I came into this seminar not really knowing what to expect. I had heard of Real Change and the premise for street newspapers; I worked with the homeless population at Bailey-Boushay House on a regular basis; and I had a budding interest in working with the underserved. I had studied such things as “structural violence” and how the gap between the rich and poor was the major contributor to poor health in developed countries like the United States. So I signed up for this class looking for an opportunity to expand upon what I had learned and experienced in other settings. However, what I didn’t expect was to have my own views challenged and misplaced. I now see that my knowledge base with respect to poverty was a far stretch from the whole truth.

Prior to this course, I had a difficult time drawing a connection between my personal experience and what I was learning about the homeless population. Though I understood the theoretical and historical underpinnings surrounding the idea that homelessness is constructed, I rarely had made the extra step of connecting the theory with the reality. I glimpsed homeless people waiting in line at lunchtime at the food bank on 50th and 15th, I passed by beggars on the corner of Schmitz, and I even drove HIV patients back to their subsidized housing after visiting the Adult Day Center at Bailey. It shames me to say that though I was looking, I didn’t really see. It never really occurred to me that homelessness was unnatural; I had always viewed homelessness as something that had always existed and would always continue to exist, and I never questioned why. I maintained a tunnel-like view of the world. I had even complained that housing around the Seattle area that had once served low-income individuals and families was being bought up and transformed to high-end estates that no normal person can afford. It just didn’t click right away. I think it’s because in some form or another, we are all in the rat race together; everyone’s striving for that American dream, working their butts off to get those over-priced condos with a view of the Sound, and no one has time to stop and think that maybe this isn’t such a healthy way to live. This class helped me bridge the gap, to realize that there is an alternative and that we can make a difference.

I never thought of the importance of social networks in overcoming homelessness. I think that one of the major benefits of taking this class is that homelessness became more accessible; it is easy to say that homeless people have the same needs as any other person, but actually realizing what that entails is a lot harder. I realized that without the support of my family and friends, accomplishing my goals would be very difficult. Without a stable environment to go home to, I don’t think I would be where I am today. Suddenly, it became very clear that loneliness or a lack of support can be a major deterrent to “pulling yourself up by your boot-straps.” What angered me was to find that the few services available for the impoverished in Seattle, amongst other cities, are generally conducive to individuals and not homeless families. A few weeks ago I was talking to one of the clients at Bailey. He was chronically homeless and had spent the last three months looking for housing, and he was having a lot of problems finding it because he had a significant other and was not willing to leave his partner behind. Talking to someone face-to-face who was struggling with the system really drove home the point about the need for more housing for homeless families and couples. I saw this man, utterly dejected and hopeless about his options; he was faced with the difficult position of either moving into single-occupancy housing to escape the street but abandoning his social network, or remaining on the street but maintaining his relationships. Neither solution seemed beneficial to someone trying to start a new life.

I previously thought of homelessness as being the worst possible thing that can happen to someone. I thought of my own family, who, like many middle-class American families (whatever that means), lives one paycheck from homelessness. Homelessness has sort of developed this connotation of being something fearful, not just because we have these horrible stereotypes of crazies and hobos on the corner waiting to pick your pocket, but because everyone is scared that they could wind up on the street, lose the prestige-factor of being a “home-owner.” Meeting Wes at our last session was indeed an eye-opening experience, and one that I will value forever. My parents brought me up with the notion that if you have a college-degree, you are somehow immune to the ill-fate that befalls others—“Get yourself an education and you’ll always land on two feet.” Now I see that this isn’t necessarily the case. Homelessness can happen to anyone, even a Ph.D.-holding, brilliant mathematician who had a few rounds of bad-luck with housing and mental illness that wasn’t even his fault. It’s a vicious cycle, and it worries me that we don’t have the measures in place to help people get out of homelessness and stay out. It’s the whole “close-the-front-door and open-the-back-door” concept we were discussing.

What shocked me more is that people actually choose to be homeless for one reason or another; maybe they like the freedom of calling the whole city their backyard, or maybe they’re tired of fighting the system. Either way, this thing that seemed so abominable to me is actually something others prefer. It’s interesting to view homelessness from a different lens, and it’s something that needs to be done. I personally will view homelessness in a completely different light from now on. It’s not something to be feared; it’s not something foreboding. It’s something that some people choose for themselves while others have no other option and stay tied to it. The important underlying thread is having the choice. It’s one thing to choose to be homeless; it’s another if you are forced into it. I was so touched by Wes’ story. I think that a lot of people will benefit from hearing it. Homelessness will no longer be something that you look right through; rather, people will be able to match a face with it, and see that it is not so separate from themselves. I’ve already started telling people about the eye-opening experience we had with Wes, and it’s amazing to see the change in their eyes as they begin to see what I have seen over the past quarter. Though homelessness is structurally enforced, there are people behind those structures; in order to change the structures, we must change the way people think about homelessness.