This is a short piece from my in-progress book on homelessness, The Crumbling Mansions …
I decided one day that I was going to dress up as a homeless kid, and play the part, and see how people treated me; it wasn’t, for me, however, merely a social experiment, but an investigation into how the homeless are treated.
What a crazy idea, you’re probably thinking, and that is reasonable. It was a crazy idea. But at that point in my life, I was sick of spinning my wheels and not feeling like I could help the homeless, and I wanted to experience what it was like firsthand. At that point in my life, I was also sick of society in general and how they would treat the homeless, and I thought I would force myself to confront it, live it myself, experience it for myself, and learn, understand, empathize, better empathize.
Suffice to say, it was a miserable experience.
I remember the nervousness I felt when I was preparing myself. I went through my clothes, and looked for clothes that I was willing to donate to this cause. I found a pair of old jeans, and ripped holes in the knees. Then I made my red t-shirt a little ragged, and then I put a little dirt on my face and body.
My catch phrase was going to be, “Hey, can you spare a few words?” instead of, “Can you spare some change?” As a side note, I’d gotten that idea from my play Construct, about a homeless kid that asks if anyone can spare a few words for his poetry, or for some conversation, and how nobody ever has the time.
The idea behind this was to see if people were willing to engage in conversation. (The result, not to ruin the plot, was that many people that day treated me as if I was asking for change; the association was immediate and rife with stereotype.) Because that’s the trick, right? That’s what’s built into the language/request: Can you spare a few words, for conversation, even though I’m a homeless kid?
I was so nervous when I prepared myself to do this. I enjoyed the rough and tough feel of the clothes, and the dirt on my face, but I knew I was going to be making a bold statement, and that I wasn’t going to be treated well, and I was wondering if in all honesty I was going to be ready for it. I wasn’t sure, but I figured, I had nothing to lose. I was a deadbeat when it came to helping the homeless, having written a stupid play that nobody was going to care about, and being rejected by organizations, barred from helping the homeless. A little harsh, but that’s what I felt like at the time, and I just wanted to make a difference, and do that by putting myself, or trying to put myself, in someone else’s shoes. Of course I knew deep down that I would only be getting a taste of the homeless life, if even that, but that didn’t stop my determination from flourishing.
I walked out of my apartment after I was ready, and then began to roam through the city. I went to my local grocery store, and began to panhandle for words at the entrance of the store. I asked, “Can you spare a few words?” I also made variations on this phrase, usually something hinting toward a conversation.
I had to be careful, because there was an employee working outside on the flowers near where I was panhandling for words, and I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious and run me off the property, because I knew that was what happened to homeless people.
People ignored me. Some would stop for a moment and then continue, some would look at me like, “WTF?” Others were less than kind. Some people missed the whole point of asking for words and would say, “Sorry, no I can’t.”
Which was precisely my evil plan! Because, when people say they “can’t spare a few words,” they are actually hinting at something much deeper about our society and culture. First off, they are showing that they can’t stop for a moment of conversation, because they are shallow people, but then they are saying that their goals and intentions are more important than stopping to help someone (not that I needed the help, but again, I was playing the part to get and gauge people’s reactions). Finally, and ultimately, I still trick them into sparing words, when they respond to my question.
I think realizing the shallowness of our society was probably the most discouraging aspect about this experience. Because I knew that even though it was an experiment to see how homeless people are treated, it was also an experiment to see what humans are like in society. And probably indeed the most discouraging aspect about it was when they would say, “No, I can’t spare a few words,” or “No, not really,” and would keep walking, and not even give me a minute to talk to them. It was discouraging because it revealed to me how disconnected we had become as a society. It told me that people weren’t willing to look past appearances to try and figure out what a person needs.
I drifted after that, feeling discouraged but amazingly not surprised, and continued along my way. I went to another store, and was amazed at how people treated me at a natural foods store. I remember one mean man who, when I asked if he could spare a few words, he brushed me off with some cold words, ignoring me so he could talk to whoever he was with, and I told him, “I’m just being dramaturgical,” and because the idiot probably didn’t know what that meant, he just continued to ignore me.
As I experienced this more, I started to think seriously about the implications of ignoring a person because they don’t “fit the part,” or because they are of a part (in my case, a homeless kid). I started thinking not just about notions of superficiality, but also about how I knew myself to be a person of depth and insight, a person of refinement and cultivation, a person who could talk a random person’s ear off about some fascinating philosophy and literature … but how because people would rather shop for their organic foods and new clothes, they weren’t interested in anything that I had to say. And that is of course analogous to the homeless, which I was learning as I was doing all of this. Which was, indeed, the idea that homeless people, whether street kids or veterans in wheelchairs, have a story to tell, if we would just take the time, and how predominantly, society was telling me that, no, they weren’t going to take the time. Because in their opinion, it wasn’t worth it. Shopping for their organic food and being blatantly and openly rude was their goal. I can understand that some might be a little taken aback, but for goodness sake, do people really have that much to lose when someone asks, “Can you spare a few words?” I remember at that time I’d been incredibly lonely, and that was why I hadn’t made any close friends at that time: Because, people weren’t willing to look past my soiled and ragged personality and see the depth that I had to offer, the philosophy and the poetry and the literature. All they saw was the ugliness (though I personally don’t think ruggedness is ugly, I think it defines me so well).
So: People continued to be rude. I continued to ask if people could spare a few words.
I walked into another grocery store, and went to the Sushi section, where they were giving out free samples, and I decided to really make a statement.
I said, when the guy offered me a sample, “Sorry, I can’t afford it.”
A guy who was enjoying the sushi but clearly a miserable person, said, “They’re free samples,” as if this was the most obvious fact and why didn’t I know this? And he said this, annoyed.
And I said again, politely, “Sorry, but I can’t afford it.”
And then I left the fire I had created, to burn in all of its beauty.
And, I thought about what had happened. How we could miss the point, and how we do miss the point so often, so much. There is no such thing as free. Free is just manipulation. Free is a lie. There is no such thing as free words, only unnecessary drama and unneeded conflict.
No, thank you.
So I continued my experiment, and suddenly ran into someone that was in a hurry, but actually cared. He said, when I said if he could spare a few words, “No, I can’t, but here’s some change,” and there was something innocently desperate about this gesture, and I felt the kindness, and I explained the situation, told him to give it to someone who really needed it, and he said he would.
At least with this guy I had made some kind of impact and connection.
And then before I knew it, I ran into a real homeless guy. Or so it seemed he was homeless. I got his story. He told me that he had just lost his job, and I told him not to give up, even though it was a stupid thing to say, but it was the only thing I could think of.
And here I was, passing myself off as a homeless street kid, even though I wasn’t at all. I wasn’t homeless at all. I was in fact just fine, but spiritually impoverished, with society making this even worse.
Or so, those were my thoughts at the time. And even today, there is still some truth to this. If I did this experiment again, I’m sure a few could spare words. They would just see me as a crazy psychopathic homeless manic maniac, someone who would surely rob them and hurt them.
Because that is the way we see the homeless, it would seem.
I continued through the day, getting more and more frustrated as things went by, but doing what I could to represent the innocent character Lucky from my play, the homeless kid, and being kind no matter what people said to me.
And what happened? I finally reached a point where I gave up. I gave up completely. I’d been out all day, and I was going to head home. I was going to go to my house. My safe place.
And I learned something valuable from that desire to head home when I hadn’t even spent a night outside: That, indeed, I am grateful for housing, and how emotionally taxing it is to try to make connections with people that could care less whether you live or die, and that can’t even spare a few words for conversation and poetry. How sad it made me, to realize all of this, but I was also grateful that I had a place to go … but, I was also simultaneously dumbstruck by just how taxing it would be to be homeless. I hadn’t even made it a day, but it was enough, it was more than I could handle. And I couldn’t help but think of people that would live that lifestyle all the time. And ultimately, I realized that there was no way I would make it as a homeless person. Darwinism would defeat me in that sense: I wouldn’t be the fittest, and I’d die off before I ever had a chance to reproduce.
The main point, the main lesson, from all of this? I was discouraged, but my resolve to help the homeless had crystallized even more; my resolve was stronger. Even though I didn’t have a working plan to help the homeless after this happened, and after I experienced this, I knew that I couldn’t give up on the homeless, and now I had more of a reason than ever to help the homeless, because I’d experienced firsthand the way that people are, and how I didn’t even make it a day, and some people have to do what they do day in and day out.
And as I said, I was grateful to have a home to go to. Without that, I would have probably literally gone insane because of the way I was treated.
Meaning, I can never imagine what a homeless person actually experiences. Day in and day out … day in and day out …
In other words, don’t be homeless for a day, unless you want to stomach some brutal truths. And even then, I’m not sure I’d recommend it, because it will certainly humble you.