Written By: Ryan Walters
One week ago, I was temporarily “living” on the streets of downtown Seattle for a total of three and a half days. This social experiment was a requirement of my urban missions institute (Serve Seattle) that is coming to a bittersweet finish at the end of June. The title for this adventure: the Urban Plunge. The objective for this adventure: whatever you want it to be.
I personally don’t believe you can really put a number on such an out-of-body experience before it occurs. Sure you can have some expectations…but when you’re to be blindfolded and driven to an unknown location; when you’re to be dropped off with nothing besides the clothes on your body (not even your OWN clothes!), two dollars in quarters and an ambiguous clue to find shelter; when you’re told to survive for the next 72 hours without your usual normative resources, you just can’t be too positive of what God has already got in store for you to learn.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that I was supposing I’d be able to approximate the homeless lifestyle following the plunge. It doesn’t change the fact that I was panicking like a big baby about diving into a world where good hygiene was nearly impossible. And it certainly didn’t alter the fact that my nerves were about to erupt like Seattle’s iconic stratovolcano, Mount Rainier itself.
Let me fill you in on what my personal experiences were like during the epic plunge: [excuse my laziness for the following format]
Day 1- (12:30pm)
- Dropped off in SODO (south downtown). Blindfold removed. Met my team consisting of two girls from my program. Walked quite a few miles back to the city. Picked up popcorn and a cardboard box found by a dumpster so that we could stash valuable items we’d come across.
- Met a homeless woman who said she’d rather sleep on the streets than in a shelter because of the dirtiness and fights that take place in the shelters.
- Ate about 25 raw sugar packets from Starbucks as well as a few free venti iced-cold waters.
- Panhandled for the first time ever. Got laughed at in the face by a man who said that I didn’t need spare change. Received many neglectful and insensitive glares. Witnessed a man with cash in his wallet say “Sorry, I’m only a card guy”. Asked a man for the time and he scooted right on by saying “Sorry, I have to get to work”. Watched wealthy business men and women avoid looking at me at all costs (usually involving the old ‘bring out the cell phone’ trick).
- Paid what little we had for outside shelter which just so happened to be the Serve Seattle backyard. Didn’t sleep a lick due to the cold temperature and uncomfortable cardboard ground.
Day 2- (5:30am)
- Panhandled outside a McDonalds. I was told by the Manager to scurry off and find a sidewalk. Met a man who had been on the streets for ten years. He didn’t believe that homelessness should exist within the U.S. He noted other countries where it’s not a reality because of how those countries are run. He told me that capitalism only works when there is ‘true democracy’. He discussed awful experiences during the winter time witnessing other homeless friends die because of the harsh conditions. Later on, I was given a sausage and cheese McGriddle by a man who I didn’t even ask for anything from.
- Got free breakfast (pastries) at a shelter.
- Spent three hours at the public library. Was able to crank out the books of Daniel and Hosea from the Bible.
- Met up with other teams at a well-known community park called Cal Andersen. Napped and eventually played a little soccer with a boy I met.
- Exchanged an unused cigarette for a dollar that I had found on the sidewalk.
- Paid for shelter. Called it a night.
Day 3- (8:00am)
- Walked to a food bank. Saw a diverse area within a one hundred foot radius composed of poor Vietnamese people, luxurious cars passing by and an adult correctional facility right across the street. Stood in the ‘Groceries’ and ‘Snack Lunch’ lines to grab free apples, carrots, grape juice bottles, a loaf of wheat bread and turkey sandwiches.
- Stop number two was the library. Got redirected by a library security officer for falling asleep. Apparently there are strict policies against it…
- Headed back to Cal Andersen Park. In route to the park, a man with a serious mental illness yelled at my friend calling her a fuc*** nig***. My other friend and I did what we could to provide positive self-talk and encouragement for our fellow member not to turn around and engage.
- Napped yet again at the park. Witnessed several fights break out and a man get arrested. Reunited with other teams and together we were called “high grade” by the pre-existing homeless community (I assume it’s because we had shiny appearance).
- Grabbed a $5.99 pizza from 7-11, some slurpees and called it a night at the shelter.
Day 4- (6:00am)
- Traveled to a nearby park. Passed out for a few hours. Headed back to the Serve Seattle house at 11:00am to be allowed back in. Plunge completed.
CONVICTIONS & REFLECTIONS
- I could sum up a chunk of this homeless excursion with three words: boredom, lethargy and hunger. I was constantly exhausted mid-day and desperately needed a nap. My group agreed to purposely allow for starvation even though the city resources existed to meet our every meal To be honest, the variety of shelters, missions, ministries, food banks and other resources for the homeless greatly encouraged me.
- Following the plunge, I was heavily convicted of hypocrisy that would sneak up on me in the weeks ahead before heading home. I already began to wonder, “How long will it be till I revert to how I was mistreating and ignoring the homeless beforehand?”
- During the plunge, I actually picked up on the reality of temptations surrounding the homeless community. That flawless cigarette I found actually became like my Wilson and I was Tom Hanks. Each time it fell out of my ear, I freaked. For one, it became my treasured commodity now that my phone and wallet were no longer of value to me. Two, due to my boredom, exhaustion and starvation, that cigarette became more and more appealing. In fact, I was thankful when finally exchanging it for fear I might succumb and ultimately smoke it. On top of that, I even rationalized stealing from the soft drink machine at McDonalds when I had only ordered cups for free water. I can admit that to a lesser extent, I understand what may drive someone affected by homelessness to steal or entertain drug usage.
- One significant reflection I had is that not all homeless people have the “bum” look we stereotypically think they do. I’m not quite sure anybody has a right to judge whether someone is homeless or not by external appearance.
- I was uniquely convicted at one point of the white privilege I possess. It dawned on me that even if it were to come to reaching bankruptcy and possibly homelessness, God has blessed me with far too many generous souls who would withdraw me from such a situation. The chances are slim to none that any of the actual homeless community in Seattle have connections to people who would let them in their warm and safe homes off the streets.
- I let my physical and mental mood distract me from keeping my eyes on Jesus in which self-reliance entered the picture. As the opposite of peace, this spiritual independence removed joy that would have been possible had I kept my eyes fixed on Christ.
The urban plunge was an exceptionally humbling and valuable experience that brought insight, enlightenment and compassion into my life.
I’d be a fool to ever forget it and the transformation it caused.
‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’