Confession of an Accidental Outreach Worker

Humans of New York is a kinda amazing cultural phenomenon of helping average folks put faces and stories together — a way of helping humanize people who are often overlooked — the very young, the very old, the homeless, the disabled, the foreign and the extravagant and the so perfectly average, whatever that means. It’s a kinda amazing cultural phenomenon because it’s #trendy to follow HoNY on Instagram and Facebook. And, it’s kinda amazing because it’s an incredibly popular platform that’s helping us see the people like us, who are not like us, because they are not us.

And it’s the ways that we usually try to distance ourselves from these not us — outside of HoNY — that worries me.

Especially when it comes to homeless populations.

I think about the people I’ve un/intentionally done outreach to — I’m often asked if I’m an outreach worker, possibly because I often have on a pack, or perhaps because a number of folks around town who are experiencing homelessness know me from my volunteer work and direct other folks toward me or perhaps because I’ll make eye contact and say hello to people who seem to be unhoused. Or perhaps (probably) for some other reason I can’t even conceive.

Off and on, I’ve regularly carried water and sealed bottles of water with me as I move through the world. Off and on, I’ve carried hand and toe warmers in the cold months, and on especially cold nights, have made a point of giving these out. Off and on, I’ve carried chap stick and single-use packets of soap and squeeze packets of peanut butter.

Lately, I haven’t done any of those things.

It’s felt like too much trouble, which is to say that it’s felt like too much trouble to recognize the humanity in the people around me who are most often robbed of their humanity by a society that values the flat lens (*cough, cough* lie *cough*) of bootstraps. That I’m willing to be complicit. That’s hard truth to recognize.

But, over the weekend, I found myself doing outreach to a woman who approached me on a busy street. She wanted food or money, and I offered to bring her both, though I didn’t have either on me at the time. She wanted soft food because, she told me, she didn’t have any molars anymore. We arranged to meet up later, and she gave me her name. When I saw her next, I helped her get her dog back, which had wandered off from her and gotten stuck behind a fence and couldn’t find its way back out.

I asked if she needed anything else: feminine hygiene products or water or any first aid items. She said no, and told me a brief snapshot of her story: She was nearly 34, had had a kid at 17, and sold her eggs at 18 in exchange for $12,000. A few years later, she went through menopause because of complications with selling her eggs. She told me her story while eating a portion of the food I’d brought.

When we parted, she hugged me, and I promised to bring her some more things in a couple of days, which will include the address of a soup kitchen and of a local group that works to get homeless folks housed.

It would be so easy to separate myself from her.

Except I can imagine exactly how easy it would be to be her.

The line between housed and unhoused is thin. For most of us who are housed and working, it only takes a few missed paychecks.– for many Americans only a single paycheck — to be staring homelessness (including staying with relatives, friends, or “doubling-up,” which references staying with another person or family) in the face.

In early 2014, I could have been homeless if not for the tireless advocacy of a close friend. I could have been unhoused if not for that person, and for another generous friend who pulled me aside one morning while I was volunteering at a place he worked and offered me a place to stay if it came down that (it didn’t), as long as I could find a place for my dog.

I was working nearly full-time, and competition for housing in my city was (and is) high, and my income wasn’t three times the rent of anywhere which is somehow still the standard despite the fact that more than half of Americans spend more than 1/3 of their income on rent and for some 11 million households, rent accounts for more than half the income.

That is ridiculous.

And yet we still blame people who are struggling. We ignore the fact that people with adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are much more likely to experience homelessness than people who don’t have these experiences.

We try to distance ourselves, as though by doing so we save ourselves. It’s a similar lie to any other victim-blaming lie — one meant to create rules, one where if we just follow these rules, we won’t end up like that other. One where we forget that other is one of us, perhaps is someone we’ve been or someone we’ll be. One where we forget life doesn’t always play by the rules.

I’ve spent the better part of the last four years working for and with homeless populations, in various capacities, in my paid work and in my volunteer time. I know how easy it is to slip into homelessness. I know how hard it can be to step out of it. I know so many stories, because I’m a person who people hand their stories to. I am a person who gets the privilege of hearing these stories.

I’m grateful for every one of these stories, and for the folks I’ve worked with side-by-side, and for the folks who have stepped up when they think I’m not safe enough, and for the folks whose morning concern might be whether they get wet from a sprinkler while sleeping, but still to ask how I’m doing.

I think, for instance, of an older man I knew from volunteering at a shelter, who loved to play chess and who cried when his son called him. His son had just gotten out of federal prison. His son had spent at least five years refusing to acknowledge he had a father.

I think, for instance, of the man who worked at the tire factory, but couldn’t afford rent, who kept a small Pomeranian as his companion, who rode his bike through the park with the zoo every day.

I think, for instance, of the girl who called herself Sunflower and a leather tramp, who had a long blonde braid and who’d been a leather tramp for two years when I met her, who danced with a one-legged man named Frog at a festival.

I think, for instance, of the Canadian man my age who wove epics with his words and who’d considered suicide when the road wasn’t enough. There was a part of me that was starting to fall in love with him, with the easy way he had with the world and with words.

I think, for instance, of certain folks I work with every Monday morning in a warm church basement, setting up a soup kitchen, of the kindness they bring each week. Of the gentle ways they speak to me and to each other.

And it breaks my heart to think of other people ignoring their humanity.

Which is, of course, an indictment of myself and how I act far too often.

Which is, of course, a reminder “to practice my purpose once again.”


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