When folks hear about my many visits to homeless shelters they frequently ask what it was like for me the first time I entered a homeless camp. Many are intimidated by people on the margins and do not know how one can feel comfortable around people who are so different.
The question can be posed, as many prefer to have somebody else perform the interacting and stay on the sidelines observing, criticizing or supporting the work of others eager Visitors to displaced camps slowly start to find that the characters living there are as real as they are, and possibly, a little too like them for comfort.
The homeless deal on a daily basis with lots of the very same challenges as people living in comfortable surroundings. Getting to know these people takes getting over one’s stereotypes and finding that place inside that says these people are just like you-except homeless. When I visit classrooms or businesses, to discuss our work with the poor and the sick I constantly experience similar reactions. I experience precisely the same reaction whenever I attend neighborhood meetings where people are deciding the fate of displaced camps and whether or not to enable them in their neighborhood.
So as to allow everyone a voice I ask the viewer who the homeless are I’m OK hearing this as it gives people permission to talk about their feelings. When they’re through perhaps they’ll listen to the realities. This is when I discuss what it was like for me the first time I entered a camp. I had not spent any time around the roads in my life and did not know how to walk on those who felt separated by anything that wall is My first time I hovered around the entrance to a large outdoor shelter waiting for a secure way to inquire about how folks wound up in such conditions. I remember being filled with the very same definitions of who they were as people I deal with now.
Luckily, a fellow walked up to me asking if he could give me a tour of the camp. I happily accepted and listened carefully to all sorts of things about the camp that I’d never remember. Near the end of the tour, I asked him if he would feel OK when I asked particular questions about why he had been in camp. It was then that I understood they were us, and that I was close to them in fact as I had never imagined. Afraid? Maybe, really afraid that I’d end up in a tent shelter surrounded by million-dollar homes. During my presentation, I worry that it is OK to feel uneasy but it is not OK to socialize with people in troubled circumstances with a judgmental tone.