Monday, December 7, 2009
This weekend I lived on the streets. I lived outside the San Diego winter homeless shelter. I ate, slept, cried, peed, learned, laughed, panhandled and listened to the street all weekend long.
Some may question the rationale of leaving a perfectly warm and comfortable apartment for the concrete on one of the coldest weekends of the year in San Diego, but I had my reasons.
When I first met Sean Sheppard, the founder of the non-profit organization Embrace, last March I told him I would be unable to write a story about his organization donating blankets to the homeless unless I was able to interview a homeless person about their need for the blankets.
As a recent graduate from San Diego State’s journalism program, I learned to always go to the primary source for a story, something we, in the media, I think have forgotten to do this year as the political debates about the winter homeless shelter raged on and on.
Sheppard took me out to meet some homeless people, and I’ll be honest: I was disgusted.
I had never been in close contact with a homeless person for longer than the time it takes to drop a dollar in a panhandler’s cup. The man I interviewed reeked of the stench of the street. He had feces on his pants and he hadn’t showered in more than a week. I was embarrassed by my reaction, but Sheppard told me it was a normal. This is exactly why he thinks it is essential for young, college-aged students to be exposed to the issues faced by lower-income and homeless people.
So, several months later I’m standing on the corner of 15th and J Street, philosophizing about life with a homeless man named Sonny. He’s a clean-cut, tall gentleman with an intelligent mind. He believes in the law of attraction and he tells me that you can’t change what other people are doing, but you can increase your own spiritual awareness and realize that what people are doing is outside of yourself.
Over the course of the next few days, I met and interviewed at least 30 people. I will be sharing their stories and updating this post as I process the video and audio. Though I just returned home yesterday, one fact is already blatantly clear to me. Homelessness is the common denominator for every ethnicity and all walks of life. I met people ranging from your stereotypical “crack head” to a brilliant homeless man named Carl who could have run for political office if dealt a different circumstance in life. He showers and insists on creasing his pants and shirts with an iron every single day.
The streets and people change at night, though.
Long after the downtown bars have made their last call, the left over lemon chicken brochetas, citrus shrimp tapas and bok choy have all been discarded in alley dumpsters, the shouts of the pedicab drivers simmer down and the nightclub denizens stumble home; there is a young woman still wide awake. She’s in her early 20’s. She has long blonde hair and a child who is far away from her in the physical world, but never out of her thoughts. She sleeps on the concrete, but she never really sleeps because she’s afraid of being raped in the middle of the night. She’s struggling to hold her urine because if she gets up to find a spot to relieve herself, the likelihood that she will be attacked increases. If you ask her, she won’t blame her mother or society or anyone else for her problems. She’ll tell you that she’s down here on the concrete tonight because of decisions she’s made.
So please, ask her about her life. It may surprise you to learn who she really is.