The unreality of urban plunges

Voluntary homelessness has always been edgy and darkly chic — among those with the means to avoid it. When I chose to be homeless, it wasn’t from listening to too many Sex Pistols albums, or from reading too much Kerouac. When I did it, it was called the Homeless Challenge, an Urban Plunge program in Washington, D.C. Similar programs have sprung up in cities around the country, including Nashville. They’re quite popular, and I understand why.

I remember gleefully explaining to friends why I hadn’t shaved or showered in weeks, why my dandruff was out of control, why my pearly white, expensively aligned teeth were, for the moment, mossy and disgusting. I was doing this thing, I explained. I would ask strangers for food and money. I would poop in alleys. I would see people using hard drugs. I would be homeless for a few days.

When asked why, I would say that it was to teach me what it was like to be homeless, my voice trailing into a mutter — something about “raising awareness.”

Now, over a year later, I can’t tell you a thing about what it’s like to be homeless. What I do know, however, is what it’s like to have been an educated, upper-middle class white guy who pretended to be homeless for a few days.

My trip was with Alternative Spring Break, the most popular, most successful service organization at Vanderbilt. The ASB board organizes dozens of service trips with foci on a broad spectrum of issues, from animal rights, to pollution control, to homelessness.

Eleven other Vanderbilt students and I traveled to the nation’s capital to work with several homelessness-focused organizations. Before the Challenge, we attended panels. We heard about the effectiveness and necessity of rescue missions and shelters, and we heard about how such shelters are crutches, enabling and reinforcing chronic homelessness. We heard that voter registration was the answer, and we heard that Jesus Christ was the answer.

We heard many, many things.

I heard a story from one of our guides —homeless men paid and tipped to meet up with such groups at night, guide them to gang-free, relatively safe areas to sleep —about why he would never again sleep on a park bench. His last such experience had ended when he stabbed a thief with a screwdriver.

We heard strangers’ conversations as they ignored us, and occasionally heard some sympathetic cooing and the clink of change. I had a man make me look him in the eyes and swear that I was not on smack, nor pimping the two girls I was with, all for a reward of 75 cents.

But the most thought-provoking words I heard didn’t come from a panel, nor from any of the good people we met in the churches and shelters, nor a kind, sage old homeless man with a gleam in his eye. As I sat on some church steps eating a charity sack dinner, a man on a bicycle screamed at me: “Fucking phony. You’re going to wake up with gun in your mouth. It’s not a game.”

The “gun in your mouth” really just served to drive his main point home: I was an imposter. He saw it; nearly every homeless person I met saw it. The only person who hadn’t grasped that fact was me.

See, for me, it had been a game. That was my motivation: adventure. I love camping, and camping is little more than voluntary exposure to the elements of nature. To me, homelessness was like urban camping, as much about feeling alive in my vulnerability as it was about the hot shower waiting for me on the other side.

I would never suggest that all urban plunge participants are motivated by adventure. Some are motivated by a genuine, open-minded pursuit of empathy. Some are motivated by self-righteousness, and some are motivated by humble, earnest repentance for their relative ignorance toward homelessness. Still others are motivated by a curious state of amusement at just how strange and curious homelessness can be.

“You’ll never live like the common people,” or at least so says Pulp’s 1995 song, “Common People,” the story of a wealthy girl who asks the singer to teach her about life in indigence. He takes her to a supermarket, tells her to pretend she’s poor. She laughs at the thought. In fact, she laughs off all the things the singer shows her, because “class tourism” is a pastime of the flippant and patronizing.

I was like that girl, eager but ignorant, incapable of empathy. Urban plunging to experience homelessness is like shovelling a sidewalk to experience Eskimo. The plunge didn’t teach me how to empathize with the homeless, but rather that “homelessness” is a situation too multifarious, and too altogether deep and mirey, for someone in my position to grasp, even after three days on the streets.

Homelessness does not have a tour guide.

Homelessness does not end after three days.

No one becomes homeless because they have something to gain from the experience.

Urban plunges are valuable, to be sure. Without my experience, I would not be contributing to The Contributor right now. More importantly, without my plunge experience, I would likely be unaware of just how little I know.

But when it was over, I felt like I had done little more than put on a hobo costume. I left the experience feeling a kind of filthy that wouldn’t go away with a shower, and I think that was the best part.

By Robert Funke, Contributing Writer

Reprinted from The Contributor, Nashville, Tenn. © Street News Service:

5 responses to “The unreality of urban plunges

  1. Wonderfully raw, insightful, honest. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Catching up on homeless news « Peoplesplaceseattle's Blog

  3. Very objective, I appreciated the sincerity of your post.

  4. pat broscius

    brutally honest. thank you for you insight. I sent this article to my daughter. I hope she reads it before going on her urban plunge this weekend in washington dc.

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