It just didn’t add up.
Staring at the bright blue plastic tarp strung up diagonally onto the wall, and then down to the single blanket wrinkled on the ground, and then over to the woman grinning and gesturing wildly in conversation across the room, it all just did not add up.
How could that have been her life?
Looking back to the staged encampment in front of me, it felt like too far of a leap to connect this vibrant, spunky pixie-haired woman within arms reach of me to someone living on the streets, exposed this way, and fitting into my preconceived notions of what homelessness “looks like.”
But that was the point of the experience, to connect and make tangible for us the real stories of homeless neighbors in our community.
Along the wall were signs emblazoned with things I’ve never had to worry about:
Imagine where you would use the restroom.
Imagine where you would change your clothes.
Imagine where you would keep your belongings safe.
Imagine how you would keep yourself safe.
Things to consider while putting myself in her shoes, under the blue tarp.
The experience was meant to show us what the reality of homelessness was for those on the streets and for those trying to help them off the streets, angels trying to fly and working in the trenches of a broken system for those who may not have the means or the ability to advocate for themselves, or sometimes even show up.
Each one of us in attendance was given a card with the story of person, someone who’s story was true, even if the name had been changed. I had “Patricia”, a widowed woman who’d been suddenly terminated by her employer due to false allegations brought against her. With neither family nearby to offer her refuge, nor the means to pay rent, she was evicted and had only her car to call home.
My job as Patricia was to walk through the system as I sought legal, medical, and financial help for my situation. Steps forward and upward, I hoped.
As I progressed through the event, I learned about all the different sets of rules for receiving aid, how long average wait lists were, why some would qualify, but others wouldn’t. Even with a group of angel advocates to help me, the process seemed long and complicated, like jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop in some drawn-out circus. (I use first-person pronouns here because the goal was to put ourselves in these people’s shoes.)
At each table, I drew a new card to learn more about the next part of my story and where my next move would go.
It seemed that at every turn, I was met with challenges, legal issues, health problems that made sleeping on the streets literally quite painful, and wait lists that meant in the best case scenario, I’d still be out here for a year or more.
More than anything, I realized that my story wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t homeless because I was a criminal or simply made poor choices.
Quite the opposite. Every step of my journey was due to either awful tragedy or bad luck or prejudice or something external from me, and despite my best efforts, the system couldn’t help me fast enough. Picture the game of Life, but with the cards stacked against me from the start.
SPOILER: Patricia ultimately found housing. She found her way off the streets and out of homelessness, but how? Because of a sparkly magical little ol’ X-Factor.
Separate from the wait lists, broken systems, and red tape, Patricia was given a special housing opportunity by people she’d befriended, people who knew her and were willing and able to help.
These people took the time to 1) get to know her, to break through their preconceived notions, learn her story and her needs, and 2) they responded. Compelled by the need that they had the means and opportunity to fill, these individuals acted. And thank God they did or Particia may still be waiting.
It was knowing her story that made all the difference, connecting to the personal, tangible, raw truth of her experience changed things. The power of knowing her story compelled them to help.
As the event wrapped up, I was preoccupied in thought, overcome by the experience and broken-hearted for people whose names I never actually knew but whose stories I did—in some small way—understand.
And that spunky pixie-haired woman who once was under the blue tarp shared, and as she did, a friend leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s Patricia.”
If only for the couple of hours that I interacted with Particia’s story and the few short moments with her, my perception of homelessness and of the homeless changed. Connected by our shared humanity and gender, and altered by the reality that her story could happen to anyone, including to me, I share it here in the hopes that the same thing will happen for you. That in some small way, you connect and are changed.
Whether it’s mental illness, addiction, homelessness, or a whole host of other hard experiences that real people go through every single day, when we put faces to names and stories to statistics, we break down the sentiments of separation and the walls of “otherness”.
All we really have are our stories: the truth and the tragedy, the exuberant and the excruciating, and my hope is that by sharing them, we—like Patricia’s friends—are compelled to respond.
Love, The Square Peg
I’ve accepted the challenge to rappel down a 16-story building as part of Shatterproof’s Challenge Rappel in June to raise awareness and funding for addiction and recovery services. But, I can’t do it without your help! Please consider donating and together we can end the stigma and change the conversation about addiction.
Also, if you’re looking for an AWESOME organization to partner with, please check out Kingdom Causes Bellflower. They’re the angels in the trenches I mentioned who helped Patricia and continue to help people just like her. They do really hard, but really incredible, necessary work.