Inside the church, I enjoyed a meal that impressed even a proud patron of North Dining Hall. I found a seat a table besides two older gentlemen: optimistic “King” Harold (whose nickname comes from the old English origins of Harold) and grumbling Frank. The former deftly pointed out my non-homeless status, and we spent the next fifteen minutes trading low-brow witticisms and reverently discussing Notre Dame Football. Despite being homeless since before I was born, Harold was cheerful and even advised me where to find lunch. Frank, on the other hand, was going through a considerable rough patch and opened up to us about his problems with diabetes and wartime injuries. Our conversations confirmed an aspect of homeless life that I had begun to grasp: even among the bustle of millions, the homeless are isolated from their fellow men and often starved for meaningful social contact. Many of the people I had met living on the streets were very outgoing and eager to share stories, advice, or even small talk.
The two men’s reasons for homelessness turned out to be similar, which was another common thread I had discovered. Both had come on hard times, the sort of misfortune that could have befallen anyone. The two men did not have access to the financial safety net of investment that is fundamental to preventing poverty. By lack of local institutions, sufficient income, or financial education, the lower end of society often lacks the means to create a pool of savings necessary for emergencies. Even more critically, Frank and Harold did not have social and familial contacts to fall back on, leaving them alone in the world without the most essential of human connections. Later in the day, senior members of Mobile Loaves and Fishes told me that most homeless people have lost their families, some through abuse, others through tragedy or mental illness. In this way, being without a home is not about lacking shelter, it is the result of a deep and utter need for relationships.
Next, we slowly made our way across the city to a highway where a Saturday church service would be serving a free lunch. As we walked I mulled over my experience thus far. Clearly, food was not so scarce as I had thought it would be. While we took more scenic routes to drag out the time it would take to get to our destination, I realized that a large part of the homeless experience is a tediousness that lacks meaning or satisfaction. I felt bored, exhausted, filthy and useless after less than twenty-four hours, but I did not suffer the hopelessness that comes with day after unending day without a future.
After lunch, we began the most difficult part of the retreat for me. Begging is a daily reality for many homeless people, and as one who had ignored and brushed off those in need before, I was in no hurry to ask for money. We were all well-spoken, relatively clean, and with a relatable story, but even so I found being at the mercy of strangers unbearable. It was part pride and part fear, but I usually hung to the back of the group when we found a stranger. Bruk, a Mobile Loaves worker who had been homeless for fifteen years, told me that we had missed out on one of the worst aspects of homeless life: not the denials or the insults, but the feeling of pure rejection when a passerby refuses to answer or acknowledge you, implicitly deeming you less than human and unworthy of communication. My confidence, as low as it was, could not have withstood such a blow. Luckily, the ten year-old Jeremiah led our group’s fundraising, and his outgoing nature and adorable stature won us enough money for a pizza dinner that night.
The next day, we headed below an underpass the weekly Church Under the Bridge service. I was barely awake and impatiently awaiting the van that would bring us back to the comforts of home and a warm shower. At the very end of the retreat, we had some extra money left over from our begging the day before. We decided it would be best to divide it up amongst us so we could each give it to someone in need around us. When the service ended and the van arrived, I quietly handed a few dollars to a man sitting on the curb.
In the days that followed, I had a lot to think about. I could not escape the fact that even the simplest comforts of home would have been luxuries on the street. But even beyond the food, television, and showers, I thought about some of the greater consequences of homelessness in Austin. “King” Harold had hit the nail on the head that Saturday. I had fit my previous definitions of homelessness, I was living outdoors in almost complete poverty, yet all the same I wasn’t truly homeless. I had not spent months sleeping on pavement haunted by the knowledge that no one cared if I lived or died. I was not tempted by addiction or plagued by mental illness. I was not stripped of my hope or my dignity by people who ignored me as if I were less than an animal. The men and women of Mobile Loaves and Fishes were correct; Austin’s homelessness is not caused by a lack of shelter.
The truest meaning of home has nothing to do with housing and everything to do with other people. As Bruk pointed out to me, most people in Austin become homeless as a result of some personal tragedy, especially one resulting in the loss of family members. This loss, combined with the loneliness, stress, and sleep deprivation of life on the streets makes it no wonder that mental illness is so common among the homeless. These mentally destructive conditions, combined with discrimination against the homeless in hiring, make an escape to a better way of living nearly impossible.
With this in mind, I have a better perspective on potential solutions to poverty in Austin. The expansion of certain church programs which offer people a safety net to protect them from eviction if they cannot afford a particular month’s rent, and hence prevent years of poverty. For those already homeless, I believe the response of Mobile Loaves and Fishes provides an excellent model for charities around the country. As I learned that week, truly Christian service is not just about providing material goods; that is why shelters are often shunned as violent and drug ridden. The success of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, I believe, comes from their unorthodox method to ministry: approaching their brothers and sisters, as equals, and engaging their social, emotional, and spiritual needs. By re-humanizing the homeless, from housing assistance to simple smiles at a food-truck, this organization makes definite steps towards breaking the destructive cycle of homelessness.
The Urban Plunge in Austin opened my eyes to some of the realities of homelessness, one of the most critical aspects of poverty in the United States. Thanks to the men and women of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, I feel a new empathy for the difficulties my brothers and sisters suffer on the street each day. While I may never truly know what it means to be homeless, I hope to alleviate their suffering in whatever ways I can through future service.