Shadowed Community Reflection

For the last two months, I’ve been involving myself in the community of those who are underserviced. Most of these individuals are homeless, which is why I surrounded this project around that particular group. When you think of the homeless, do you automatically think about individuals who are living on the streets? If you do, you are not the only one. I thought the same thing too. But the truth is, anyone can be homeless, it doesn’t mean that the person has to be living on the street. The reason I thought that though was because of the stereotypes and stigmas I have on the homeless.

While growing up in Toronto, you get accustomed to seeing people beg for money on the streets. That to me was homelessness. However, this project opened my eyes to a whole new meaning behind it. It has battled with my thoughts that I had against the homeless, allowing me to the see another side to them that I would never have thought to exist; another side that really isn’t that different from us. All these years, I have thought they were dirty, unmannered, violent, and either an addict or a criminal. I know those thoughts are harsh and VERY negative, but it wasn’t until this project that I finally saw the harm I was projecting from something as simple as a thought or an opinion.

I’ve dropped in for community lunches and dinners 5 times over the past two months. I had hoped to have gone 6 times but other priorities ended up stopping me. Instead, one of the blog posts was an email interview with the founder of the community drop-in. To recap, community drop-ins are not only a place for a hot meal. It is also a place for support, building relationships, acquiring essentials for every day life and to keep warm/cool from the cold/hot nights of Toronto. Basically to many, it is a safe haven, a sanctuary where there is no such as thing as segregation and exclusion.

For every visit, I documented my experience including every detail of smell, feeling, thought and taste in my blog posts. Here are a couple of the stereotypes that I had on homelessness, where I was most shocked to experience the exact opposite:

  • The homeless are rude and have no manners. In my first visit, the act of kindness in this community surprised me, surprisingly. People generally think that everyone is well mannered, but when it comes to the homeless, our minds think otherwise.  Since it was my very first time at the drop-in, I was very observant about everything that was going on around me. Before dinner, everyone said grace. During dinner, everyone ate as civil as they could; even those who were intoxicated would ask kindly for the salt and pepper shaker. While I was eating I was also people watching. I noticed an old woman walking slowly with a cane;. She took a seat at the other end of my table. My first concern was how was she going to get her food if she could barely walk without her hands holding her up? However, as I was thinking that a young Native American woman came up and placed a plate of food in front of her. She sat down and helped her cut her meat up into bite size pieces. I was shocked. When you see homeless individuals on the streets, you don’t ever get the chance to see their true self. You end up only seeing the defensive personality because living on the streets requires a tough skin. But to see her show respect to an elderly individual and everyone else around, really brought out the false in this stereotype.
  • The homeless are uneducated. Every visit at the community drop-in, I experienced how wrong it was to think they were. One lady I met was in the middle of finishing her Masters in Psychology. I actually met her the first day at the drop-in and I was taken aback when she told me. Without thinking, I had asked her why she comes here and she kindly responded saying she loved the company and people here. Unfortunately, many of the individuals who are homeless, living on the street or not, are taken for granted of their educational background. JL (my friend who introduced me to the community drop-in) had met someone who had a doctor’s degree but when he moved here, he ended up becoming friends with the wrong crowd and became an addict. He overcame his addiction thankfully, but if you were to look at him before, you would’ve doubted his educational background and intelligence based on his addiction.

I met a lot of great people in my 5 visits. Each person has shown me a different perspective on life, school, the government (popular discussion topic) and on homelessness of course. I’ve always feared the poor or the homeless. I felt like they would impact my life negatively in some way but when in fact, they’ve opened my mind about the issues that they have to overcome. They have also reminded me of what I have at home, something that I myself take for granted many of the times. They are often ignored by society and the government. This ignorance not only neglects their identity as a human being, but it harms them as a community and their possibility of a future in their life.

I definitely accomplished my goal for this project. Although I didn’t become a part of their community, I did become a different person. At first before I began this project, I was afraid that it would seem like I was “using” them because I was in a sense, documenting them. However, as the weeks progressed, I started to feel like I helped them in some way. The fact that I chose to bring peace and remove any conflict in my mind about homelessness and individuals who are under serviced, that alone seemed beneficial to them because I was learning to recognize them as what they deserve to be.

Although the project is over, I don’t have any intentions to stop dropping in on the community dinners and lunches. Maybe I’ll even check out a couple of board game afternoons if a holiday was to land on a Friday. I want to continue to build relationships with them and to create a change in others who have had stereotypes and stigmas against them as well. A peer of mine had originally proposed her NVC project to communicate with the homeless, but at the last minute she changed her mind because she feared their violent behaviour. I laughed because I thought the same thing once but now that I’ve seen the false in these stereotypes, I am confident enough to say that they are anything but harmless.

What makes us any different from them? We all breathe the same air, have the same organs, talk the same language and want to live life to the fullest after all.

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