You Say Courageous, I Say Condescending

Or at least, misplaced . . . .

In college, I read a book about this: people who participate in 24-hour or week-long street retreats where they “witness” abject poverty and the plight of the homeless.

The Chronicle this weekend told the story of a such a retreat, sponsored by Faithful Fools Street Ministry (an organization for which I have the utmost respect. Their copy shop is also a staple of Hastings’s Law students’ first-year experience):

The 13 of us on retreat were an artist, a lawyer, two nuns, five ministers, two seminarians, a playwright and a businesswoman. All of us had committed to spending one week last month walking alongside the poorest people in San Francisco, sharing their food in the soup kitchens and hunting for shelter beds or for cardboard to put between us and the cold concrete.

People always want to know why we do this. It’s so courageous, they say. When our retreat group met 10 days after we came back inside, we agreed that courage doesn’t enter into it. After a week of this walking, it comes to feel like the most ordinary thing, and that’s what makes it hard to explain.

Just what the homeless need, increased competition.

The writer insists that most won’t understand the motivations behind such an activity. I get it. As Scout taught most of us at an early age: you can’t really know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. That is absolutely true. I won’t pretend that I can appreciate exactly how bad it must be to be homeless. I’m very blessed not to know – and I hope that I will continue to be so blessed.

I can only imagine if I were in line waiting for food from a limited source and a group behind me confessed they were on a retreat to learn more about my lot in life, I’d be kinda angry. Curious, too, and perhaps a bit appreciative that someone was paying attention. But the bottom line is: don’t take food that someone truly homeless needs! Don’t take up the good sleeping spaces outside or in the shelters. Don’t use your vacation time and wages to go live on the street – use it to get someone else off the street for a day.

A day of intensive interviewing, witnessing, observing, fine. But playing dress-up like this seems wrong.

2 Comments so far

  1. readerX (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 3:24 pm

    It’s easy to criticize the actions that other people take. The hard part is to get in the ring and do something yourself.

    This would be more interesting if you had participated, and then told us why you think its a bad idea.

    Spending time with homeless people educates people. And in my experiences with the homeless, I have found that what many want more than anything is for someone to listen to them and understand them.

  2. cd (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 8:30 pm

    As I said in my post, I’d be all for spending a day interviewing and being on the streets. But I wouldn’t take food from a food bank or space in a shelter when I don’t need either. Clearly, San Francisco providers’ resources are extremely limited.

    And it’s actually not easy to criticize the actions of others, especially on this topic – in this city – in this public format. But I did. And, you’ll note, signed my name . . . .

    So here goes, I’ll reiterate one more time: Listening and understanding the homeless = good. Taking their food = bad. That’s my point.

    Oh – and as a parting shot – you don’t know what rings I’m in or what I do, so don’t issue those kinds of challenges . . . .

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