Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Homeless for a Day

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"You guys are going to be kicked out of here and for six hours you're going to be homeless. You are not allowed to carry anything except a cellphone in case of emergency
"Haha, joke," I thought to myself, waiting for confirmation that we were not going to do this. But my team leader stared back at us. Seriously.
" You will be divided into groups," Ashley* announced. " Each group will have a list of tasks assigned them, tasks that will reflect a typical homeless person's day. You have to complete those tasks and can return to the shelter at five, when we serve dinner."

I walked out into the pouring rain in a stupor of shock. When I'd signed up for a Poverty Awareness weekend at the Christian shelter in the inner city of my hometown, I'd never dreamed that I would have to experience this. I thought we'd be interacting with the homeless and volunteering around the place.
" Our first task is to collect bottles and cans from dustbins and sell them at the Bottle depot," my team member Craig* announced, consulting the sheet we'd been handed.
What? Collect cans and bottles from dustbins? Surely this was a dream. No, a nightmare. What if I cut my finger on a can and died of whatever putrid disease dirty cans harboured?
We began walking around, trying to search for cans in every likely-looking dustbin. Zilch. We realised that we were in competition with other homeless people.

Apart from collecting cans, we had other tasks, such as chat with people on the street and find out where to get  a free lunch. We also had to find a clinic in the area that granted free medical consultations. We missed out on lunch because all the agencies were closed as lunch hour had passed by the time we thought of it.
One of my team members had the absolutely brilliant idea of hunting for cans in the mall. So off we trooped to the mall, glad of the warmth and light. Trying to ignore the tempting burgers and delicious aroma of tacos in the food court, we rummaged around in the dustbins, picking up cans and depositing them in black garbage bags. Such actions elicited dirty looks from other shoppers, who probably thought we were either homeless or druggies or both, as we were soaking wet, in unfashionable and uninspiring clothes, and wore the most dejected of looks.

The kindest people were the other homeless people, who loaded us with information on where to go, where to stay, etc. I was surprised and humbled. (More on this later).
I have quite a few stories of this day. Like the one where my friend Cheng* ate sandwiches found in the dustbin because they were still wrapped in their paper and because he was hungry. Needless to say, he was the only one of us who had lunch. By the end, I was only too thrilled to get back to the homeless shelter and wait for dinner. I mentioned that it was pouring rain. We'd prayed that the rain would stop, but it only got worse as the day progressed. Ah, Irony. It was about 5 degrees out, but the icy blasting wind brought the temperature down to 0. I had no hood, and my scarf was scant protection against the inclement weather. My team leader found a half-broken umbrella ( in a dustbin!) and gave it to me. I was so grateful for it I nearly cried.

Such was my experience of life on the street. Though one homeless lady told me wryly that I'd have to spend a week in such conditions to really know what being homeless felt like.
All in all, I'm glad that I was conned into this. I had a painful lesson, and now, sitting in the comfort of a warm room I thank God for blessing me so richly and abundantly.
And I can never look at dustbins (or cans) in a negative light again.

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