“Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.” ~ Oscar Wilde

So, I’m a big believer in experiential learning and incorporate it as much as I can in my classes, except for my Human Sexuality class! 😏 Anyhoot, I was watching a video on YouTube where college students in California ‘lived’ in a cardboard box for 1 night in order to experience homelessness. Then the next day they had just a couple of dollars and had to eat their meals on the streets. Now, this sounds like a great idea…or it must to some since other colleges have done the same exercise…but honestly, I was disgusted by some of the students reactions in this particular case.

LOS ANGELES, CA – Entire blocks are packed with homeless encampments on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

First off, part of the group of students complained throughout the night. They were hot. They were cold. They were hungry. They didn’t like using a Porta Potty. They wished they wouldn’t have signed up…you get the picture. During the next day, some of the students were followed by cameras and made remarks along these lines: “The bugs are horrible…I just want to go home.” “The heat is too hot (ya think 🙄) and I’m sweaty.” “I’m so hungry that I’m getting weak.” This last comment was made in the early morning (after having food just hours before) by a young woman who didn’t want to go to a Good Samaritan or the like since she wasn’t sure the food they would be serving would be fit to eat. To be frank, I wanted to reach through the screen and shake this girl because what she had as a ‘homeless’ person for a day was far more than the homeless do for weeks, months, and often years.

So why did this piss me off? Because this is NOT experiential learning…it’s making a mockery of those people that are truly homeless and have to…gasp…deal with hot, cold, rain, snow, bugs, animals, cruel people, lack of food, lack of electricity, lack of heat and air conditioning, lack of water, lack of roofs, lack of Porta Potties…you get the point.

The feet of Mr. Murphy, who had been on Skid Row for a year in 2018. He is one of thousands who are part of California’s homelessness crisis. Photo by Dan Morain for CALmatters

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have to pee in the street. To have to sleep under tattered blankets on sidewalks. To have people jeer at you and condemn you for your situation. To not know if you are even going to eat one day. To be able to shower or clean up only sporadically. To live on streets that I wouldn’t want to walk down any time of the day. To not have a warm coat…shoes…socks…underwear.

I’m sorry, but staying in a cardboard box for 8 hours in a safe area on campus where there is security along with the knowledge you can simply walk away and go to your cozy dorm room anytime is not experiencing homelessness. Maybe some of you remember me writing about my nephew who was homeless for a period of time. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic who refused to take meds and was simply in another world. I watched him climb out of dumpsters, sit on corners and eat hamburgers others bought him (bless their hearts…truly ❤), get berated by people who called him scum along with other words I’d prefer not to remember. When he was missing for a period of time, people said how the community shouldn’t use resources to track down trash like him. A couple of times a week, he’d come over for showers, food, clean underwear, burner phones, etc. and talked to me about the cruelty he and his ‘people’ (his words…there’s a bit of a brotherhood in the homeless community where he felt he fit in better than anywhere else) suffered daily. So, to think that this student exercise encapsulates what it feels like to be homeless is an insult to those who are.

Yes, people need to be empathic and try to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Of course they do because that’s what makes people more aware of the issues others face. However, how can any simulation be called ‘living’ the issue when it’s so contrived? So…well…fake?

When I was in undergraduate school studying Psychology and Education, I was taking a class on special needs children and we had to walk around campus with a blindfold on and a partner guiding us in order to experience blindness, and then traipse around campus with ear plugs in to simulate deafness. This entire exercise took the entirety of 50 minutes and afterwards, when the professor asked us what we had learned by experiencing this loss of sight and hearing, other students said how beneficial it was and could really understand now what such individuals go through.

Heh? I didn’t get that at all. I had a guide throughout the ‘experience’ and could rip off my eye cover or pop out my earplugs whenever I wanted with only a C grade as a consequence. Truthfully, it made me feel guilty strutting around the campus while pretending to have these impairments. This really came back to me years later when I had a totally blind student in my first few community college classes I taught in Kansas. I was told I’d have Suze in class so I prepared my info to have visual materials accessible but that’s all I prepared for. For some reason, it didn’t dawn on me to prepare for Suze herself. When I first saw her outside my door, I touched her arm to say hello. She swung on me and shouted: “Don’t ever touch me without asking!” I was truly taken aback and felt she had been rude. But as the semester progressed, we started chatting more and more and as she told me about her life living alone with only her guide dog as a companion and I started to understand how scary the world is for her. How every touch can mean something sinister. How someone can hurt her without fear of retribution because of her inability to identify them. How not being able to scan your surroundings made you wary. She told me that everyday things caused stress…just being in a new room with furniture could be a hazard. I realized why she snapped at me the first day we met and I also understood how I fucked up (sorry, ma…but I really did 😔). I was encroaching in her dark bubble where she needed verbal warnings for touch and the like. We ended up being really good friends and I learned more from her than she ever learned from me. Hands down.

But don’t you often hear people claim that they really do understand the plight of others? “Oh, I know what it must be like to be black because I was discriminated against once and it hurt.” Or, “I know what it would be like to have a physical disability since I broke my leg a few years back.” Or, one of my favorites, “I know what depression is like. When I flunked my first test, I was down for a week.” OOOOOKKKKKAAAAAYYYYY! For fuck sakes, I’m sure these incidents are truly reminiscent of what people experience as a part of their lives. Grrrr.

Thank you, Allie.

My advice is this: If you want to experience what it’s like to be schizophrenic or bipolar or depressed or have panic attacks, have doctors give you electrical shocks in your brains so you’ll actually have these mental illnesses. And if these California students really want to experience homelessness, have the professor take them down to Skid Row in L.A. and sleep there. Eat there. Watch people prostitute themselves to get money for drugs…a habit that started in childhood to escape abuse they were experiencing.

Yes, I know this is harsh but my point is this: Go to your local homeless shelter and talk to some of the people…hear their stories and then with what you might spend on Starbucks every week, get them clean socks and underwear and a coat. Or, go to the organization in your area that works with the blind and read to them. Seek permission to visit a residential unit that houses the mentally ill and play a game of checkers or just watch TV with the people. In other words, help. And yes, we all need to do this, don’t we? Me very much included. Further, making this one of the resolutions we all promise to fulfill would be a great first step this coming year. I am promising myself…and my community, that I’m going to do it.

Kristi xoxo

Here are 7 charities we can all give what we can too that fight homelessness in the United States. 🙂

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