It is safe to say that most D.C. residents have at one point seen a person experiencing homelessness and thought, “I can’t imagine living like that.” This was the case for 12 Mexican students studying in D.C. through the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars’ professional development program. However, when beyond the conceptual. Through the National Coalition for the Homeless and their Homeless Challenge Project, the visitor were put into the situation themselves. The program serves as an educational experience that focuses on developing personal awareness about the realities of homelessness. Homelessness exists all over the world, but according to the students that participated in the challenge, what it looks like in Washington, D.C. is very different from the homelessness they see back home in the Mexican state of Sonora. So the students, with the help of an NCH “guide,” all spent a day living homeless on the streets of the District. “In Sonora the homeless are mainly the mentally ill, drug addicts, and South and Central American immigrants,” said Alberto Holguin, one of the students that participated in the challenge. “They try to cross the border, but sometimes they are unsuccessful and have no money left to try again or go back to their home countries, so they are stuck. They live in the streets of the border cities.” Michelle Felix Velarde, another student participant who is from the border city of Nogales, said that for them the issue is not so much homelessness or housing affordability, but instead the displacement of South and Central American immigrants. The homeless people that Holguin and his classmates encountered in the streets of Dupont Circle and Franklin Square did not fit that profile. Velarde was also surprised by the people she met. Especially by the amount of access they had to information, food, and other living essentials. During her time participating in challenge, she met a man living on the streets who was able to guide her and show her where she could go for help. His name was Antonio and “he had a lot of access to things with his phone,” Velarde said. “In Mexico, you will never see a homeless [person] with a cellphone.” Jorge Efren Urias Armenta, who did the challenge with Velarde, had a similar experience. “Homeless [people] here seem to have everything,” Armenta said. “In Mexico, the homeless don’t have any clothes, any food, nothing. To see that here they have camping tents, places to get food, good clothes, smartphones … in Mexico even people who are just of the lower level of the society can’t have all those things. If someone can have food just for one day, that is really lucky.” Another difference that several of the participants noted was that in Mexico many homeless people are given tasks by the local government. “They wash your car windows in the parking lots or other things like that,” Armenta said, marveling at panhandlers in the U.S. “There are no non-profits to help you. Nobody has a tent,” Ana Ancheta added. The participants also noticed that many more children experience homelessness in Mexico than in the U.S. In every stoplight you see kids from ten and up washing car windows for money,” said Ancheta.
“They are the kids of homeless.” However, not everything in Mexico is different when it comes to homelessness: the stigma the community faces is the same. “In Mexico you never look at the homeless, you don’t talk to them,” said Ancheta. This is something many in the group believe has changed for them after participating in the challenge. “We were indifferent toward the homeless [people]. We walked past the tents under the bridges every day, and that is all we did. We just walked by them,” Armenta said. “But, now it feels different.” Armenta, who was stationed around the Dupont Circle area, said he felt no one noticed him, that no one knew he was there. He said he felt the stigma he had toward the homeless all of a sudden reflect back on him. “I felt I did not have the right to talk to people.” said Holguin, who had a similar realization. “I wasn’t used to feeling like that. They ignore you, they don’t even look at you.” What Holguin also realized was that, “just with a smile they could change your day. Just to be noticed made a difference.” “[You] need love,” Velarde said. She said homeless people here have realtive access to the material things they need to survive. But you get to a point where you need someone to tell you that you are someone.” Don Gardner, a formerly homeless Street Sense vendor, led the group in the challenge. At the end of the experience he had one thing to ask the group: Could they imagine doing that for six months? Morale and spirit dies every single day, according to Gardner. “I always say that if you see the same homeless person every day, get to know them. That is how you help them. Connect with them. Learn their name. Give them your number. Then, they feel like a human being, like a person,” Gardner said. “And eventually you won’t see them anymore because they realize everyone is not mean and nasty, so they go and ask for help. That’s all they need.”