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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Features

Lessons From the Street

What Urban Plunge taught me about homelessness

It’s pretty easy to be unsympathetic toward the homeless when you’re downtown shopping or going out to dinner. It’s easy to think, “Well, that’s not my problem,” or “I don’t want to give them any money because they might spend it on drugs or alcohol.” This was basically my attitude when I signed up for the Urban Plunge program at Seattle Pacific University. My view of the homeless “problem” was pessimistic. I thought people without homes were most likely lazy, addicted, or irresponsible.

The Urban Plunge program allows SPU students to experience homelessness firsthand by spending four days on the streets of Seattle with $2 and a bus ticket. At night, the students sleep in the basement of a downtown church, but they are kicked out at 6 a.m. to find their own food and fend for themselves. By the end of those four days, my mind was decidedly changed.

How tiring being homeless is! (Speaking, of course, as one who was “homeless” for only a few days.) As a homeless person, you become exhausted simply working to find three meals a day and shelter at night. Being homeless is emotionally exhausting as well. Besides often feeling depressed and defeated, there is something deeply demoralizing and demeaning about begging and admitting your helplessness.

It may be possible for those of us with supportive and loving family and friends to stay positive even on the worst of days, but it is very difficult for the homeless to remain optimistic. In talking with Howard, a man who has been living on the streets for more than six years, it was evident to me that any spark of excitement about life in his eyes was gone. There is a hopelessness that sets in, and the things that make life worth living seem absolutely unattainable. The prospect that Howard might acquire a job, move into an apartment, and maybe eventually meet someone special is unimaginable. The prize is too far over the horizon; he cannot even see it.

The hardest thing to find for a homeless person who wants to get off the streets is a job and permanent housing. It is frustrating, because in order to fill out a job application, you must have an address, and to have an address you must have a job. Living in a shelter with nothing, how do you get a shower, shave, and clean clothes before showing up to work?

Many skeptics have criticized the system as perpetuating the problem by providing the homeless food and shelter beds. In actuality, many of the homeless people would be in life-threatening situations if it were not for the services that make it “easy” to be homeless. While we were on the streets, we met some great people who are helping the homeless build a better life for themselves through programs like FareStart, Operation Nightwatch (run by Rick Reynolds ’75), and New Horizons.

About the end of the third day of living on the streets, my spirit was broken for people without homes. I began to see them differently. I started to see them as people in need of kindness and love — not just my spare change (which I give away mostly to make myself feel better, if I’m going to be honest about it).

Sometimes, after I tell someone about my Urban Plunge experience, they ask me what to do when that guy on the street corner asks for money. “Muffins,” I say. “Muffins are the key. Try going downtown on a Saturday with a whole bunch of really tasty muffins and some coffee and hand them out to the folks asking for your change while you get to know them. Then you stand a chance of seeing them as people. You get a chance of seeing that they are like you, and whether they know it or not, they are children of God.”

A special thanks to two of my fellow Urban Plunge students, Ryan Provonsha and Caleb Davis; my best friend, Jordan Pio; my father, H. Roy Ratzlaff; and the Urban Plunge staff.


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