“Wow, this must really be hard for them,” I heard a woman chuckle sarcastically to her friends outside the Salvation Army.
She was talking about us, of course. 150 people who had met up to sleep outside in a park last night in order to come closer to understanding what it means to be homeless in Tyler TX. Most of us under 21 (Not me, clearly — I’m 41). Some who had honestly never even been camping. All of us with no idea what it meant to be really, seriously, down on our luck.
So she was right, our heckler. Of course she was. We were “playing” at being homeless. For one night. This was a simulation. We had police protection and sleeping bags.
Still, it was one hell of a simulation. As we began our 1.5 mile walk from the Salvation Army to the park where we would spend the night, another guy — trash bag of belongings in hand — shouted at us, “You are brave. You are very, very brave.”
Which was it? Were we pretenders or were we brave?
As I met and talked with the people who had chosen to spend their night in this unorthodox way, it became we clear that we were neither and both. And all manners of in-between.
I met a man who parents 12 children — several adopted and with special needs — who was wearing a winter cap hand-knitted by his wife AND live-testing a multi-layer hand-sewn sleeping bag for friends that I dubbed “the 7-layer dip.”
I hit it off with a woman with 2 kids and 2 businesses who is active in more community NPOs than I could honestly keep track of. I walked with a woman who has spent her entire life helping people because it’s the only thing that makes her feel human.
I spoke with a woman who had come because, as she said, she ‘just wanted a slice of humble pie.’ There was a woman with her 3 children — each of them with different, beautiful, striking skin colors, and opinions. A man who just came and didn’t know why.
The Privilege Line Somewhere around 8pm (we weren’t allowed cell phones, so I’m guessing according to the level of my fatigue), we lined up, and were asked to take steps back or forward based on societal norms.
I hung my head as I moved forward, I must admit. The point, of course, was that I was more likely to succeed because I was born with less obstacles to overcome. Even with mental illness and abuse in the family I was - as an educated white woman — still yards ahead of most others aged 20 years less than me.
I’ll sit and live with that for a long while.
I met college students who wanted to better understand the populations they would be serving when they graduated. I met 4 homeless organization leaders. I met a north Tyler police officer charged with the homeless population, and I met people who just wanted to (seriously, honestly, how can I?) help.
Personally, I was there because I wanted to learn. I wanted to begin to understand the needs of my community and how they could be met.
At least that’s what I thought I when I signed up for what seemed a (relatively) easy night in a park with like-minded people. It wasn’t easy. It was really, really difficult.
We didn’t sleep. We were thirsty. We were hungry. We were cold. But … we could have gone home at any moment.
That was, obviously, the point. That those of us not experiencing homelessness cannot begin to imagine it. Not even in a controlled, policed, simulation. It was hard. Hella hard. How do you not eat well, not sleep well, get your kids up for school, and get yourself to work like this?
So, here’s what I learned.
I “remembered” my own poverty and abuse as a child, viscerally. How I didn’t realize it. I suddenly understood how many people KNEW and didn’t help. I felt how wrong it all it was. I talked openly about it with my “new” friends who, like me, were just thinking about coffee and home. So, that was awkward.
The face of homelessness has changed drastically in the last 30 years.
A STAGGERING amount of our homeless are families. And women. And people that just caught a bad break.
That most of homelessness is “temporary.” As in, most of the needs of those experiencing homelessness CAN BE MET. With a little help from us, who right now, don’t need help, cause we can and it’s the right thing to do.
The most disturbing thing I came away with is that the only requirement we have as a society about homelessness — is that it stay hidden.
WE DON’T WANT TO HAVE LOOK AT YOU. Can you imagine a more strident version of bullying? Honestly? You’re in the shit because you are shit. And they still have to get up with tired and hopeless bodies & minds, go to work and school, exhausted and hungry — and hopelessly depressed.
Why? How does this happen?
Because life. An injury without health insurance. A kid’s illness. And then it’s the loss of one of your full or part-time jobs. Then, the house. The family. A lack of transportation. Did you know Tyler buses don’t run on Sundays … or after hours … or to the new shopping centers south of Broadway? I didn’t.
I learned that experiencing hopeless is really, really complicated. That every situation is different.
I met beautiful people WAY outside of the politics who really LIVE every day by the golden rule many of us just give lip service to.
People who don’t pretend that they don’t see the family in need. People that look them/us in the eye and say, “What happened? How can I help?”
And then we met Harley. He wasn’t on the schedule of events of speakers. No, he just came. Harley is a Vietnam Veteran who lost his tree-landscaping business, his home, his 2 acres, and eventually his family, after a catastrophic injury when a limb fell on him.
He didn’t have health insurance He’s been living in the woods of Tyler for 3 ½ years. In the woods, y’all. In a tent.
He carries a hot pink guitar and plays it well. Spins a story like Broadway could only hope for. Speaks 3 languages. And refused all help from his family because he believes he has become a minister in places — and to people - no one else could possibly reach. Believes he got himself in this mess and should be able to get himself out.
Harley took time to speak to us because of the young people present. He believed one of them might make a difference. He believed that it was possible to grow a generation of Americans who cared that there were people who wanted for the basics.
He believes we can care for one another — really care for one another — knowing we could be one of them in a second, if things turned the wrong way.
He’s seen it over and over. No one experiencing homelessness was aiming for that. Ever. There’s just no clear way out. He imagined with us, and for us, a society that would hold up its fellow members when they fell. He asked us to be that. He asked to understand that he never wanted to be here.
But mostly, he talked about all those he had helped while there. He reluctantly admitted that his community calls him the “King of the Homeless,” because he seeks out and helps those new to the community. When he said that, our host, Christina Fulsom of East Texas Human Needs Network said, “Oh, so you’re who everybody talks about?”
Harley played his pink guitar while we tried to go to sleep in the park. We cheered. We did not sleep.
Harley doesn’t expect to be homeless past January. He says the amped-up veteran program will provide him HUD housing at $50/month. Another woman in the crowd told me that’s mainly because Christina Fulsom went out into the woods to make sure that every homeless veteran in Tyler knew about the new funding.
Bottom line: If you do nothing else when you encounter a homeless person, look them in the eyes. See them. If you want to help, but don’t know how, tell them that there are services can help: http://903help.org.
Just don’t avert your eyes, no matter how much you want to.