If my 16-year-old self could see where I’m working today, I think she would be a very happy girl.
My earliest encounter with a person experiencing homelessness occurred at that age, just a few days after my birthday. I was leaving the Metra station in Chicago, ready for my first chance to venture through the city, parent-free! My boyfriend and I passed a gentleman who politely and rather meekly asked if we had any change we could spare. I distinctly remember the feeling of sadness in my gut when we stopped to speak with him briefly and offer what we could.
Yes, I had some recognition of how hard it must be to sleep on a bench or sidewalk, to not have clean clothes, to have to beg for money. But more than that, I was heartbroken when I observed that, as my boyfriend pointed out, none of the other people walking by stopped when this man made his request. They didn’t make eye contact. They completely ignored him.
Maybe it’s because of my deep personal need for human connection that I realized early on what bothered me most about the issue of homelessness – the dehumanization people experience when they live on the streets and in shelters.
In a hundred different ways, I have heard people attempt to distance themselves through the assumptions they make about these folks – calling them hustlers, addicts, lunatics, bums. We feel safer and less responsible when we believe that their fate was within their control, that they are to blame for their circumstances, and they are lazy if they don’t find a way out. Even as a social work student, my interest in serving the homeless raised questions with my classmates. It was precisely because the homeless are so commonly overlooked, and are treated as undesirables, that I wanted to work with them when I began my career.
At Trinity Center, I am grateful that we have a wide variety of resources that I can offer to people I meet on a daily basis. It feels good to pay for someone’s birth certificate so that they can receive a Section 8 housing voucher, or to see their eyes light up and their mouths water when we’re serving barbecue for a surprise lunch. Our neighbors give us hugs and call us “angels from heaven” when we are able to supply them with a 31-day bus pass that will get them to their new job for the first month, or to a long string of doctor’s appointments on the other side of town.
Still, nothing compares to the gratitude I feel when someone tells me the story of how they ended up where they are today, and lets me know that I’m the first person they’ve been able to share that with. It is an honor to sit with someone while they cry, because their life is sometimes harder than I can fathom, even though I am offering little more than a listening ear and a hand on their shoulder. The act of greeting someone with a smile as they walk in the door seldom goes unappreciated.
And I don’t know many people who spend as much time laughing at work as I do! In our small center and with our small staff, we get the opportunity to know our neighbors for who they really are. They are funny and gracious, hungry and cranky, considerate and well-intentioned, tired and trying to get through – just like those of us lucky enough to sleep in our own home.
I often feel overwhelmed when I think of what I need to do to help end homelessness. I can’t single-handedly house the thousands of people who are without stable shelter tonight, and it will take a long time and a lot of effort for us to do that as a community.
But each day, I can stop running from one place to another and hear their requests. I can remind the people that I serve at Trinity Center that they are loved and worthy of all the good that life has to offer. I can try to etch away at some of the loneliness and despair they may be feeling. That’s what I wanted to do for the man I met in Chicago as a teenager, and I’m so grateful that I get to call it my job today.
(Lindsey has a Master of Social Work degree and serves as the Operations Coordinator of Trinity Center.)