What does poverty in America look like? Maybe you thought of a lazy, hungry 40-something year-old homeless man that has a mental handicap and an addiction of some kind. If you did, you’re definitely not alone in your assumption. That was the image that I always pictured when I thought of poverty and I would bet most Americans would say their image would be pretty similar.
When we got to DC last Sunday, I didn’t really know what to expect for the week. Even as the student trip leader, I really didn’t know what the week was going to look like. I just knew we were going to listen to some speakers and do some service work. I expected to come back from this week just thinking that it was cool to do something different for spring break for once. Although the trip was definitely a really cool spring break, that was definitely not all that I will be packing up to take back with me to Nashville.
The week started with us hearing from Eric and James from the National Coalition for the Homeless on Monday. Both men told us their stories of homelessness and what I heard was not by any means the narratives that I had pegged them to be. James once had a six-figure income, a big home, and a family. He went to college, was educated and hard-working. Eric graduated high school with honors and also has a degree. He has a huge family of over 30 brothers and sisters and has lived all over the country. Now, these stories are not the image of poverty that I said at the beginning of this post. These were educated, hard-working, smart men. How in the world did they fall into poverty? What Eric and James taught us is that poverty and homelessness do not discriminate. Not against race, gender, mental illness, age, education, or will. It can happen to anyone and there are people with all different backgrounds that wind up in poverty.
The week continued the next day when we went to volunteer at A Wider Circle, an incredible organization that provides home furnishings and clothing to families coming out of homelessness. We spent the day moving furniture and loading it into moving trucks for families. Susan from the organization was telling us how there is a 6 or 7 month-long waiting list to come “shopping” at A Wider Circle for new furniture. She also shared that the reason why they started providing professional development classes on résumé writing, and interviewing, etc. in order to help their clients get jobs. She shared one instance where a client had to turn down a job because they couldn’t afford to buy suits to wear to their job every day, which is why they started to provide professional clothing for their clients to receive as well. This absolutely blew my mind. Someone in poverty had to turn down a job because they didn’t have a business suit.
With the combination of hearing the stories of two educated men that fell into homelessness and the information we learned at A Wider Circle, I was quickly realizing that poverty was a much more complex issue than I had previously believed it to be. Add these revelations to the concept of the working poor (people who have jobs, maybe even homes, but still are below the poverty line) that we learned about from The Pilgrimage and my whole idea of poverty went from this stereotypical strange, lazy homeless man to a much, much more complex of an image filled with all kinds of faces and people and stories.
So let’s say a homeless person decides to apply for a job and he gets one making minimum wage. Great! Now he can use his money to buy him some food, and buy a home, right? Wrong. The minimum wage in DC comes to about 1/3 of what people really need to make per hour in order to escape poverty in DC due to the high cost of living. So even if this man gets a job, he still cannot escape poverty. Say he saves up and then eventually rents an apartment and gets off the streets, what furniture would he own? It will take him 7 months to get furniture from A Wider Circle so he will have to go without a bed for that long. He will need new clothing, maybe a laptop or cell phone for work, and some sort of transportation to get to and from work, on top of so many other expenses that would pile up into a massive mountain for this formerly homeless man to overcome before he could truly escape poverty.
Just look at how long this process would actually take for someone to transition out of poverty. And that is once they get a job! But who wants to hire someone without experience, or who can’t afford a haircut, an alcoholic, or has a mental illness and no insurance to pay for medication? Escaping poverty is much more difficult of a task than I had previously believed. Our new perspectives on poverty were really put to the test as we served in a mobile soup kitchen for the homeless, participated in a poverty simulation, and took a tour of the neighborhoods of different parts of DC. Our new outlook drastically changed on how we see people in poverty.
By the end of the week, we were emotionally exhausted after being faced with all of these social injustices in DC. It inspired us to not only come back to Nashville with a new idea of what poverty looks like and how difficult it is to overcome, but also a passion and desire to do something about it. Typically on trips like this one about social injustice or faith-based retreats and camps, you get really excited about an idea and are going to change, but soon life gets back in the way and we find ourselves too busy to make change a priority. There is a quote from my favorite leadership book, The Lives of Moral Leadership, says, “You are all busy. It is important to be busy, but if you do not find the time to change the world, then you’re busy keeping it the way it is.” We as an Immersion group have pledged to not just come back to Nashville and have our passion for this injustice fizzle out after a week or two, but to continue to shatter the stereotypes of poverty and as leaders, do something in our community to make a difference, even in our busy lives.
This week has really been an eye-opening, thought-provoking experience, which not only turned into a fun trip, but a life-changing experience.