Ah, it’s a funny question —
— if you are reading this on a computer in a coffee shop, or on your laptop at home, or on a tablet on the BART train on your way to work.
On the other hand, if you are reading this in the library, where you have taken refuge from the cold or sun, and where you are now allowed 10 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour online; if you will head out to the streets again when the library closes for the evening, to search for cardboard to put under your body or to stand in line for a shelter bed – then maybe it’s not so funny.
It is people more like the first sorts who often ask us, as we Faithful Fools prepare ourselves to head out onto the streets for a seven-day, six-night retreat. Why sleep on the streets, you ask, without necessarily voicing this part of the question, when you don’t have to?
It is just this incredulity of the asking that provides one answer to the question.
We sleep on the streets because it allows for less separation between “us” – you and I and all of us who normally sleep indoors – and “them” – you who sleep on the streets or in shelters, people who don’t have other options. We think – we hope – that the separation shrinks, not just for those of us who do this thing every year, but also for those of you inside who know us, who care about us, who give some attention to what we are doing. We will come “home” off the streets and talk with you about what we found. And you may find that the next time you see someone who lives on the streets, you may feel a little less separate from that person. That person may seem a little less strange to you, not because you can catch a glimpse into his experience, but because somebody who isn’t so “strange” (well, not a stranger, anyway) has been out there with him.
So that’s one answer.
Here’s what the answer isn’t. We don’t sleep outside to see what it’s like to be homeless. We know we’re going home in six days. That means, we can’t really imagine what it’s like to be on the streets, day after day, with no change in sight.
Still: part of what happens when I sleep on the streets is that I get bone tired in a way I never experience in my daily life. I get so tired that it’s all I can do to keep my body fed and plan where I’ll take my next pee break. So even though I can’t get close to what it’s like to be there for a month or a year or 10, I can know, in another, deeper, body-real way, why it doesn’t make sense to ask a homeless person why she doesn’t just get a job.
Besides, a lot of homeless persons that I meet on the street already do have a job.
Here’s one last reason why we take our retreat on the streets: because it’s our neighborhood, and, like any place we move through day after day, we tend to stop seeing what’s there. I do, anyway. If I make myself slow down, not just for an hour or an afternoon or a day but for a whole week, I find the neighborhood again. It’s new to me, again. I forget what I think I know about it, and open my mind and heart to seeing what’s there. This is the part I really look forward to.