One distressing thing about DC life is the abundance of people experiencing homelessness. They're in the parks, on the sidewalks, riding the buses and trains. They're Black. White. Young, old. Some appear to struggle with mental illness, and many have physical disabilities. But I knew all of this before I came. My mother has spent her entire career fighting to end homelessness in Minnesota and the rest of the country. See the photo of eight-year-old me looking positively unamused as I watch my mother testify before the Minnesota State Legislature in support of affordable housing (this deserves its own story, but we'll save that for another time). I wish I had known the significance of the day so I could have been properly awed.
I remember my mother making my brother and me wrap endless Christmas gifts for children at the 410 - that's what the big Hennepin County shelter used to be called back in the day. I remember cutting strips of wrapping paper, going through spools of Scotch tape, carefully writing each child's name. I remember the big annual holiday party - the place settings, the trays of food prepared by volunteers, the elderly pianist in the corner playing holiday tunes. The work to end homelessness wasn't so clinical in those days. There seemed to be more smiles and less forms to fill out. I knew people were struggling, not having a house to live in. But the parties and the presents seemed like great fun to me as a child. I played tag with kids from the shelter, mostly unaware of how deeply our circumstances differed.
I remember my eighth grade trip to Washington, DC - a big deal. If you didn't know, social workers don't make nearly enough money. My mother moved mountains to make the three-day trip happen for me. I remember returning home, scandalized. "Mama - there's homeless people sleeping on the street EVERYWHERE. Even in front of the monuments!" She seemed annoyed at my shock. Raising kids in the suburbs of Minnesota is a tricky double-edged sword. I learned French and advanced math in kindergarten but was surprised that some people sleep outside? Yikes.
The lives of people experiencing homelessness remained largely on the periphery of my awareness until I was twenty years old, a fresh bachelor's degree in hand and a major recession looming over the country. I entered the social work field after receiving a raft of rejections for my preferred field: anthropology. "There will always be people having a hard time," my mother reminded me. "Organizations always need people to listen and help."
So I did.
For nearly five years.
I personally secured housing for over 350 homeless individuals and families during that time. The case loads were massive, the hours long, the pay laughably low. My clients were Black. White. Young, old. Many struggled with mental illness. A smattering had physical difficulties. I witnessed the aftermath of horrific domestic abuse, child abuse. I spent months, frozen, as a client battled HIV, and eventually AIDS. Some of my clients died. I worked with a client who was a neo-Nazi, his swastika tattoo prominent and angry. "It's science. Blacks are less intelligent than other races!" He was a single dad to an adorable young toddler, completely oblivious of the dark values soon to be imparted.
I battled with landlords who changed their tune upon discovering prospective tenants were coming from a homeless shelter. I broke bad news to people again and again. I dutifully attended hundreds of hours of training, thousands of hours of clinical supervision. This is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This is Motivational Interviewing. This is Meditation. This is De-escalation. These are your Boundaries. This is your Vicarious Trauma. My mentors told me: You will wake up in a terrified sweat years from now, remembering the Bad Thing your client told you - the story that made you vomit as soon as they walked out of your tiny Century Plaza office. My mentors were right, of course.
I shut the door on my social work career after a prolonged experience with racism that prompted a mass exodus of employees of color and one brave White ally who wouldn't stand for injustice. I told people I left because my white supervisor cheerfully said "Nigger" several times in a meeting (she wasn't sorry, and it was awful). I told people I left because I got tired of the housing program director ignoring our pleas for staff cultural competence training. I told people I left because I was too annoyed to answer my supervisor's outrageous question: "Risikat, why are Black women so angry?"...truthfully, I would've left the field even without those incidents. The trauma of the work was too much to bear. I was 25 years old. The System was too broken. "Working in this structure feels like painting a house that's on fire," I told colleagues.
I redirected my focus to charitable giving. I reasoned with myself. "I don't have it in me to do the work anymore, but I can give, right?" It felt like a good trade off. My clients' faces became fuzzier in my mind as I shifted gears. Research. Communications. Environment. These became my new reasons to be.
Homelessness became a policy conversation, rather than my own boots on the ground. I hadn't given it my full attention until I arrived in DC.
Today, I walked from Dupont Circle, headed back to my home for the time being. A man, homeless, sat perched on an upturned bucket. "Can you spare any change?" He held a sign with blue Hebrew letters, of all languages. Having no cash, I said, "Do you want some trail mix?"
"Thanks, I appreciate it!"
It wasn't a big deal. Living in DC has me hemorrhaging money, but there's still enough to buy non-perishable items to give away to people during the day. Bottles of water in the hot weather, trail mix, granola bars. I gave freely, not expecting anything in return - not even the warm fuzzy feeling that usually accompanies a good deed. What I didn't expect was to walk down the same path later in the evening and see the trail mix unopened and abandoned on the street. I was taken aback by my rage. I wanted to punch a wall.
"They don't want your food. They don't want your smiles. What they want is your money," says Marvin, my new DC friend. I'd admonished him at the time for being insensitive. However, seeing the trail mix on the ground turned my mind sour in seconds. I don't want to be this person.
It seems like a vulgar display of privilege to feel so indignant about a person discarding a token of compassion. It's only trail mix, after all! Why must people (read: me) attribute such personal feelings and intentions to complete strangers? Maybe the guy just didn't like snack foods. Maybe he didn't want to be rude by refusing me. Still, I felt slighted. "He left my kindness all alone in the street," I muttered bitterly. It was anger, then shame for being angry, then total despondence.
There is no perfect way to solve homelessness, no perfect way to engage with people experiencing housing instability. Maybe you're like my mother and devote decades of your life to eliminating homelessness (in the face of discrimination within the nonprofit sector, no less). Or perhaps you're like me - just doing what you can and hoping for the best. Some days, keeping a soft heart and a kind mind feels like a full-time job.