For the last year, I woke up at 6 a.m., hours before my first class in college started. I got dressed, ate breakfast, made lunch, and hopped on my bike by 6:50 to travel the four and a half miles to my service placement. I biked in the dark, down three hills, over a bridge, and along the waterfront of Portland, Oregon.
Since I was in the Pacific Northwest, it often rained, and I commonly began my day at Street Roots by dripping water all over the floor. I usually arrived before dawn and snuck in through the back to give whoever was sleeping in the front doorway an extra ten minutes to rest. I made a pot of coffee, hoping it would help warm up the dozens of people waiting outside for me to unlock the door.
As the Jesuit Volunteer Corps/Americorps member at Street Roots, my days were spent standing on the frontlines fighting homelessness and poverty, a stark contrast to the ivory towers of my college experience.
The mission of Street Roots is simple: to create economic opportunity for those experiencing homelessness and poverty by producing a newspaper and other media. The vendors who sell the paper get to keep the proceeds as a wage, and often it’s the only source of income for them to survive. They rarely have savings and live day-to-day, hoping to make enough money off the papers they sell for some food, cigarettes, and maybe even a hotel room.
Many of the people I served slept on the street and arrived at the office long before the 7:30 a.m. opening time in the hopes they could get inside to warm up, drink a cup of coffee, and rest in a space that felt relatively safe. On any given day, I found myself handing out socks, hats, or sunscreen; editing an article to help a man with paranoid schizophrenia tell his story; mediating conflicts between men a foot taller than me, hoping no one throws a punch; or calling 9-1-1 while holding the hand of a woman who has fallen in the street and cannot get up, blood on her face while she cries that she is not sure she can do this any longer.
I learned more about drugs, homelessness, poverty, and American society than I thought possible. I surprised myself with my ability to hold it together for my vendors even when I could not fully process what they were telling me.
Street Roots is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it was easily the most rewarding experience. Nothing can compare to the moment when a vendor came in excited about life, telling me he has received a $100 tip that day. My heart swelled when he told me he took a group of his homeless buddies to breakfast. When he pulled out his wallet to give $10 to another vendor, who had just complained of a lack of cash for food, I could hardly believe this generous, considerate man was the same person who yelled at me a week prior.
As a rather privileged millennial, I’ve grown up in a world that encouraged me to follow my passion, own my differences, and post everything online. I attended an undergraduate institution that challenged me academically and socially — asking me to try harder and achieve more. I loved my college experience, and in many ways I thrived in an environment where I was constantly inspired and driven by my talented and skilled peers.
I wanted to return to school after a year off but I needed the reminder that work does not simply have to be about padding a résumé. I wanted a year to remember that life was not all about internships, tests, and Snapchat stories. My experience at Street Roots has given me that — I’ve learned far more about myself and the world than I thought I would.
Though I learned many lessons at Street Roots, I think the most important may have been the essential need for human connection that we all share. To experience homelessness is not simply to be bereft of shelter, to constantly be striving for survival; it is also to be part of a society that constantly ignores and belittles your very existence.
Everyday-housed people walk by people living on the streets, looking away, ignoring their greetings and requests, pretending they don’t see or hear anything. I do the same thing sometimes — it’s easier in the moment. But until I worked at Street Roots, I never realized what the cumulative effect of that might be on the individual experiencing homelessness. To be made invisible, a nuisance people would rather not acknowledge, is horrible.
The vendors I worked with had a fundamental human need for attention, for someone to talk to and joke with, for someone to know their name. Most days when I staffed the front desk at Street Roots, I fielded a thousand tiny requests for attention. I did my best to honor those while also completing whatever other tasks were in front of me that day.
When we are called to love others as ourselves, it means more than thoughts and prayers. It means action that makes a difference in someone’s life. In serving at Street Roots, I saw more generosity, hardship, kindness, compassion, trauma, and love than ever before in my life. As I start law school and my career beyond that, I know I will hold the lessons I’ve learned at Street Roots as a core part of whatever I do.