Ben Leach ’22
It’s Wednesday afternoon at Prevention Point Philadelphia, and I am sitting in a busy, narrow hallway outside the medical assistant’s office. It’s one of the few spots in the building graced with air conditioning, and all who pass through can’t help but relish the reprieve from this week’s string of 100˚F days.
The July sun has bore into every corner of the city and the patients are much more irritable—and prone to overdosing. The floorboards moan under the hurried feet of case managers, HIV/HVC testers, suboxone clinicians, and syringe exchange program administrators, all revealing the age of this repurposed church and its hellish mission.
I flip to the next page of the packet resting on my lap and crease it at the corner. Damon, the patient who I am helping to fill out paperwork for the primary care clinic, sits with his shoulders up and forward. His head bobs and the curve in his back slowly becomes more pronounced.
I gather my patience, cross my leg, and balance the weight of the packet on my thigh; this could take a while. I ask him about his housing status and get no response. Damon’s head has been slowly moving forward, making a downward arc toward the floor, so that the crown of his head is now nearly between his knees.
I bring him back by snapping loudly in his ears––here and then gone, here, and then… His head hits an imaginary wall between his legs and bounces back up, comes to settle into a downfacing repose. He works at the wrinkles across his forehead with one hand and grumbles at me.
“What’s your housing status?” I ask, again.
“What’s it look like, huh? Homeless,” Damon says shortly.
He’s tall and thin and looks a little like he just walked off a construction site, the filth of the day clinging to him with the same vengeance his drug-induced delirium does.
“I’m homeless, alright? Homeless.” He pauses and the word hangs between us like a cloud of smoke. “Homeless – sounds… it sounds so dirty. Homeless.” I don’t know anything about this man other than that he was born in ’88, the same era that brought us a new awareness of AIDS and Herpes Simplex and Hep C. It also brought the first wave of the opioid epidemic, primarily into black communities.
Now it’s everywhere. With a third deadly wave beginning in 2013, this time it’s the white population who are feeling the teeth of this monster.
My experience at Prevention Point allowed me to recognize this as a systematic problem and If it exists in Philadelphia, surely it exists in Charlotte.
Throughout Davidson’s admission process, the tour guides and admissions officers proudly boast the accessibility to the Charlotte: “We are only 19 miles outside of the city!”
This year I’d like to make that seamless connection a reality by heading Housing Disparities in Charlotte (a new service-based organization on campus).
This organization will look to connect with individuals, like Damon.
This grown man, only 10 years my senior, was baring his soul and all I could do was nod and ask the next questions on the questionnaire. Are you up to date on your vaccinations? Do you drink alcohol? How many times a week? Smoke? Exercise?
The incongruency of the moment was not lost on me; I might as well have been setting up a gym membership for him, asking him how many times he plans to use the facility in the next month, seconds before settling into the warmth of his high.
The reality of this place is unreal, a universe all its own. “When ‘never enough’ is all you get, it can become the pathos of an entire nation,” says Salem State University Professor Julie Batten, in her TEDx talk “Unbelongingness & the Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Shame.”
While Batten stresses that we are all rendered homeless at some point, actually or metaphorically, most days I feel about as far from these folks as we are from solving the homeless crisis in this country.
These people all once had lives, played on the monkey bars at recess or played basketball in high school, drove buses or served filet mignon to Philadelphia’s Main Line (historically, the most affluent neighborhood of Philly) in some of the city’s finest restaurants. Some have degrees from Stanford, some used to work as professors in universities.
Everyone has a story, and, depending on how close I listen, it seeps out in between the line of questions I ask in stolen breaths, half sentences, and facial expressions that speak of devastation.
In a society that has become highly sensitive to the way we speak about gender, race, sexuality, status, etc., I think it is expected that sensitivity to these topics has turned into a deafening hypersensitivity.
People like Damon are admitted to shelters as ‘guests’ and ‘participants’ and ‘neighbors,’ as if by taking a note from Mr. Rogers’ book and using the rhetoric of the neighborhood, we can erase the gritty reality of unbelonging, of not actually having a neighborhood.
Such terms are nothing more than euphemisms aimed at alleviating our collective guilt.
According to USA Today, our generation is to date the loneliest generation this country has ever known, despite being inundated with a plethora of online communities—or, neighborhoods of another sort.
Perhaps rather than “packaging” our unbelongingness in pretty language, we need, as Batten suggests, to embrace those suffering from the circumstance of homelessness.
This starts with the way we think and speak about homelessness at Davidson.
We cannot fall prey to our privilege, or the profound beauty of our campus. It is truly a sanctuary.
But just because this place offers such comfort doesn’t give us the excuse to sink into complacency. Contentment and lack of interest in other communities (particularly less fortunate communities) are not excuses.
It’s about a shift in compassion. Once we become truly compassionate, it’s imperative that we must not fall into the role of ‘the helper’ (one who does service for the sake of doing it), or even worse, for the image of doing it.
A first step in the right direction is being aware of the language we use, so as not to undermine the reality that is homelessness.
By reviving an organization on campus that was formerly known as Ending Poverty in Charlotte (EPIC), I hope to establish a genuine, long-term connection with the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministries Center.
In the past, EPIC’s mission was “to facilitate a connection between Davidson students and homeless neighbors in Charlotte through a variety of avenues.”
A connection? How? Where? Of what sort? With what neighbors?
I can’t help but speculate that their disappearance is in part due to a failed vision of their purpose. As far as I can tell, EPIC typically operated as a chapter of the Room In The Inn (RITI) program (which originated at the Urban Ministries Center in Charlotte); it was a program whose only mission was to expand the emergency shelter options in the greater Charlotte area during the winter months.
While RITI has always been a fantastic way for students to help out and connect with housing-insecure individuals, I am sure that we can do better.
As an organization, HDC’s new mission is to extend our impact beyond just the months of January-March and beyond just the town of Davidson.
We hope to implement a plan for greater involvement at Urban Ministries Center or Men’s Shelter of Charlotte (two separate locations of a newly-merged organization). Please join us in the fight.
Ben Leach ’22 is undeclared from Lynn, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.