Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Point in Time

There are a lot of things I love about my job working with people who have experienced homelessness.

For one, I get a front-row seat to some of the greatest personal comeback stories anyone could ask for. I've seen people rescue themselves from human trafficking, unconscionable violence, dehumanizing addictions, and textbook-defying mental and physical illness. These same people get jobs, they go back to school, they get medical and psychiatric care, they learn how to read, they make friends. They go from streets, shelters, abandoned buildings, and sheet-and-tarp tents, to sleeping in beds (really sleeping, which many haven't done for years), washing their clothes, grocery shopping, and paying bills. These are all things most of us take for granted, but for my clients these are milestones. Not everyone has the kind of success they write about in human-interest newspaper stories, but most are on the road to seeing themselves as individuals again, remembering what it is like to have the privilege of being a "person" instead of being branded: HOMELESS.

My job is never, ever, ever, ever boring, and it allows me to see up close and personal the one really true magic trick a human being can perform:


It's beautiful. Completely. Every single time.

Today's adventure was the nationwide Homeless Point-in-Time Count. This initiative is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to gain a census of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations around the country's major cities on one given day, strategically chosen as the day after the estimated coldest night of the year. Service providers and volunteers are dispatched into the city to locate and interview unsheltered individuals.

The Point-in-Time Count is the only opportunity some of us ever take to spend a day taking stock of our city. This is a day spent looking around corners, behind things, under things, peeking through the looking-glass to the places our cities don't want us to notice, the places where invisible things like to hide. Invisible people.

Today, my coworker and I were assigned an area of the city we don't normally frequent. It's kind of funny, really, because this area is much nearer to my home than to my work, but it still felt foreign. We peeked behind parking lots, in alleys, around overpasses, and under bridges. My coworker, (who has a future in NASCAR if this career doesn't work out for her) pulled several EXPERT U-turns on seven lane highways to get us near enough to approach people. We met some interesting people today, ones I won't forget. It's hard to believe they have been there all this time, practically in my own backyard.

I work with people who have experienced homelessness for a living, and days like today still have the power to open my eyes and remind me: homelessness is a crisis. It is a complicated, tangled-up, no-easy-answers problem, but that is no excuse to forget. It is an emergency for these individuals, day in and day out, through all points in their time whether we are counting or not. Their lives are happening in these hidden places we are trained not to see and their every activity is centered around survival, whatever shape it takes for that person. It is profoundly unjust, and when we forget this (or just refuse to look), we lose a piece of our humanity.

I'm going to endeavor to remember to peek around corners a little more often, and to remember the people who may be carving out an existence there: people who are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and hopefully someday--neighbors.

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