Do you know what it’s like to be homeless?
It is happening to good people, smart people, hard workers, nice families…
To have empathy for someone in that situation it simply takes a little effort on your part. Try this exercise to get a feel for what it is like for a homeless family sleeping in their car.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
An Exercise in Empathy: Give Homelessness a Try
Even stronger than sympathy, empathy allows an even deeper connection with someone. To have empathy you have to have some understanding of the struggles someone is going through. It is easy to feel sorry for someone, and to want to help. It is not so easy to feel as they feel, if you are living comfortably and have never experienced anything like homelessness. You have to actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes to feel empathy.
Many people have participated in a sleep-out, where a group will spend a night outside to raise awareness or funds for homelessness. This is another event that builds empathy. For this particular scenario you will be emulating a family living in their car (borrow some cousins or nieces and nephews if you need some kids). Note I do NOT recommend you do this as a single person without a buddy.
Many of the families who become homeless will first stay with relatives or friends, and if that is not a possibility only then will they sleep in their car. So that is the scenario we will continue with. This isn’t even the bottom of the homelessness totem pole, a car is a resource many families struggle to maintain and is an asset some don’t have.
The homeless shelter is one place you could go. But most shelters are not really a safe place. Many shelters are nice, clean places with awesome people trying to help. But some shelters are dirty, infested places. They have sick people, violent people, drunk people, mentally ill people. They have nice people, too.
Resist the urge to judge any of those people, all of those people should have a warm place to sleep at night. Situation is not character. There are many resource-poor people who are constantly on the verge of homelessness. Odds are very high that you come into contact with someone in this situation in the course of your day.
Now take a moment to appreciate the fact that you don’t have to choose between a warm, possibly unsafe shelter to sleep in, or a cold, possibly unsafe car to sleep in.
What would happen if your family were living in the car?
If you have a job, you still go to work. Many homeless people have jobs, they just can’t afford a place to live. You do need to minimize gas costs, though; if you can’t afford somewhere to live you can’t afford gas, either. If possible walk to work from where you parked your car to sleep, because gas costs money.
If you do not have a job you will still need to look for work. You can print your resume at the library. You will need to have an interview outfit ready to go, even if it’s in the car in a dollar store garment bag. The bad news is most employers won’t touch you with a 10 foot pole if you do not have a physical address.
Your kids will still go to school. They may go unshowered and a little hungry. When we lived in the car we usually had a banana or apple when we got up (oranges are messy), and then the school provided a breakfast for the kids when they got in.
When they get back from school they will do their homework in the car right away, because once it gets dark out they won’t be able to see. If they have to type anything up or look up anything on the internet that adds a trip to the library to your day.
Homeless kids qualify for free lunch automatically. The bad news is you have to prove that you are homeless, like get a signed letter from the people you are staying with, and your car doesn’t have thumbs to sign anything. We were already on the free lunch program when we lost our home. Another time we had a signed agreement that stated it was a temporary, short-term place to live.
If you have a big car and can fit a storage tote or two in the back then that is a great idea. We had two tubs of clothes for four people, so we at least had a couple of changes of clothes. Light layers are a good plan. We packed comfortable clothes that you can sleep in as well as go into a store in, so potty breaks were inconspicuous. The sleep clothes got smelly faster than the day clothes, I had to pack more of those.
In this urban homeless family scenario you should be parked in town, most likely at a 24-hour big box store. If you were in a tarp tent or staying at a campground you could use a little propane stove. Stores don’t like this so you are limited to unheated food.
You can go to the food pantry, but most of what they give you will need to be cooked. You will get some cereal you can eat dry or with milk if you can afford to get a little one you can use right away. You will get some canned goods you can eat cold, but your kids will most likely resist these foods. You may get baked goods depending on your pantry, and yes we did have cake for breakfast sometimes.
Once a week we would buy some lunch meat and ice for the cooler, and have milk and yogurt and fruit for that day. But most days we couldn’t afford that, so for this experiment I recommend skipping the cooler. We had lots and lots and lots of peanut butter and jelly.
During the day I wet wiped any silverware we used, and at the end of the day I put the silverware in my toiletry bag to wash in the bathroom sink.
Most playgrounds have a restroom. Libraries and gas stations have restrooms. 24 hour big box stores are ideal for unobtrusive potty trips.
First thing in the morning we would change into day clothes (under a blanket, hard to do privately in a car) apply deodorant, and brush our hair. Then we would go into the store with a small fanny pack size bag or purse that had toiletries like toothbrush and toothpaste. You can do this outside with bottled water, but this is not being inconspicuous.
The same procedure was performed at night before bed, going in to clean up and then squirm into clothes in the car. Most places frown on you bringing in a backpack, which would fit a change of clothes.
You will be encountering lots of germs going in and out of stores and public places all day. Food safety can be an issue. If you get wet from rain or snow you can’t just change your clothes and dry them, you have to do laundry math to figure out how to distribute that resource.
You will be too cold or too hot, it’s a very nice day when you are comfortable.
You will most likely be dirty, we managed to shower once a week at a campground. Poor nutrition is also a problem, investing in multivitamins is a good idea. You are unlikely to get a good night’s sleep in an uncomfortable car, with lights on, people talking, car doors slamming, and waiting for cops just doing their job to ask you to move on.
And, you know, stress weakens your immune system.
You have to be careful not to fog up your windows, this is a giveaway that you’re spending a lot of time in your car.
If it is raining or even snowing it is really important you stay dry, this is a good day to spend some time at the library. Librarians are awesome.
Dress everyone in multiple layers if it is cold, since you can’t afford to run the car to keep it heated. Bring blankets for everyone, or better yet sleeping bags you can roll up during the day.
If it is hot this is even more dangerous, we spent time alternating the big box stores and two area malls so we could be in air conditioning for the hottest part of the day.
What To Do
You will find that without electronics you will need to get creative. There are various splitters and cords to make your electronics work and keep them charged, except you have to run your car so you don’t run down your clunker’s battery, which burns gas. You can charge your phone and stuff in the mall or at the library. But your kids will get bored fairly quickly. You can’t just let them play in the parking lot, that will look suspicious and if you draw attention to yourself you will be asked to move on. If the weather is nice you can go for walks, or go to a park where they can play. My kids read a lot of books.
Try this exercise in empathy and see what kind of problems you come across. See how it makes you feel, with a warm bed still within your reach. See how much more comfortable your bed feels when you go a night without it. That choice to go back to your fluffy bed is a privilege that not all families have.
Want to check your privilege?
If you have achieved that feeling of empathy, what will you do with it? It may have changed you, but has it changed the life of one single resource-poor person?
- The next time you see a homeless person and you keep walking right past, consider how close you yourself are to being in that situation.
- The next time you read an article about affordable housing in the paper, think about writing a letter.
- The next time there is a vote or election in your town, think about using the power of your vote.
- The next time you hear a call for donations at a shelter, bring them a sleeping bag or some socks.
- The next time you’re running around town doing errands, consider grabbing some extras to make a care package.
- The next time you’re volunteering at a soup kitchen, sit and chat with the people dining. Listening without judgment is a great gift, and it’s free.
- There is always a charity in your town that needs help, a food pantry, a homeless shelter, a church mission, or even just advocating from your comfy chair in your warm jammies.
You can do something to make a difference.
7.8% of the homeless are children under 18. (1)
44% of the homeless are employed. (2)
37% of the homeless are families. (3)
In NH alone the number of homeless families rose 8% over the last year. (4) In Boston it was 25%. (5)
Have excess money and don’t know where to put it? Donate to Monadnock Area Transitional Housing, a homeless shelter in my area. Which I happen to be a board member of. So send LOTS of money.
Homelessness stinks. #homelessnessstinks
Advocating for the working poor and affordable housing in New Hampshire. Championing homeless families in NH.
Parking lot photo by Cliff Williams
We hope you enjoyed our Exercise in Sympathy for the Homeless post