Last week was National Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week. I observed it by spending the night in jail.
One Roof, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness in Central Alabama, hosted a homeless simulation in Railroad Park last Thursday evening. When I arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect and when I left, I was nearly in tears. Each participant that showed up received a number. Based on our number, we gathered into groups where we were each given an “identification card” that told us who we were and what our circumstances were (why we were homeless). On the flip side of the card were things we needed to do in order to survive the day/night. We had 35 minutes to get 3 meals, a source of income – whether it was employment or disability – , and find a safe place to sleep that evening.
As you can see from my card, I was a veteran suffering from PTSD resulting in violent outbursts. Because of my past, I was turned down for all 5 jobs I applied for that evening. I also wasn’t allowed to stay in the women’s shelter because of my criminal past (I was arrested for throwing something at a co-worker in a federal office). I saw people rob each other, yell and fight with each other, and get arrested – all while I was just standing in line to try to get SSDI.
I was stunned at how often those around me were told “no” and turned away. I was hurt after my 2nd job rejection and nearly in tears when I couldn’t find a place to sleep that evening. After getting denied at the shelter, I asked one of the social workers on-site for help. She suggested the hospital. But since I had already been to the hospital to get my medication for PTSD, I was told I couldn’t stay there, even in the waiting room. After going back to the social worker a second time, her last suggestion was the jail. It was free, it was safe, and it was a place to stay overnight indoors. I balked at her (visibly balked). She offered to escort me to the jailer if I needed help. I declined and very reluctantly (and with great humility) went to the jailer and called her a few names to get thrown in for the night.
After the simulation was over, we gathered in small groups to discuss our experiences. We were fortunate enough to have people at our table who work everyday with the homeless and affirmed some of what we went through. They educated us on those homeless people who have become their story – their stories are all they have to get just the essentials sometimes and they lose sight of themselves after telling the story so many times.
I cannot imagine what it’s truly like to be homeless, but this gave me a small taste. It made me appreciate the food, shelter, clothing, and job I have. It made my heart ache for those who don’t have those luxuries. And it made me realize most of us are just one or two bad choices away from being there ourselves.