I cannot tell you what it is like to be homeless because I do not know what it is like – I was living on the streets of Washington, D.C. for two days and was comforted by the knowledge that I had a home to return to, whereas thousands live without a home, often largely by themselves, for years or decades. What I can tell you is how those two days changed how I view the world, reflect on my life and interact with loved ones and complete strangers.
In my first month on campus, Blair Robinson ’13 offered me the opportunity to help her organize a Break Out Trip (BOT) for the first week of spring break. If you know Blair, you know that it didn’t take her long to convince me. Our goal was to take five Williams students to do the National Coalition for the Homeless’ (NCH) challenge of living on the streets of D.C. for 48 hours and then help out at local food banks for three more days. To get there, we faced many hurdles, including getting the administration’s approval to go and finding the funding, transportation and participants for our trip. As organizers, it was easy to get bogged down in the details, but when we finally arrived in D.C. in late March, none of that mattered anymore.
A mere 24 hours after we had left Williams and its midterm madness, we were receiving a few guidelines from the organizers at the NCH headquarters in northwest D.C. We were to couple off and stay separate from the larger group during the day, create a backstory to hide our identities and meet up with each other and an NCH guide at night for safety – the whole time pretending to be homeless and trying to panhandle or beg to get food. After their brief introduction, the organizers gave us a list of a couple of food pantries and sent us off into the city without money or cell phones – only the clothes on our backs and a garbage bag with a couple of blankets for the night.
By trying to look and act as if I were homeless, I was shown how the perception of homelessness shapes people’s actions towards each other. First of all, no one, homeless or not, questioned me as to whether I were actually homeless (if they had, we were instructed to lie and say we were). I am sure some people who were homeless knew we were impostors, but the vast majority treated us with great kindness. This leads to my second point: Everyone acted to one extreme or the other – showing either tender compassion or complete disregard. The nicest people I met were often themselves homeless or not well-off: the homeless man in the park who offered me his own lunch, the little boy who counted out the quarters that he could spare to give me, the NCH guide who watched over us at night while telling us his story. Although I risk overgeneralizing, the meanest people I met often looked a lot like me – white, middle-class, decently well-dressed: the woman who pretended to look at her cell phone while walking past us, the man who almost stepped on me by accident and then proceeded to scowl, the countless people who acted as if I weren’t a person by not even looking or saying a word. And of course I, as a relatively healthy and young white male, got it much better than most of the homeless do. It is well-recorded by the NCH that college students get much more empathy than a homeless individual typically would (we donated all that we got to homeless people or to our guide), which is not even to mention the horrible hate crimes committed toward homeless people every day.
After this experience, I will never again ignore a fellow human being, even if he or she is asking me for money and I do not feel it is right to give it, although I can honestly say that I was guilty of this behavior frequently in the past. There is power in the acknowledgment of one’s presence and request, even if the answer is “Sorry, I can’t give anything.” Furthermore, although it is easy to complain about the never-ending work and business we put ourselves through at the College, I now know that it is infinitely better than the feeling of having all the time in the world, but nowhere to go.
In a few weeks, over 100 students will be going on over 10 trips (the most students and trips there have ever been) to destinations all around the country and world on BOTs or staying right here on campus for the new local spring break trips. They will be learning things that can’t be found in classrooms but only in uncomfortable environments. Whether you are one of these students, are considering being one in the future or have never thought about going on a trip at all, I challenge you to seek out these uncomfortable moments – the questions you will be forced to ask yourself will shape who you are.
Finally, I must give great thanks to the Center for Learning in Action for its role in streamlining the process of organizing and funding the trips this year, and for the incredible support of the Chaplain’s Office, College Council and President Falk among many other generous contributors.
Bill Zito ’16 is from Millersville, Md. He lives in Prospect.