Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thinking Outside the Box

By Monique Rangel
[Reprinted from Aquinas Newman Center Bulletin, Nov. 15, 2009]

 I wake up to a dim light entering into my cardboard box; my face is cold and my feet numb in a freezing straitjacket of a sleeping bag. It is 6:18 in the morning, a time that I can safely say that I usually sleep through most Sunday mornings. And when I do wake up, I’m not cold, tangled or tired. But that is not the case today—today I wake up exposed to the outside. How did I get here?

Perhaps that is a question that some ask every day, but I know why I wake up outside. Project Box is an annual event held at  Aquinas Newman Center at the University of New Mexico. It is intended to raise awareness about homelessness in our community. 

Participants in Project Box spend the night outside to expose the homelessness that is overlooked by people, since it takes place in the “lesser” places of our community: the places that we are eager to forget and quick to pass through (or avoid) on our commute to work/ home/shopping. Besides being a visual demonstration against homelessness, Project Box’s main objective was to invoke thoughtful, prayerful and serious discussion about the needs of this neglected population and what realistic and sustainable solution was necessary.

We had a guest that evening--a homeless woman who, unlike the many biases that exist, does not have a substance abuse addiction nor was she an alcoholic. Before she became homeless, her life was like that of many who live pay check to pay check. Losing her job was the push that led the dominoes as they fell in sequence. Now she does not have a stable home to go to every night, so she camps outside in a sleeping bag in spots where she feels safe. 

As she detailed her daily routine, it became clear that although it may seem that the homeless population does absolutely nothing every day, much activity occurs, and the majority of a homeless person’s time is spent on what takes minutes for people who have basic resources.

Some points she mentioned are:
  • everything from eating to getting clothing to showering involves waiting in lines for hours; 
  • to add time to waiting in line, people who are homeless must walk everywhere (unless they gather enough change for the bus); 
  • they must carry all their belongings, or, stash quantities of their belongings (which is extremely risky) in areas around the city. 

From this aspect, it becomes obvious that most time is spent tending to daily basic needs. When one task is finished, there is no time to waste before the next one is begins, or in many cases, is already over. An important aspect to the lack of consciousness about homelessness in the general community is that a homeless person must stay out of sight so he or she is not harassed. There is a balance in appearance that must be met. If someone looks too nice and like he/she has nice belongings or money, he/she runs the risk of being mugged.  On the other hand, if someone looks too unkempt, he/she is in danger of being noticeable—a nuisance and a target for harassment by law enforcement. 
This discussion made me realize that perhaps the needs of the homeless population were not being truly met. After all, we are not homeless and are reluctant to perceive homelessness for what it is. It is true that we must consider sustainable and measurable improvements on how to approach this issue, but crafting sustainable solutions might be easier if we perceive homelessness as if we were homeless ourselves. In order to find a solution that works--a solution that suits the needs of those who lack a home--we must think outside the box.

(The author is an Economics Major at the University of New Mexico and Gospel Justice Peer Minister with Aquinas Newman Center's Campus Ministry.   The photograph at the very top depicts a mural painted under the highway in Portland, Ore., by a member of the local Franciscan community)

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