This work is all about humanizing, which is both the easiest thing and the hardest thing to do at the same time. Easy because it means just treating other people normally, talking to them, really listening, looking them in the eye, showing respect, letting them make choices, drinking the same coffee and eating the same peanut butter sandwiches, laughing together, finding joy in small moments together. As I grow into relationships with our community members, it gets easier and easier to do all these things, even for a deep introvert like me.
But it’s also hard because the circumstances we find ourselves in routinely work to dehumanize, not just people experiencing homelessness, but all of us really. We have to look through all the not-normal and really focus on each other in order to relate in what I just said was “normal” but isn’t really a more common occurrence than anything not-normal. I guess what I’m saying is “just be yourself” turns out to be quite an achievement for most of us most of the time.
I wrote before about how people experiencing homelessness often need a letter of verification to access certain services. If a person sleeps at a shelter, the shelter will provide verification. But things get harder for people who sleep outside. Because we don’t need those letters here at Love Wins and we focus on building trusting relationships, we are an organization who can provide letters for those who sleep outside. This involves one of our staff members going out to visit the person’s campsite. I did that twice this week and I felt this easy/hard tension then.
It was easy because it was just me driving my car with a friend to where they live. I’ve done that hundreds of times. It’s always a good chance to have a quiet conversation. There’s something personal and friendly about riding in a car together. And they feel empowered because they are giving directions and I’m going where they say. Makes for a nice, very quotidian moment. On both trips, another driver did something questionable (because Raleigh) and we got to complain about Raleigh drivers and traffic, which created a bit of solidarity too.
But it was hard at the same time. There are a lot of things we want people to just take our word for. When I tell people I have 5 kids at home, no one ever asks me to prove it. Sure I’m quick with the baby pictures, but not because I need to prove anything. Most of the time, when I give my address for something, that’s just taken at my word too. Sometimes not, but the verification of looking at my driver’s license is so seamless, I tend not to notice that I just got checked. There’s a not-friendly vibe to having to prove things, and the harder the thing is to prove, the more that unfriendliness, that dehumanizing, grows. Neither person seemed at all offended that I was going to inspect their campsite but I still felt the need to apologize. So I did. And I blamed it on the government. I said it was really about the federal and state governments not trusting each other and us being caught in between. I’m not sure how true that is but blaming the man creates solidarity like griping about a bad driver.
The other thing that made it hard was trying to keep both campsites a secret. People who sleep outside work hard to find good spots and drawing too much attention to those spots can cause problems for them. We did our best to be as inconspicuous as possible, but sneaking around isn’t very normal for grown men so that didn’t feel very humanizing.
And that’s the nature of the work, balancing out all the inherent dehumanizing with as much intentional normal human decency as we can muster. We push back as hard as we can and hope the balance tips to toward friendship and community. I know a couple more stories than I did when the week started. And I can visualize where a couple of friends are as I pray for them. So on the whole it was a good week and love notched a couple of nice wins.