How poor planning led to a deeper understanding of what it means to be unhoused

A friend I have known for years called the other day to share with me about an experience that changed her life. 

My friend wholeheartedly supports what I do as a case manager for people experiencing homelessness. She considers herself sympathetic to the cause of ending homelessness, and moreover, she puts her money where her mouth is. We have had many conversations about my journey from homeless to hopeful. But while she could relate to a lot of my story, there still were some things she had no idea about. 

One was about how everyday people will treat you if they believe you are unhoused. The looks and stares they seem to reserve for those who are struggling with certain aspects of life will cut right through you. I’ve seen and felt them all. But no matter how hard you try to identify with those who are suffering these indignities, you just can’t connect to the pain these cold-hearted interactions cause. 

This is what she shared with me.

While performing consultant work in Gaithersburg, Maryland, this week, I had a unique experience. I agreed to pick up refreshments for a design charrette we were hosting the next day, so I went to Target to purchase food and serving items. Since I was staying about four suburban blocks away in a hotel, I didn’t think it would be that challenging taking the food back to my lodging on foot. After I had paid for the items I purchased I realized that I didn’t have an automobile. Nor did I have my cellphone as I had left it charging in my room.

So I asked the security guard from the store if he could assist me in getting transportation. Since I didn’t have my cell phone, getting an Uber cab wasn’t an option. I then learned that cabs did not service the area, which was mainly frequented by tourists. The guard suggested that I take one of the store’s shopping carts since I could maybe walk back to the hotel. 

I was reluctant, but my options were limited. As I walked, I saw people take quick glances. By the time I got half way back to the hotel people looked at me and snickered openly. I thought I could just ignore them, but it occurred to me that some people experience these types of interactions regularly. I felt invisible and taunted by people who just assumed I was unhoused. No one spoke to me, offered me assistance, or inquired why I was pushing a cart through a restaurant and shopping district. No, they just looked away, never making eye contact.

I am now thinking, ‘what if I had to walk around daily with all my personal things in a cart? What if I didn’t know from day to day where I would sleep or eat?  What if I had to relieve myself? Who would watch out for my possessions?  Who would talk to me or show empathy? What If teens began to bully me, who would I tell? Finally, where would I relax or nap without being considered a loiterer?’

Because I was pushing a cart due to poor planning, I didn’t have to ponder these issues. However, for a moment I felt embarrassed and slightly confused. What would my reality be like having to determine my next steps in suburban Washington each day because I lacked money, family, housing, or other resources? 

I recall my parents telling me as I grew up in D.C. not to judge others. There are Biblical regencies, counseling guidance, and self help books that discourage people from being judgmental. Going forward I will recall this experience when I see the unhoused. Rather than ignoring people or rapidly walking past them and being judgmental, in the future I will be more aware of inquiring about how they are doing. Maybe I won’t give money but instead, I will show all people respect and display my humanity to those who appear to be unhoused. It was only grace and mercies from God and others that led me along another path. 

Wendell Williams is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.