I was always one who ranted against these things. I think it is arrogant to presume that you can spend four days on the street and know what it is to be homeless. And it's a real problem for me to think that I will be taking money or food that could have gone to someone who is truly homeless. So I am amazed that I decided to do this.
—Ikai, before the retreat
We were reminded at the start that this was a Street Retreat, not a Homeless Retreat. We were not pretending to be homeless, we were spending our retreat on the street. If anyone asked, we should tell the truth, say what we were doing and why. This was meant to be an opportunity to witness the poor and the homeless. But I found that I witnessed myself rather than the homeless. I saw myself pass by thousands of times. "Spare any change? Spare any change? Spare any change?" Thousands passed by just like me. I saw their discomfort. I watched their eyes flick away. Or saw their face harden as they determinedly looked straight ahead. Or saw their utter indifference, their total self-absorption.
Yes, I saw myself over and over and over again. We had been encouraged to beg—it is a humbling experience, we were told. You might think that it is humbling and humiliating to ask for money. Actually, I found that part quite easy. What was humiliating was seeing myself pass by. What was humbling was that on two occasions homeless person put change in my cup. One took the little bit of change out of his pocket and was about to give it to me, then said, "Wait, I want a cup of coffee." He counted out what he needed and gave the rest to me.
In reflecting on the experience, my thoughts turn to how suffering causes separation and how that separation causes suffering. I am not comfortable with the suffering of others. At least I am not comfortable if I do not think that I can do something about it. And so I turn away. I do not want to see what I cannot do anything about. I want to ignore it. I want to delete it. I want to delete my impotence. And homelessness to me seemed such an intractable problem, so impossible to deal with. I would often avert my eyes and walk past rather than seeing, hearing or acknowledging the suffering.
Yet in my own life I have come to realize that when suffering is acknowledged, healing does take place. One of the most wonderful parts of this retreat was the couple of times during the day when we formed a circle to do both a check-in and council. In check-in,we would give a brief answer to: How are you feeling right now? In council, we could each speak about our experiences, and the reflections or feelings we had about them. So, twice a day we had this opportunity to have our own suffering heard.
We spoke of our fears, we spoke of our discomfort in the soup kitchens, we spoke of our discomfort with our arrogance and pride. We spoke of grappling with identity and who we are, and how the line separating us from the people we saw seemed to be disintegrating. We spoke of conversations we had with people and how some of their suffering seemed to be lessened by our simply listening to them. We wept at how simple it would be to alleviate suffering if we just took the time to listen. We talked about how tired we were and how cold it was at night, and how we wished for a toothbrush, and how skanky we felt, and how wonderful and freeing it was sometimes. A number of us thought that we would never do this again. Those same people said they would definitely do it again.
Over and over again, those of us on the retreat reflected on how lucky we were to have each other, and people who cared for us. Sadly, this seemed to be the overriding difference between ourselves and the homeless people that we encountered.
As for food, at first I was amazed at the abundance. With the number of soup kitchens, it seems that it is hard to go hungry in NYC. Yet if you had problems with mobility, it could be quite difficult. We walked an average of 8 miles a day going from one soup kitchen to another. You had to know which churches offered what, when, and be sure to get there on time. My first impressions were gratitude for being fed, wonderment at the people who put together meals to feed hundreds, and chagrin. These people did not turn away saying it is hopeless, it is impossible. These people do something. They provide food for the hungry. Still, even with my gratitude, even with my chagrin, I witnessed my prejudice. I found myself criticizing how the food was given, wishing that it was not being done by these fundamentalists. Now wait a minute. Wait a just a minute here. Am I saying I do not want to support people who are serving hundreds of meals a day because I do not agree with their beliefs, with their politics? Wake up! These people are doing something. I haven't done diddly with all my liberal compassion.
We had breakfast every day at the Bowery Mission, since it was the only place for breakfast. You had to arrive an hour before the meal and attend chapel gospel service. After a couple of sleepless nights of lying on cardboard in the cold, I was as sullen and tired in chapel as the people we saw there, and miserably enduring the service. But on our last morning, a man sang in Spanish some of the sweetest songs I have ever heard of heartfelt praise and gratitude to his Lord. Then two men gave testimony. Hearing these men speak of how the Bowery Mission literally rescued them from a life of addiction and poverty and gave them a sense of self worth and respect, a respect that they could now give others, I think changed the hearts and minds of all the people in our group toward the Mission. If you are wondering whether to give to panhandlers when there is so much food available, I would say follow your heart. Yes, food is available. But many in our group wished for a cup of coffee, or a little orange juice, a toothbrush, a comb, some dried fruit. After this experience there is a desire to give to everyone, as much I can. But this compassion still needs to be tempered with wisdom. Supporting addiction is not a good thing (though I feel less judgmental about people who find they need a little alcohol to keep themselves warm). And some people are embarrassed if you assume they want money. I think it would be a very good thing to be armed with the knowledge of where a meal is available in the neighborhood and let people on the street know about it.
We certainly had a range of experiences. A friend and I were threatened with arrest for begging in front of the Whole Foods on Houston Street. When we returned to the rest of the group at a nearby park, we saw police deep in conversation with Sensei Gauntt, and feared the group was being harassed. On the contrary: with the police were two women in bright orange coats that said Homeless Outreach. They were there to see if we were in need of any services—food, shelter, medical, detox. One night we slept on the ground in an enclosed area in front of the Coles Sports Center. We had to jump the fence, something the less agile did with a lot of help from our friends. Another night we went to a Sufi mosque where we were warmly welcomed, offered dates and tea or coffee, and encouraged to lie down on the plush carpeting and let their sweet songs of praise wash over us and give us rest and refreshment.
It was an amazing adventure. Sometimes miserable and sometimes incredibly freeing and joyful. Definitely eye opening and heart opening.