By Wood Smith, Centre College Senior 2014
I’ve never been homeless before. I’ve always had a place to call home—somewhere to recline after school, procrastinating on my coursework to watch another episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” I always knew what homelessness was and that it was a pervasive and debilitating issue for millions of Americans.
But I didn’t understand what it really meant to be homeless— the nights spent without a roof, hoping for a meal, or, in most unfortunate cases, yearning for chemical enhancements or depressants as a means of escaping reality.
Interestingly, I consider myself lower class. This is a very frustrating fact with which I often wrestle, as I’ve always been grouped with privileged children. I attended private school through eighth grade, took Advanced Placement courses with all of the snobbier and well-to-do young men and women, and even joined a fraternity in college, which seems counterintuitive for someone seemingly watching his funds.
Of course, there’s a difference between lower class and “poor.” I don’t think it’s fair to consider myself poor, given all of the privileges I enjoy: an automobile, an education at a private college, and a loving mother who has always sacrificed her own enjoyment and recreation for mine.
(From left: Wood Smith, Nick Do)
Family members, on the other hand, pinch pennies for alcohol and drugs, and as a result, remain in desperation. Despite all of the social support given, I’ve come to realize that some people simply do not want help. Any system of welfare can only work with people who want help.
I enrolled in a course entitled “Poverty and Homelessness” my senior year of college to quell my frustrations and to develop a better understanding of the condition of the poor.
I wondered about people who have had similar experiences to my own but perhaps had a little too much debt, or a parent with an addiction, or the inability to oversee a sibling with a mental disorder resulting in life on the streets. I wondered about young students whose mothers will not or cannot sacrifice money to ensure their child’s enjoyable college experiences. I wondered about those who are truly in the depths of poverty or homelessness.
So, I agreed to take an overnight visit to a homeless shelter as part of the course [on a Saturday night in March]. Our professor pulled up to the sidewalk next to St. Vincent de Paul, one of the many shelters in Louisville, a city renowned for its welfare programs aimed toward the homeless. As Birdman, a dormitory resident of St. Vincent, puts it, “I came to Louisville for the same reasons everyone comes: to get clean.” Nervous, Nick, my partnered classmate, and I walked up the ramp, past the cafeteria, and into the check-out room.
By the end of my stay, I came away with the strict realization that there are no fundamental social or intellectual differences between a temporarily homeless person and a privileged one. At the same time, the first conversation we had with a resident was evidence of such. “Excuse me, sir. Could I sit here?”
“Are you all college students?”
To add to my mounting anxiety, the gentleman informed the entire room of our status as students. Having been outed in the first minute, I initially felt uncomfortable and out of place. Even the staff admitted that we didn’t seem homeless during the check-in process.
Regardless, I knew I would only have one chance to make this experience meaningful, so I turned to the gentleman in a University of Kentucky hat and commented on the game.
“Big Joe” Takes Charge
Big Joe became one of the biggest inspirations in my life. The system hadn’t been fair to him. He volunteered his medical records to me—his life was an “open book”—in order to prove his disabilities. Despite chronic back malfunctions, Big Joe was applying for SSDI for the third time. Yet, life hadn’t quite gotten him down. Quite the opposite.
Big Joe had been at St. Vincent de Paul for several months, yet his optimism and fun-loving attitude commanded attention so that people really listened when he suggested it was time to clean up. “No more TV until the place is clean. If you’re not helping, get out of here for 10 minutes!”
Big Joe’s optimism, enthusiasm, and pure embracing of his past life and choices provided a surprising contrast to the denial that seems to accompany many individuals in temporary poverty.
I noticed a clear disconnect between several homeless people’s current and former lives.
One man claimed he only stayed in his dormitory residence about twice a week. He had a pleasant life with his aunt down the street. As such, he had really already transcended his “homelessness.”
During dinner, a conversation with Lee demonstrated this same principle. Lee, however, may have surprised me the most. He was incredibly well-informed about current events and asked us several intellectually stimulating questions:
“So, Wood, you say you studied in Japan. Given the current economic and political trends in Japan, would you say they’re moving toward a more socialist state?”
No one expects a college student to be bested intellectually by a homeless person, yet I was dumbfounded and had no real answer. It is not that I ever believed homeless people were inherently unintelligent; such a notion is pure ridiculousness. Rather, there is a certain understanding and clarity that arises from firsthand experiences.
Here was a man who stayed just as informed about world issues as I did; hated working at Wal-Mart just as much as any young, white, middle-class male would; and had clearly defined goals. Just like me.
Lee’s goals consisted of getting back on his feet, making some money, and recovering his old profession. When pressed, Lee preferred not to reveal what he used to do for a living. Lee did not want to acknowledge his current position any more than he had to, by virtue of the fact that he was an obvious resident of SVDP.
And I don’t necessarily blame him. I can only imagine the personal frustration, embarrassment, and pain that comes along with not having a basic human right, a home. But therein lies the problem: I really can only imagine. I’ve never been homeless before. But I have spent one of the most educational and rejuvenating nights of my life in a homeless shelter.
Seeing a Familiar Brotherhood
These gentlemen pushed each other around, teased each other, and gave good-natured pats on the back the same way I do with my friends in the fraternity house back home.
There’s nothing “otherly” about homeless people. Sure, there are people who do not want help and opt instead to continue down the path of addiction. But most have the same goals, attitudes, desires, feelings, and problems as any man, woman, or child of any social status.
So often society attributes an unjust stereotype to all homeless people… And it’s simply not true.