Plunging Into Homelessness
By Elissa Cook, Senior, Urban Plunge Coordinator
I put on my best smile and greeted the small group of students gathered around my display board. They’d come to Urban Involvement’s “Burst the Bubble” information fair to learn about how they could get off campus and engage the greater Seattle community.
After hearing about all the different service ministries in UI, they were prepared for another spiel about volunteering at tutoring programs, homeless ministries, or youth groups. What they weren’t expecting to hear was an enthusiastic speech about why they should voluntarily live like homeless people for five days during their school vacation.
As I explained what Urban Plunge entails, the polite smiles began to slip from the students’ faces, to be replaced by looks of concerned perplexity. These well-off university students heard that during Urban Plunge, they’d be spending five days on the streets of downtown Seattle, provided with little more than $2 total, a couple of bus passes, the clothes on their back, and a place to sleep at night. Throughout the day, they’d be experiencing the homeless lifestyle through talking to homeless people, “spanging” (asking people for spare change), and finding their own meals. They’d also be visiting various homeless service sites and learning about the resources they offer to Seattle’s population.
Looking at homelessness "full on"
Anticipating the obvious question, “Why in the world would you want to do that?” I went on to explain the purpose of Urban Plunge. Students who go off campus are almost guaranteed to see at least one homeless person — even in the Queen Anne neighborhood. When they do encounter such a person, many students don’t know how to respond. It’s easier to walk quickly by and forget the whole incident than take the time to think about the issues surrounding the encounter.
Urban Plunge exists so that students can engage these issues. It forces participants to look at homelessness full-on and grapple with their questions and assumptions. The bottom line of Urban Plunge is an important part of my life philosophy: understanding through experience.
By “understanding,” I don’t mean that Urban Plunge promotes a particular agenda or view of homelessness. We simply put people out there and let them make up their own minds. Through nightly discussion sessions, we wrestle with the hard issues that come up and our own differing opinions. We usually come away with more questions than answers, but at least we aren’t pretending homelessness is going to magically disappear if we keep ignoring it.
Urban Plunge is one of UI’s two programs (the other being the Refugee Project) that doesn’t directly involve service. In a way, it’s somewhat selfish, because the students — not those in need — are the ones changed and impacted the most through this experience. But as UI’s Owen Sallee, coordinator for global and urban development, pointed out, the way that our hearts and minds are shaped and changed through these five days impacts so many areas of our lives: How we interact with people (homeless or not), how we vote, what our vision of community looks like, how we read the Bible, and so on.
Diversity and commonalities
I participated in Urban Plunge during Spring Break last year. During all of my interactions with homeless people, I kept coming back to the same realization: the diversity of this community. Every person we met was unique and had a different story. There were some commonalities running through their tales, but not as many as are generally believed. It seems self-evident to us that while SPU students, or Seattle residents, or Americans, have many things in common, they also have many differences as individuals. Yet somehow, many of us seem to have lost this vision when it comes to those who lack homes.
Obviously, SPU students aren’t the only ones wrestling with the issues that surround homelessness. For this reason, Urban Plunge is not only about the participants. The program also acts as a starting point for dialogue in our community — Queen Anne, Seattle, and beyond.
After my Urban Plunge experience, I had serious conversations about homelessness with my family for the first time. Our differing opinions sometimes resulted in heated discussion. But at least having these uncomfortable conversations forces us to think, and to plan how we are going to respond to the next cardboard sign we see on the streets.
To those students who still hesitate to do Urban Plunge, I simply say, “You have the rest of your life to research and study and read up on homelessness. But when are you ever going to get the opportunity to see it this closely with such safety and support from those who are asking the same questions?”
I’m guessing never.
To learn more about Urban Plunge, including its impact on the Seattle community, visit www.spu.edu/depts/perkins/students/ui/UIProjects.asp#UrbanPlunge.
Elissa Cook was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is now an SPU senior majoring in Latin American Studies-Spanish. She is also this year’s Urban Plunge coordinator. After transferring to SPU last year from the University of Minnesota, she found her worldview shifting through classes, campus events, and experiences such as the Refugee Project and Urban Plunge.
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