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.
—BY FRAsER RATZLAFF’05
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