishes, this “street retreat” gave co-worker Lindsey Sermons and me a tiny taste of what our neighbors go through day in and day out — often with no end in sight. We both knew we would return to beds, homes, jobs and a circle of love and support that makes us privileged. We did not pretend to be homeless. We just wanted to better understand.
The most asked question I got from friends and family before undertaking this adventure was “Why?” And then, “Is it safe?” Once we were on the streets and recognized by countless neighbors, their questions were mostly, “What do you need? How can we help?” We were embraced by the community with love and protection.
In a serious change of perspective, we moved into their world instead of welcoming them into our world at Trinity Center. The change of turf was interesting.
Lindsey and I began our journey on a Friday afternoon with backpacks, bedrolls, water bottles and not much else. We had no cell phones, money, credit cards or watches, no change of clothes or toiletries.
We were dropped off at Sunken Gardens in Zilker Park to wait for the Mobile Loaves and Fishes food truck. As we waited, we recognized the first of many familiar faces we would encounter along the way. The food at the truck was plentiful and good, although we gave most of ours away. (I later decided that wasn’t a great idea as I lay on the concrete listening to my stomach growl.) After eating and hanging out with about 25 guys at Zilker, we walked downtown.
Friday evening outside the ARCH is not the happiest place to be, but that’s where we went. We heard yelling, saw scuffling and saw the angry effects of the K-2 epidemic that has taken hold of downtown. We also talked with several neighbors we haven’t seen in a while before heading to our spend-the-night spot beside a church on the Drag. A neighbor we’ve known and loved for many years was surprised to see us but quickly became our protector and adviser. He provided cardboard and directions to a bathroom so we wouldn’t have to sneak into the bushes.
A night on the concrete is what you would expect — hard and exceedingly long. Not knowing the time made the sleepless night seem much longer than it was. Crickets were everywhere. About 10 people slept in our area along the sidewalk and in an adjoining alley. The soft sound of snoring made me realize that rest and peace are where you find it when you’re homeless. These folks tucked themselves in and went to sleep, crickets notwithstanding.
I never felt fearful, not once, but my range of emotions that night was extreme. At first the bright stars and cool breeze felt oddly pleasant. Cars and people passed by without noticing me, and that invisibility was intriguing. But later in the night, I sat up and fixated on how unfair it is that anybody should be sleeping on a downtown sidewalk. I was there for only one night; the others weren’t so lucky. I wondered how they could sleep so peacefully and wake so cheerfully. I was cranky, to say the least.
The reality of homelessness is much harder than the abstract concept most of us have. There’s a lot of planning (finding bathrooms, food, water) and lots of waiting — endless hours of waiting. We had breakfast at University Methodist Church about 9 a.m. Saturday, and the time from sunrise until the church opened felt like forever. Waiting, especially with no concept of the time, is unbelievably tiring.
At every stop on our journey, we ran into the neighbors we serve at Trinity Center. It really is a community, many of whom stick together and take care of each other. They certainly looked out for us, which added immeasurably to the spiritual experience. We began and ended our street retreat with prayers led by Rod, our Mobile Loaves and Fishes “shepherd,” but faith was all around us the whole time.
When I got home, I took a long shower and fought back tears as I slipped into a soft, cool bed. The night at home was a long way from concrete, cardboard and crickets. I felt guilty and overwhelmingly grateful at the same time. And I felt inspired more than ever to help where I can and serve when I can.