Two years ago I stumbled across Soul Pancake’s “Stories from the Street” section on YouTube. I decided the stories would be helpful while teaching students the importance of empathizing with others. I focused specifically on empathizing with individuals on the street. (Or as Fr. Greg Boyle puts it, "those who are outside the margin.") The thing I appreciated about Soul Pancake’s videos was they asked the individuals what brought them to the streets. For every story they told, it was evident that most people on the street had been through tough times. Their hard time could be related to mental health issues, complications or deaths in their family, or just based off substance abuse. For whatever reason, they now call the streets their home.
Being from the East Coast, I was perplexed by all of the homeless individuals around the downtown portion of Ventura. I knew the weather was ideal for living outdoors, yet I never truly understood how many homeless people were living with next to nothing. I wanted to get a better understanding of what brought people to the streets. So I decided that I would hit the streets, listen to peoples' stories, and get a better understanding of the city of Ventura.
The first experience came during October of 2013. I decided to go downtown, look around, and see if I could find someone asking for help. Strangely enough when I hit the streets that evening, I ran into two young men; both guys had different backgrounds, but they were united in their journey. Each had signs saying "anything helps," so I decided it was time for me to muster up the courage and approach them. I told them I could offer them a meal, and soon enough we were on our way to a local Thai restaurant. The first guy's name was Miguel. He was 16 and coming from North Hollywood. He was planning on hitching his way to San Francisco because he said his brother offered him his couch for a few weeks. Miguel said he became homeless once his parents found out he was bisexual. He seemed distraught and down, but was taking things in stride. The other guy, David, had a different story altogether. He was 22 and got discharged from the army about a year before I ran into him. Once he was discharged he became addicted to pills. While battling his addiction, he was charged with a felony and therefore has been unable to land a job. (I didn't press him for details.) He told me about his travels hitchhiking across the country, but the stories got so graphic and intense that I don't feel they are appropriate to share.
They both spoke of working on the kindness of others and how they hoped their luck would turn soon. I could feel them wanting, hoping, that I would offer them a place to stay. I thought about it for a brief second, but then decided that the risk wasn't worth it.
(On a separate note, I remember how cold it was in Ventura that week. I'm not talking East Coast cold, but very windy with frigid air coming from the ocean. The wind must have hovered around 30 miles per hour that night.)
I wished both of them well after dinner, and asked for a picture of their signs so I could share with my students the power of listening and empathizing with others. Once we parted ways, I thought I would never see those two again. However, two days later while making my way to work, I saw David. I was driving, about to hop on the 101 and head to Villanova, when I stopped at the light. We made eye contact and I will never forget his eyes. His stare was hollow. He seemed to look right through me, and he was alone. I'm sure him and Miguel split a while back. The light turned green, I waved to him, and that was the last time I saw him.
That night taught me a few things, but most importantly that it is much easier to judge someone who is on the streets, and a lot harder to listen to their story and hear what brought them there in the first place.