Two pose as homeless to walk in those shoes
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
No one should have to call the back seat of their car home.
No one should have to eat what others have thrown away.
But sometimes none of us knows what to do to fix that.
A few weeks ago, some social workers and employees of nonprofits in Blount County got together to ponder how to mark an important week — National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 12-20. The idea came up for some of them to go out into our community homeless and hungry and document the experience.
Kathi Parkins of Family Promise and Daniel Harris of Child and Family Tennessee spent that Monday, Nov. 14, asking for help. For Parkins, who took along a partner, “Bill,” to pose as her husband, help apparently means different things to different people.
‘Can you help us?’
She started her homeless experience after work that day and first went to a popular restaurant. She and her ‘husband’ approached nine different people and simply told them they were hungry and homeless. “Can you help us?” they asked the strangers.
Two said they weren’t from the area even though tags on the car said Blount County. One girl said she was late for work and ran in the other direction. One man handed them $5 and quickly entered the restaurant. Two girls, Parkins said, came out with food in their hands. Despite hearing that Parkins and her partner were hungry, they chose to take their leftovers home.
After the experience, Parkins said the worst part was being chased from the eatery by an angry manager, who she said had every right to shoo them away.
“I stood behind Bill and let him make the first contact,” Parkins said. “I didn’t even want them to see my face. It was embarrassing. Even though I wasn’t homeless, I felt bad about myself.”
Someone had referred this ‘homeless couple’ to a nonprofit agency not far away, so they went, even though helping the homeless wasn’t their mission. A lady there gave them what was to be her lunch that evening, and some food that had been left as a donation. She asked what others didn’t: “What kind of help do you need?”
In addition to the food, this woman also gave them pillows and blankets and something they desperately needed, a hug and reassurance.
She and her partner also went to a local shopping area and asked for help. This time, the police were called by a man who dialed 911. Parkins had to stay there for the police to arrive. The officer was very helpful, she said. He told them about a shelter in Knoxville and asked if there was anything else he could do.
Sitting on a park bench in front of a store, Parkins said she paused to reflect on what had happened. She ate the donated lunch and drank the Diet Coke. She had the extra food that had been dropped off — a can of beans and beets and expired ravioli — but elected not to eat that. She made the decision not to sleep in her car that night.
“I had a choice,” Parkins said in her diary. “I would be home soon and could have anything I wanted, including a shower and a warm bed. That should have made me feel better, but it didn’t.”
At the end of the evening, she went foraging through Dumpsters but learned many of them were either locked or otherwise inaccessible.
Before calling it a night, Parkins decided to go in search of a homeless man she had heard was living in his truck behind a local shopping center. She didn’t have to look far. He shared his story of coming here from Sevier County with his two sons. The man had lost his job in Sevier County and was told things were better here. The job search so far hasn’t panned out and the threesome still calls their pickup truck home. But they hold on to hope.
Generous but ignorant
Parkins said she completed her exercise of walking in those shoes realizing people in her community are generous but mostly ignorant about community resources. No one mentioned the United Way to her at all, or told her to call their church. No one seemed to know there are local churches who provide free hot meals through the week to anyone who comes.
As a social worker, Parkins said she will take more time to listen to those asking her for help. “Those of us who work in social services sometimes get wrapped up in the rules and regulations of our particular programs and lose sight of the fact these are people’s lives, not just names and identifying information on a form.”
Daniel Harris of Child and Family Tennessee started his odyssey at 10 a.m. that Monday, with a “fourth of a tank of gas and $2.37 in his pocket.”
His first stop was a local food pantry, where he only waited a few minutes in line before being loaded up with enough food for four or five days. He was even given ready-to-eat food because he told the volunteers he was homeless.
Harris then decided to go see if a church would let him take a shower, telling them he was going out to look for a job. The woman at the welcome desk was more than kind, Harris said. He was able to take a shower and heat up some of the food he’d received.
There was also a trip to the library, where Harris was given access to the Internet so he could apply for jobs. He even went back later to enjoy a concert.
Despite having been able to take a shower earlier, Harris said he went to a local fitness center later in the day and asked if he could take a shower there. Not without a membership, he was told. Harris said he understood the policy. He just got out the $2 he had and showed the front desk personnel and then walked away.
A second meal was taken at a local church that serves the needy every Monday night. Harris said he spent at least half an hour at the church, which made him feel welcome and filled his stomach.
A scary moment
The time he spent panhandling in a local parking lot was the most terrifying, Harris said. He followed a woman and her child to their car.
“The woman screamed and told her daughter to get in the car and lock the doors,” he said. “I didn’t approach anyone else. I understood. That could have been my wife and daughter.”
He did spend the night in a public place before heading for home the next morning. It’s been an experience he won’t soon forget.
“I have been talking about this for days,” he said. “I work with people just like this every day. I want to do whatever I can to help.”
The hardest part, Harris said, was asking people for money. He watched as several people filed out of a building before he got up the nerve to ask. “It took a lot of courage and humility,” he said.
Once he stepped back into his own life, Harris said he was physically and mentally exhausted. And to think a homeless person would have to keep that pace again and again seemed impossible, he said. “I was homeless for 24 hours. That doesn’t compare to what they face every day.”
Like Parkins, Harris said he will pay more attention to the phone calls he receives from people in desperate times.
“It has been a good reminder of things we take for granted,” Harris said. “This has changed my perspective. It helped me to walk in their shoes, even if it was for a short time.”
There were other things, too, that Parkins took from the experience. Like what she will donate to food pantries going forward. The expired ravioli made her realize homeless people are often given what nobody else wants. She plans to do it differently.
The images of a father and his sons with worldly possessions crammed into the back of a pickup because they have nowhere else to call home won’t easily fade, either.
“No one in our community should call the back seat of their car home,” she said. “It is difficult to sleep at night when you have just left a parking lot, knowing that two kids are going to wake up there in the morning and then go to school and actually try and learn. At the end of the day, the same thing awaits them ... no hot meal, or family time, no place to study and no room to call their own.”