Friday, January 3, 2014

Homeless Simulation-24 hours on Chicago's Streets


Recently we participated in a homeless simulation with Chicago's Mission Year volunteers.  We had all packed our items for the night not knowing where we were headed next.  We started around 7pm with a meal and a speaker from Breakthrough Ministries.  Afterwards, we were told that we would only be allowed to take three items with us.  I picked a jacket, a sleeping bag that I found in our community, and after much thought I decided my final item would be a water bottle.

Timo and other volunteers at the shelter's Thanksgiving meal
Our leaders brought us downstairs in the Marquard Center and told us we'd be sleeping in the dining room.  This was a bit of a relief because we thought we might be sleeping outside.  It was freezing outside so the cold breeze came in constantly...a reminder of the risk of not having a shelter in the winter.  As I was lying on the floor of the dining room, I tossed and turned again and again because my body started hurting once I was in a position for too long.  I was just trying to stay warm and waiting for it to be over.  I couldn't fall asleep until early in the morning when the tiredness became worse than the inconvenience of the floor.

We got woken up at 6:30am and were told that we had 10 minutes to pack up our stuff.  We were then told to wait at the door to our community apartment but nobody knew what would be behind the door.  Eventually we were called in three at a time.  When I reached the hallway there was a man sitting at a table waiting for me.  My side of the table had no chair so I had to kneel on the floor.  The man's role was to be my case manager and in order to get breakfast I had to answer his pages of questions.  However, when he started talking, he wasn't speaking English.  Instead he spoke Chinese which unfortunately I don't speak.  There was great difficulty communicating and he was annoyed by me.  I wondered, what should I do?  I had been happy to just get through the night but I was exhausted and confused.  Eventually I was dismissed and told it was time for breakfast.

Out of the 16 of us taking part, only 4 people received a piece of paper that allowed them a lunch bag with chips, a sandwich, and a can of orange soda in it.  At this point I was starting to get critical about the homeless simulation.  I thought about our guests and services we offer at Franciscan Outreach.  No one has to sleep on the floor, everyone gets breakfast and dinner, and our case managers are nothing like that!  We do our best to see that everyone is warmly welcomed, treated with respect and if communication problems occur we look for someone who can help translate.

Timo & Mustafa making traditional German dumplings
We took some time to talk about what we felt like during the night and the experience in the morning.  It was neat to see how many people felt the same way I did, and also to hear new experiences from others.  Then we went downtown in teams of two with a list of ideas and challenges to complete.  We weren't allowed to use our phones and we just had our ID's and a bus card that we were only allowed to use for back home that night.

Downtown, my partner and I just started walking without a destination and checked our lists for things we wanted to do.  We just started walking in one direction and kept walking, and walking, and walking.  After a while I started thinking "what am I doing here?" I just kept walking around.  I realized if you don't have anywhere to go you might just walk around aimlessly.  I felt like there was nowhere to go and nowhere that I would be welcomed. I continued walking and started looking through some trash cans (a suggestion on our list) to search for some useful things.  I was disgusted by the trashcans and there smell, I was disappointed by what I found, only some cans and leaves on the bottom of the trashcan.  But mostly I felt people staring at me.  I tried to look for places where almost nobody could see me but someone always could.

My partner and I walked to the library and then to Panera to check in with Kristen and meet up with another community member.  We took some time to sit by ourselves near the Sear's Tower.  I felt uncomfortable sitting there.  It was worse to realize what it is like for people who are really on the streets.  I got a small glimpse at what it feels like to be ignored.

After a while a guy came and sat down right next to us.  He asked for a lighter for a cigarette butt that he found on the ground and for some of my water.  None of us had a lighter and I still hadn't found a water fountain to fill up my bottle.  So he just sat with us for a bit.  He said he wasn't from Chicago so he couldn't tell us where free meals or similar services were.  After a while he left and we were alone again.  We started to realize how cold the sidewalk was, it felt like it sucked the energy out of us.  We found a train station to go to the bathroom in and warm up a bit.

Community night ice skating
We gathered back wit the rest of the group and talked about the difference experiences everyone had.  Some groups panhandled more, tried to ask people directly for money, made signs and got $20 from one man who first passed them and then came back.  One volunteer said she felt like a pigeon during the day.  At first I thought it was weird, but then I realized that was exactly how I felt. Pigeons bothered us all the time in Chicago and today we oddly felt closer to them than to the people.

On our way back home I was glad that I took part in this experience but still couldn't figure out what the day meant to me.  I still felt weird because obviously my experience was far off from what it is like to really be without a home.  But I knew I did not want another night on the floor or even on the streets.  I felt really exhausted from only this one day.

When I went to work that night and stood at the door to the shelter letting all our guests into the warm dorm I was really impressed by how close I felt to everybody who came in.  I always had a lot of fun at work with the guests, but this night was different, I felt more connected and could imagine what many of the guests might feel like in a way that I had not experienced before.  That is something I will definitely keep with me this year.

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