Welcome to the first Shower the People blog post! A little bit about the author: my name is Kate, I’m currently acting as Shower the People’s AmeriCorps Volunteer Outreach and Engagement Coordinator. I go where the shower bus goes and interact with probably one hundred unhoused individuals per week and I’m currently in my 22nd week of service. That means in this role alone, I’ve had over 2,200 interactions with the unhoused community, excluding multiple interactions per night and at other outreach events.
In complete honesty, I am astounded by that number. As most people are, I was taught from a young age to ignore the homeless until they disappeared altogether. Like when you get a crack in your phone screen; you fixate on it every day, wanting desperately for it to go away, until one afternoon you realize it’s been months since you noticed there was a crack at all. I was taught that people make their own bed and they have to lay in it. My mindset regarding the homeless didn’t change until my college years, when a friend of mine reprimanded me for aggressively ignoring a panhandler. Their charge of unethical behavior stung, “the least you can do is wave at a person who is having a hard time. If you made eye contact with a stranger on the street you’d give a nod”. I felt embarrassed and ashamed at my lack of empathy, especially since I believed I was an empathetic person. This admonishment made me question who my empathy was for, and why I felt some deserved it more than others. So, after college, I signed up for my first AmeriCorps term at a soup kitchen, spurred on by a raging savior complex and a desire to become the most empathetic person in the world.
Spoiler alert- I did not become the most empathetic person in the world. At the soup kitchen, I served adjacent to those who worked directly with individuals experiencing homelessness. My role involved growing produce and harvesting it for our meals and not directly working with the people we fed. We had strict rules about interacting with unhoused folk; who we would and would not give services to, that no one should be alone with a client unless completely necessary, and no one under the influence was to be served. There were often labels administered to people based on their reactions to the trauma they were currently facing. There were favorite clients, the ones who made things “easy” on the organization and didn’t put up much fuss, and then clients we put our heads down around to avoid conversation.
I believe my prior organization, like many others do, wanted to fight for the “idealistically homeless person”, the individual who doesn’t exhibit symptoms of the trauma that likely led them to their current circumstances. They want to help the person they can post on social media, garnering support for the mythical man without flaws who happened to fall upon hard times. Although I didn’t become the most empathetic person in the world, I would say my empathy meter began to rise exponentially because this experience showed me how I did not want to serve. After my term was over, I looked for a place that was wholly different, coming to Shower the People.
Shower the People’s service model is opposite to the one I was previously working with and I have learned a lot, specifically that I should always challenge my assumptions. Although I had been taught that people make their own bed that they have to lie in, after serving with STP, I’m now wondering where that bed is. After they wake up and go off into the world, what do they go through just to come back to that very same bed? Do they have to lie in a bed bug infested nightmare, and although they make it every morning, did they ever have a hand in where that bed came from? Do they even get any rest? After getting to know lots of characters from drug addicts to ex-convicts, I can say that not all beds are the same, and despite trying to make them correctly, many of these folks had sheets that were never the right size for them.
So far, I believe that my paramount takeaway is that there is no ideal homeless person, and despite this, everyone still deserves help and kindness. Maybe you knew this already, but I’m willing to admit that I did not until starting service with this organization. This blog is going to help with challenging my own assumptions as well as sharing my experiences and the experiences of my friends’ on the street. I hope that you enjoy the journey.