“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. 🙂

My Lesson in Schizophrenia.

So, Hubby 3 has a nephew named Jack (I changed his name for privacy!) and he is a paranoid schizophrenic.  A few years ago, when Hubby and I were married, his sister came to town from Florida (where she lives) with Jack (25 at the time) to visit her and hubbies mom who was suffering with lung and breast cancer.  Right before she left, she came to us and said this:  “I’m not taking Jack with me.  I rented an apartment, and it has a 6 month lease.  I can’t handle him anymore.  He’s yours now.”  And there we were with the responsibility of Jack for 2 years.

The first thing we learned was that Jack had no medication for his schizophrenia.  We got him set up with a behavioral health facility here in town, and he was quickly put on  anti-psychotic medication.  This really helped, and for a while, we thought he could maintain his apartment, with us checking on him daily.  We had no idea how serious his schizophrenia was at that point.

A couple of weeks after getting him settled and hooked up with services, we bought him a bus pass and a cell phone.  We wanted him to be able to get to us and around town easily as well as call us anytime.  But, instead of him calling us one day, it was his landlord.  He said the apartment Jack was living in was a “shithole” (his words) and he was kicking Jack out.  We went to talk to Jack, and found what the landlord said was literally true.  Within a week of us not seeing the apartment (he had been visiting us), we were shocked by what we saw.  There was poop smeared on the walls because he had run out of toilet paper, rotten food on the counters with maggots beginning to develop, and garbage strewn all over the place.  We also saw Jack wasn’t taking his meds, and was clearly not able to live on his own at all.  After talking with his caseworker, we got him into a great group home where he would be supervised, given his meds, and taught the general  life skills he needed.

man sitting on street
Photo by Malcolm Garret on Pexels.com

By the way, Jack didn’t want to live with us.  He wanted more freedom than we would have allowed him and since both of us worked full-time, he wouldn’t have gotten the supervision needed.  Jack lasted about 3 weeks in the group home, and then got kicked out for not following the rules.  So, with more calls to his caseworker and other agencies, we got him into a subsidized apartment with  home visits scheduled as well as us checking on him everyday.  He had also been taking his meds at the group home and he swore to us he would continue (of course, we knew that wouldn’t happen…Jack didn’t like them).  He got kicked out there within a month, and one day, we went to check on him and he wasn’t there.

All of this time, he’d come to visit us.  I’d always have a supply of t-shirts, underwear, jeans, socks, etc. since he seemed to lose his own or get them so dirty or torn they were unsalvageable.  I also made him take a shower when he got here ,while I washed his laundry.  The first time he showered, he was out within a minute and I shouted to him if he had used soap.  He told me I hadn’t told him too, so I explained in detail what to do and he learned to shower “Aunt Kristi’s way”!  I’d also make him his favorite meal:  grilled cheese with soup or chili.  According to Jack, I made a mean cheese toastie!  Sometimes, he’d start pounding on it with his fists “to kill the bugs on it” or study the chili to look for any evidence of tampering.  Once he looked and then I assured him everything was OK, he’d eat.  I’d usually have a new phone for him too; he went through them at about one a week, so I bought a few burner phones with minutes on them from Dollar General.

man in black long sleeve shirt sitting on floor
Photo by Arian Malek Khosravi on Pexels.com

During this time, he moved around from friend to friend, and finally, he ended up homeless.  We hated this and begged him to go back to the behavioral health facility and get back on meds, which might have allowed him to go back to the group home.  He wouldn’t.  He liked being homeless.  He said he liked the people he had found and being on his own, living on his wits.  We usually knew where he was during the day (our local homeless day center) and then had ideas of where he was living on the streets.  We’d drive around until we found him, would offer him food or anything else he might need,  and then he would say he needed to get back to business.  This consisted of him making ‘traps’ (they were harmless stacks of boxes, etc.) to catch the spies who were out to get him.  Once we took him to the psychiatric floor at our local hospital, but he was discharged in days with meds that he pitched after we left him.

One day, I got to the day center to say ‘howdy’ and he wasn’t there.  I talked to some of his friends, and finally one said this:  “Some people said they took him to the woods and killed him.”  Now, this was coming from another guy with schizophrenia, so we didn’t know how seriously to take this info.  We called the police and they said they would investigate but in the meantime, to see if we could find him because he was most likely alive.  Hubby walked parks for hours and hours each night while I drove all over town.  As the days wore on, the police took the info more seriously and interviewed a couple of people who said where his body could be found.  Along with the police, we looked and looked, but nothing.

The news station ran a story on Jack and there was also an article in our local paper;  we wanted to know if anyone had seen him.  Here’s what happened:  social media blew up with the most horrible comments I’ve ever read…in fact, I have tears in my eyes just remembering.  People said things like this:  “Why waste resources on this sack of shit?”
“Homeless people get what they deserve.”  “I hope he’s dead so he quits draining our system.”  “They’re all fucking drug addicts.”  “Fuck him…I ain’t wasting my time looking for this asshole.”

When I started reading these, I was gobsmacked.  Truly.  These were people I knew!  See, Jack’s last name is different than Hubbies, and people didn’t know he was my nephew.  So, I wrote a post myself talking about how Jack was my family, that I loved him, how he was mentally ill, and that he needed help.  All of a sudden, the tide changed.  “OH…I didn’t know he was YOUR nephew.”  “I’m sorry!  I wouldn’t have said those things if I had known that.” and blah blah blah.

Really?  What the fuck?  It’s OK to wish someone dead if you DON’T’ know them?  It’s fine to say a mentally ill young man is a ‘sack of shit’ unless he’s Prof K’s nephew?  What the hell is wrong with this?

Finally, police in Iowa found Jack…he had literally joined the circus!  We had had one in town and he went with them to ‘help with the animals’ when it moved on.  We were so relieved, and I don’t think he could understand why we hugged him so much when he was brought to us.  Long story short (finally), he’s back with him mom in Florida, and still doing about the same.  I miss him.  I really do.

neon signage
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

As an educator all of my life, I try to see the lessons in experiences, and as much as I tried to teach Jack things, he actually taught me so much more.  Jack brought out a compassion in me I had never felt before, and he could break my heart with just a look.  He taught me that happiness can be anything…just enjoying a whopper on the curb of a street is reason to smile.  Jack taught me how to see the world through completely different eyes…a different reality.  It was his reality, but I needed to understand we all have our own reality, and no one’s is more or less than anyone elses.

But most of all, Jack taught me how cruel, insensitive, degrading, and ignorant so many people are when it comes to mental illness; and, how superficial they can be when expected to say the ‘right things.’  When we’d be out together, people would look at Jack like he was disgusting.  They’d sniff the air because he often smelled.  They’d look away as if by ignoring him, he’d simply not exist in the world they wanted to keep ‘crazy’ free.  I’d listen to radio shows and read articles in the paper about the city needed to ‘get rid of the homeless’ downtown because they made people uncomfortable.  REALLY?  Sleeping on the fucking streets?  Bathing in a fucking sink?  Shitting behind a building because that’s all there is?  That’s what’s uncomfortable, assholes.

Did you know there are 10,363 homeless shelters in the U.S., and 13,500 dog/cat shelters and sanctuaries?  As much as I love love love dogs, this is wrong.  ‘Nuff said on that.  We need more resources for the homeless.  More acknowledgment of how much help is needed for those who are seriously mentally ill.  Better education amongst the masses so that maybe, instead of ignoring the problem, we could instead start to solve it.

Love ya forever, Jack, and I’m sure I’ll see you again when you pass through sometime.

Kristi xoxo

 

 

 

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