Today I am posting the first of several guest blog posts. These posts will appear in the next couple of weeks, allowing me much needed time to go out and get inspired to write more! I want to introduce you to a friend of mine, her name is Stacey, and she is one incredible person wrapped up in this tiny little package!
|Pic of Stacey and I.|
Well.. here are some of her words:
On Feb 27th, a group of folks from all different backgrounds, some with tents and sleeping bags, others without one or the other, slept out in Central City Park. The only difference was that this time, there was a bunch of media and attention that came there because these other people who typically sleep in houses joined them. We did it to raise money for Daybreak, a revolutionary new model of ecumenical engagement that gathers folks from all religious ilk together to support a day center for our friends on the street. I use the word day center because its the technical term, but it sounds so cold and clinical. A cafe is what it really is… whose goal is to provide rest, renewal, and relationships.
So we decided to sleep out to raise money for our favorite ecumenical effort downtown. But what was a one night inconvenience for me is an every night way of life for my friend Devon, who is trying to work but has lost his license, despite his skills. So he’s caught in a catch 22, unable to work to earn money, unable to pay the money he owes to retrieve his license. Last night, he slept in a sleeping bag in a shelter building on the grounds of Central City Park and was significantly warmer than us novices, who pitched a tent in an open field, although strategically located closer to the bathroom. Temperatures in Macon dipped down to 24 degrees. We “woke” (I use the term loosely since I didn’t sleep) to a layer of frost on all of our sleeping bags, tents, and to frozen water bottles. Throughout the night I posted observations. Before we went out, I reflected on the privilege I had that night, the biggest being that I was going to go home to a warm house, a warm shower, and be sitting underneath my electric blanket watching television. The italics below are my Facebook posts, intermingled with what was going on at the time and thoughts running through my head.
Some observations as I think about tonight's Sleep out: 1. This is a glimpse of a life that I hope to never have. I will have insight but this does not mean I know what it means to be homeless. This is a privileged experience of one night of cold. I know I have a warm house to come back to. That anxiety lifted off my chest automatically places me mentally light years away from friends who will not. 2. We as friends of those on the streets have often given really crappy gifts away. This will definitely shape my idea of what we have available. 3. We need to be thinking about permanent supportive housing instead.
Lesson #1 Learned: This will be uncomfortable, but is not going to make me an expert on sleeping out or on homelessness. The only thing that can make me an expert is being homeless. Because of my privilege, my family, my church, and my friend network, I will always have a place to stay unless I’ve burned my bridges through addiction or mental illness.
At the beginning of the evening, I went in somber, but had a great time fellowshipping around the fire with friends new and old. We roasted marshmallows, told fun stories, and caught up. I went into my tent warm and toasty and actually surprisingly comfortable, feeling very safe.
I slept for maybe 15 minutes. Around 2:15 I became stunningly aware of how cold it had gotten, I don’t know for sure what time it was because in very cold weather, batteries in cell phones and other devices like key fobs do not work. My phone was freezing so I put it inside the pocket of my sweatshirt. While it was warming up I remembered an episode from work this week - a person came to the office, manic, and wanted the church to buy minutes for a cell phone as opposed to a night at the local shelter. The phone would keep her warm, she said. I didn’t understand at the time, but at 2:20 when the phone warmed up and turned back on, I got it. On a petty level, I was wide awake, needing a distraction from the freezing cold and my phone provided that for me so I wasn’t thinking about the cold. Also, if I was in her shoes, I’d be scared to be without my phone since it is my connection to security and emergency services if I was in danger. While I was on the web on my phone, I noticed that a friend on Facebook had a dad who was very ill and facing surgery, requesting prayer. I prayed and was immediately reminded that my few hours in cold temperatures was not much compared to what some people were facing that night.
Lesson #2 Learned: Cell phones are important for our friends on the street. Basic needs of safety, connection, and conversation are at least partially met in these devices. Groups of folks like those you see on the river are important for safety as well, but can also be a point of anxiety especially for women in homelessness.
Observation at 2:27am: 31 degrees is a lot colder than 38.
I was very right- 31 feels a LOT colder than 38. I borrowed a sleeping bag rated for cold temperatures, wore two thermal shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, my winter coat, tights, pajamas, jeans, wool hiking socks, a hat, a scarf, and ear muffs and I was still cold. At the beginning of the night, with the fire roaring and the temperature in the upper 30s, I was fine. 31, however was a different story. All of the sudden my adequate sleeping bag’s large gaping hole at the top was letting in so much cold air, no matter how much I tried to fold the edges under my head. I tried various positions but nothing was really any warmer. I was cold, uncomfortable, and my throat was starting to feel the effects of cold air. There was really no more sleeping at this point. So I debated going to the bathroom both because I had to and I needed to get up. We picked a spot fairly close but I had to decide whether it was worth getting out of what little warmth the sleeping bag provided to get out of the tent and go. But I figured moving around would warm me up. So after an hour of debating, I just decided the cold was worth it and ventured out.
Lesson #3 Learned: We need to come together as a city and make housing like Utah or Nashville’s supportive housing first model work. We need probably 600 one bedroom apartments for single folks and 200 3 and 4 bedroom apartments for our families. If that’s not a possibility, in the mean time we need to think about handing out better supplies. My friend Keith and I have talked about small waterproof cardboard lodgings that can be borrowed for a night and returned to a central space each night. Even before that can happen though, we need to invest in some warm sleeping bags and tents to have on hand during the winter.
4 am observation: there are dryers in the women's bathroom at central city park. Never in all my life have I been so happy to see them. Never.
Public bathrooms are a topic of much debate, particularly in parks. In Tattnall Square Park, we had incidences of violence when folks in homelessness chose to sleep there, including an alleged rape. Yet, we all recognize the need for public places for folks to use the rest rooms, both for our regular park goes, and also for those who may not ready access to facilities. They provide a much cleaner alternative to where folks may have to go to perform this very natural and most essential of all basic functions. Normally, I hate dryers in public restrooms (*unless they are the xlerator dryers that make you feel like your skin may come off) because they take a long time to work. I’d rather grab a paper towel and make this fast. But in the bathroom at Central City Park was a hand dryer and I almost wept for joy. It was warm. I pushed the button three times laughing at the sheer pleasure I had from those few blasts of hot air.
Lesson #4 learned: We need to have public restrooms available at our city parks that are safe, allow people to enjoy some shelter for a few minutes from the elements (at least over head elements like rain or ice), and we should definitely include hand dryers.
6 am: heavy coat of frost on everything, including tent and cars look iced over
We gathered together after our time at Daybreak for breakfast. I realized just how wonderful those unlocked doors must be to our friends on the street when Daybreak opens at 7 for breakfast. After being in the cold and literally counting down the hours until I could go inside somewhere warm, my exhausted body plopped down on a chair with a hot cup of coffee, grits, and a muffin. There was a little debriefing as we heard people share. My colleague Eric shared, as did some of my favorite folks in Macon: Sharon Bailey, Mayor Reichert, Alex Morrison. My favorite though was my friend Devon Wallace, a transplant from Jamaica by way of Maryland who explained to us that this was the way many of them slept every night. He thanked God for Daybreak and a place to relax, rest, and do some essentials of living like showering and laundry. Then Devon asked if we wanted to be part of the chess club, because you see, while the experience we had needed debriefing for us, this was every day life for him. We’ve gone through it. Now we know. Let’s move on to connection, learning, and celebration. It’s a simple thing: a chess club. On the surface it looks like folks playing an ancient game of skill. If you look deeper, you’ll see an equal footing for minds to meet - a shared space of community and conversation.
Lesson #5 Learned: Through shared community space like Daybreak and chess club, we should get to know our friends on the street as people first. When we go, we do not need to carry our savior attitude in. We need to leave that wherever we picked it up and never touch it again. Instead, we need to engage in conversation, a cup of coffee, a game of chess, and really learn from one another. I have learned way more from Devon than he has learned from me already, and we’ve only been friends for two months. We should be about the work of cultivating community and genuine conversations that seek to learn. They will end in celebration of mutual delight.
Rev. Stacey Harwell is a deacon in the United Methodist church serving at Centenary United Methodist Church as the Minister of Community Building. She enjoys activism, music, movies, reading, good food, and playing with her dog Colby. She is passionate about building communities where everyone is welcome and everyone can use their gifts and passions.