It was intimidating taking up the challenge to be homeless for a night. The idea of sleeping under a tarp scrounging what we could to keep warm during a November night was daunting. Physically no different than camping, even camping in an urban setting, so most of the fear was the fear of the unknown. Too cold, pests or vermin, not being able to endure and tapping out, all played a major part in the challenge beforehand. And each time I looked at the little lean-to built of a single busted-up pallet, draped in tarps, tied with jute string, padded with cardboard, and draped with a square of tablecloth for a door, I grinned an inward smile. Partly, the adventure I was going to do this, and partly trepidation I was going to do this. Tapping out quickly became an option that wasn’t going to happen: one of the volunteers was an 84 year old woman, and this woman was the type that would chew steel and spit nails. She would undoubtedly make it through the adventure, and if she could do it, I would also have to.
I knew I was in capable hands. Pastor Karen would lead this expedition into something I saw every week at the Bakersfield Burrito Project, but never pulled away the safety curtain to get into the dark places where discovery happens. I knew this was going to be a spiritual journey, but not a religious one, and I knew Pastor Karen would be an effective guide.
We started our journey with a meditative walk. First, we went to the McDonald’s across the street from the church campus. At one time, before McDonald’s remodeled, there were tables and stools outside the restaurant where the homeless could hang out, and spend time in a comfortable spot, not interfere with people inside the restaurant, perhaps nursing a soda to keep management from chasing them away. It’s doubtful the restaurant made the conscious decision to remove those tables and stools to keep the homeless away, but those were the consequences of the remodeling, and homeless folks lost another safe place to wile away hours. This stop we were to reflect on what it was like to be ostracized, to be cast out, what it was like to be secluded. Pastor Karen showed a video from the National Homeless Collaborative of a man who was once homeless talking about his experience of being homeless, how people would look right at him and not see his existence, and how it feel to be completely shunned.
As we walked to the next stop, with bags of hot burritos to hand out to anyone who might need one, Pastor talked about her experiences with a homeless man in the neighborhood, which lead to the next stop in the meditative walk, at Baja Tires on Niles.
A homeless man in the neighborhood did everything he could to get odd jobs within the businesses in the area, and many people gave him the work he needed to survive. The owners of Baja Tires not only gave him work, but also a truck to sleep in, and the owner’s wife had a restaurant across the street where they gave him meals. This small community did all they could to help this one man. He went to Pastor Karen’s church, and at one time, Pastor hosted a youth meeting of affluent teenagers from the San Diego area. Pastor invited him to join them, and eat a hamburger they barbecued for the group. Sometime during the festivity, the homeless man came to Pastor and said he had found a wallet, which he gave to her. It belonged to one of the youth group, and it had over three hundred dollars in it. The young man it belonged to was surprised the homeless man not only turned the wallet, but left every dollar in place, and it opened the young man’s eyes that stereotypes about the homeless were mostly untrue. The homeless man died outside of Baja Tires one evening, perhaps because he couldn’t reach the medical help he needed when he had a heart attack, and the family that owned Baja Tires found him slumped on a berm on the side of the property. Here, Pastor read the bible passage of how the shepherd separates the goats from the sheep, and those who take care of others are also taking care of the shepherd. She showed another video, a clip of The Soloist, where Jamie Foxx plays a homeless schizophrenic man who went to Julliard to learn to play cello. The clip was about how the L.A. Times columnist, played by Robert Downy Jr. found acceptance with the homeless man, and eventually became friends.
We returned to the Wesley United Methodist Church campus. Along the way, Pastor told a story about a priest in Ireland who read the very same bible passage to a group of young nuns, and asked the nuns which of the two groups did they belong to. They eagerly answered, “Sheep!” The priest then asked, yes, but who among you actually fed or clothed someone in need? There was silence amongst the group, until a very small voice amongst the nuns said, “But we’re very good goats.”
Back on campus, Pastor Karen told the story about the homeless man, Billie, who sort of called the campus home. Billie was hard a man to get along with sometimes, but he found Pastor Karen special. Once when Pastor lead church services, Billie leaned over to the man sitting next to him, and said, “That’s an amazing woman.” The other man said, “Yes, I know. That’s my wife.” “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Just saying she’s a really good person.” And Pastor Karen’s husband nodded sagely, not taking offense, simply confirming what he already knew. There were many times Billie’s friends offered him a place to stay for the night, and sometimes he took their offer, most of the time he did not. On another night when he chose to sleep on the church campus, it was Thanksgiving morning, and the Bakersfield Burrito Project geared up to make our breakfast burritos to distribute in the park. Billie had died in the night in his favorite spot outside the kitchen, and it was up to Pastor Karen to respectfully give Billie the last bit attention he needed, while I kept Burrito Project folks in the kitchen, giving emergency services the space they needed to take Billie’s remains away. If there was ever a somber reminder why we as Bakersfield Burrito Project volunteers do what we do, Billie gave us that reminder that morning, and on our Hunger and Homeless Awareness night, we all spent a moment dealing with hard emotions at the place on the church campus where he had died.
Pastor Karen called it a night and went to sleep in the back of her car as some homeless people are forced to do, my night was interrupted with homework I had to complete. But then it was time to go to sleep in the lean-to.
Belinda and I removed the pallet from the lean-to because we didn’t want to bump it in our sleep and have it fall on us. This wasn’t a stable as some of the long term camps we’ve seen in our routes while delivering burritos. Now it was just a drapery of tarps and a modest collection of comforters, blankets and a single sleeping bag. And once all the incidental noise of life is shut off, and all there is left is the noise in the head, this was where the experience became most challenging.
I thought, this arrangement isn’t so bad. It’s warm. The tarps provide just enough insulation to keep the warm air generated from our bodies locked in, and the November night stayed outside. This really wasn’t so bad. When the tarps separated a bit, the cold came in like a shout, and made my hubris apparent. What would this set up be like if it rained? Or was windy? This calm November night was peaceable and if the elements wanted to get vicious, this lean-to would be destroyed in a wet sneeze. Then, when my skin touched the ice cold pavement of the blacktop, it was a shock snapping me back from dozing off, and arranging all the blankets to keep myself from the macadam. Then it was sleeping on the pavement itself. Joints pressed against flat and hard. Back forced flat. Shoulders smashed. Getting comfortable was a strange chase of rolling from position to position, figuring, ok, this isn’t so bad, until my body got tired of the position and having to shift again.
Moreover, it was also the outside intrusions. Even though this was Sunday night, the traffic in the intersection of Niles and Oswell was a constant restless grumble. Cars grinding through the intersection. Emergency vehicles screaming sirens at random times. A motorcycle roaring. Always the fringe of sleep chased away by the noise surrounding us.
I knew I was safe in this corner of the church parking lot. But even that brought other considerations. What if I wasn’t allowed to camp here? How soon would the owners of the property chase me off? That would making sleeping in a place difficult if I knew someone would come upon me, wake me up to chase me off. What if they did things I’ve heard people doing to other homeless people, like spraying them with water hoses, or setting up spikes in doorways to make it impossible or frightening to sleep there?
I did sleep. I did sleep deeply enough to dream. I also sleep deeply enough to wreck my apnea, making my throat sore from snoring. How would someone who was homeless supposed to plug in a CPAP machine to keep oxygen levels high enough to ward off a stroke? Perhaps this is why so many homeless people die on the street, from the lack of medical care people with homes, electricity and amenities taken for granted.
Five o’clock in the morning, and it was time to stop the simulation. Our soft bodies, too used to beds and warmth couldn’t take any more. We shambled into the church’s community center, like zombies fighting rigor mortis. The cold from the night settled so deeply into our bodies, the morning cup of coffee was welcome and pleasant, but far from restorative. Breakfast was hearty and scrumptious to fill the hole from only eating a burrito or two like our homeless friends do on Sundays. We talked like warriors coming back from an especially bloody war. Quiet, lighthearted chatter. People who are changed.
And as I drove home that morning, looking at all the people in their cars heading to work and school, it amazed me how oblivious all of them were. A night of sleeping in a bed, with a relative warmth and comfort. Well rested. Perhaps fighting off the layers of sleep still, but still a night of comfortable sleep. Even if they were poor and had only the minimum, it was more than those who slept on the streets.
This was a life changing experience. We were not “playing homeless,” or camping out like a summer vacation, as some of the detractors claimed (none of whom we saw in that parking lot that Sunday, or see on any Sunday while we feed hungry people). This was no jumping on some bandwagon. This was putting oneself in a situation that was outside of self, outside of the comfort zone, and learning from that experience.
Next year, when we do this same thing again, better organized with more invitations than we issued this time around, I encourage anyone to come out and get a feel for the other side. Draw back the safety curtain and experience the darkness. And when you see someone living on the streets, don’t pity them or humiliate them. Empathize, because you had done it once yourself to see what it was like.