What If You Were Homeless?
What if you had no home? This is a question that everyone should ask themselves. You must do this even if you have all your shit together and you have everything under control, all the time. In that case you are probably also the mythical unicorn, honest-politician, big foot hybrid I have been obsessively hunting for the past decade. You and I have a date with destiny, beast.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I constantly put myself in the shoes of those less fortunate. Then, after a few months, I found myself becoming more and more desensitized to stepping over the sleeping bodies covered in blankets and hoodies and boxes. In any large city where you can find heating vents and wasted food on the streets, things tend to stay more or less the same.
My aim isn’t to illustrate the tragic reality of homelessness, nor is it to redeem those living on the street as noble survivors. It is simply a suggestion – nothing more – to help. If you don’t want to, then don’t worry. But if you’ve ever, even once, wondered what life would be like waking up to strangers passing by you on their way to work, then this is for you.
In Barcelona, I volunteered with the organization Esperança.
Esperança is a volunteer organization based in Barcelona, Spain, which accepts food/clothes/supply donations. Then, several days during the week, volunteer runs are organized to distribute the donations to the homeless. Founded in November 2013 by Julie Stephenson and some friends, it is now becoming more and more known in the Barcelona community.
Julie was inspired to start Esperança thanks to The Hope Project, the similarly named organization in Liverpool. I asked her whether the homeless situation there was comparable to the one in Barcelona; she explained that it may be due to the fact that there are more hostel spaces available in Liverpool for those who need a place to sleep. While she had not worked with the homeless before, she says she now finds it “very hard to walk past anyone in the street who is asking for money without at least offering a smile….being ignored must be very hard.”
I first became involved through Facebook (all praise the almighty celestial F which connects us all). After hesitantly asking questions and making a general nuisance of myself, I finally got involved. Esperança is split into two routes, one that goes through the Ciutadella Parc, and the other which stays in the Raval neighborhood. To get a global experience of what Esperança did, I went on both.
I was underwhelmed by the experience.
This was actually an incredibly good thing. When one imagines helping their fellow human being, there can be a tendency towards visualizing tearful moments, solemn gratitude, and soot covered children that you can provide with shoes and books and Christmas geese.
And yet, spontaneously offering help can be an embarrassing thing to do. I will be the first to admit that I’ve missed opportunities, simply because I was afraid to make someone feel ashamed.
The reality is, in fact, not as extreme as you may think: predictably, it’s somewhere in the middle. It turns out that it feels surprisingly normal to help someone out.
Some things I learned on the last two food runs:
- Perhaps because the runs had become usual, no one was annoyed at being woken up. This is not to say you should go around poking and prodding just anyone who’s sleeping on the street. However, most people prefer food than uninterrupted beauty sleep.
- People’s lives are geared towards the practical: shoes should be comfortable, clothes should be weather-appropriate, and things that aren’t needed won’t be taken.
- When people don’t want a particular item of clothing, food, or even anything at all, most of the time they will graciously say “No, thank you.” If not, they are actually less rude about it than most people I see on the Metro every day. Remember – if you can read comments on a Youtube video without bursting into tears or fainting, you can handle someone being rude to you on the street.
- New socks, sandwiches, and hot soup seem to always be welcome, for fairly obvious reasons. Everyone loves feeling comfy while they eat a sammich, damnit, and soup is always comforting and nourishing.
- After a day of being mostly ignored, people actually appreciate if you take the time to stop and talk to them. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you have that many things to connect over, simply asking someone how they are can be enough.
The people we met on the route often asked if I was new. As Julie told me, the most rewarding aspect can be “…getting to know people so that they greet you with open arms when you pass by, stopping to pass the time of day and being able to fulfill some of their very humble requests. We are greeted like old friends by lots of people and they wait for us each week.”
“I view the homeless differently,” Julie added. “I don’t think I was ever a very judgmental person, but now I always wonder what a person’s story is, and realize that it really could be any of us out there.”
Julie also offered some insight as to why people are out there. “The people who end up on the streets tend to be those that are unable to enter [hostels] due to drugs or alcohol or violence. Of course there are always others, and I don’t want to make any generalizations, as I am not an expert. In Barcelona we see many, many, people who have lived on the streets for a long time (at least as long as we have been going out), and those who have become the victims of financial crisis over the last 18 months. Many are just ordinary folks fallen on hard times with no family support. In Barcelona there are also many people from other countries, Morocco, Poland, Australia, Italy, Germany, Romania to name just a few.”
Julie also explained that it can sometimes be “a challenge finding enough volunteers every week but we always do it.”
The situations in San Francisco and Barcelona are obviously worlds apart. The resources, government aides, climates, cities, and especially the people are different. I would even venture saying that as far as volunteering with the homeless goes, Barcelona may be a little more soft-core than San Francisco. When it comes down to it, though, in both cities, people need help. Some have made decisions which led to them being homeless, and others haven’t. In light of recent tragedies, it’s especially important to remember that you never know what will happen. Just as some didn’t necessarily earn to be as comfortable and affluent as they are, others don’t always deserve their misfortune.
I suspect I’m not the only one to have felt stuck between the desire to help and the instinct to protect myself. While the words “emotional-self preservation” read as somewhat entitled, they still describe many people’s gut reaction, including my own. As I have neither the allotted space nor the education to truly delve into this, I merely suggest that this is normal – especially in San Francisco.
I can’t really explain why I suddenly decided to volunteer, or justify why I didn’t until now. It would also be hypocritical of me to say that I will be doing this regularly, from now until forever. However, of the few experiences I’ve had with Esperança, the most important lesson I learned from the people I walked with and the people I met on the way, is just this: if you ever feel like you want to help, go ahead. In the end, doing anything at all is still a lot.
As advice to anyone who wants to help, Julie suggests: “Just get out there and do it….people really, really, appreciate our help and we definitely make a difference in their lives. We are not social workers, and we cannot change their lives very much, but a kind word, something wholesome to eat and a clean pair of socks can help someone feel that somebody out there cares about them.”
If you are interested in volunteering in San Francisco, check out Project Homeless Connect.