Students in this semester’s Inequality in America class.
Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Tori Dylla will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Tori is a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Asian Languages and Literature. For more information about the Inequality in America program, click here. In their first post, Tori grapples with the tension between education, observation, and feelings of voyeurism in Inequality in America’s “Day in the Life” field experience.
As I looked back on my last four years as a Global Studies student focusing on human rights and justice, I found a gap in my knowledge. I wanted concrete answers. Concrete answers to why the top 1 percent of Americans hold 40 percent of our nation’s wealth. Answers to why the bottom 80 percent of Americans only hold 7 percent of the nation’s wealth. How is it that we allow the richest 1 percent of Americans to take home nearly a quarter of the gross national income today when just forty-two years ago they took home only 9 percent of the total national income?
What changed in the last forty years that allowed this drastic increase in inequality? Not having found the answers to these basic questions in my studies, I joined HECUA’s Inequality in America program. There I found potential answers, and still more questions. Recently, our class participated in “A Day in the Life,” a program coordinated by St. Stephen’s Services to educate community members on the realities of homelessness in Minnesota–not that a single day of “experiencing homelessness” can ever compare to the trauma and anxiety a person feels when they are homeless. Many of us raised concerns about the ethics of such an experience; we did not want to be tourists in the life of a person experiencing homelessness. Before setting out on the field experience, I decided that I would keep the mindset that I was there to learn and to uphold the dignity of those experiencing poverty and homelessness, so that I could reduce the negative effect my presence could have on the people around me.
St. Stephen’s Shelter.
Our day “experiencing homelessness” began at St. Stephen’s shelter in Minneapolis where we met our guides and educators from the community for the day—all of whom were either currently experiencing homelessness or had experienced homelessness at some point in their life. The fact that our guides for the day were volunteers that have experienced homelessness in their life, receive compensation and time to reflect on their experiences is another aspect of St. Stephen’s program that separates it from many other programs. Without guides that have experienced homelessness, a program would take away the opportunity for a person experiencing homelessness to share their own story and to frame narratives surrounding homelessness in a way that is connected to the individual, not a stigma or generalization.
Our guides taught us that in order to reserve a bed at St. Stephen’s or any shelter in Minneapolis a person must first visit Adult Shelter Connect for an assessment. Depending on the barriers that person faces to finding housing, they are placed in one of the five shelters in Minneapolis and are also referred to additional resources. Program participants at St. Stephen’s must leave the shelter at 7:00 AM and cannot return until 5:00 PM, a citywide law in Minneapolis. If a person has a job to go to they might head there. If they work later or not at all, they might walk to the Opportunity Center where they can access health services including foot care, and a mailbox. Most importantly they are sheltered from the weather, a key issue for many experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis, especially in the freezing months of the year.
House of Charity Food Center.
After the Opportunity Center, we walked to the House of Charity Food Center for lunch. That day they were serving chili, mixed green beans, and corn, a dinner roll, iceberg lettuce, sliced apples, and a dessert option. The food was good. My group-mates thought the chili was decent and the veggies were too. One thing that our community educator John told us is that many people do not realize the complexities of cooking at a food center; the food needs to be nutritionally balanced as well as soft so that people who do not have regular access to dental care are able to eat it with few or sensitive teeth. As a vegan looking at the array of food available I realized that if I were relying on meals served at a food center I would have to give up my diet immediately; there simply were not enough calories available for a vegan to sustain themselves. At a meal center there is only one option served at each meal, so if you do not like the food then your option is to either eat it or go hungry. That is the reality.
Standing in line for lunch it was obvious to the people around us that we were not experiencing homelessness. People asked us why we were there, and many of us struggled to answer. Some of us answered stating that we were here for “A Day in the Life;” this prompted a response that made us think. “A day in the life of what” one woman said, “your community.” Feeling embarrassed that we were so insensitive this ended many of our conversations with the people we were sitting next to at the long lunch tables. However, some of us answered differently, responding that we are students here to learn and that prompted an entirely different response from people. People seemed to open up, and began to tell us their stories. Words that uphold the dignity of a person creates a sense of mutual respect between two people. We must remember that people experiencing homelessness are first and foremost members of our communities, not separate from us.
During our debrief later that day my classmates and I brought up just how tired we felt mentally and physically, a parallel that we connected to the experiences of many people experiencing homelessness. If you do not have a home to return to and your feet are your main mode of transportation, the reality of an aching back and feet is unavoidable. My classmates and I further wrestled with the ethics of being a part of a program like “A Day in the Life” and “touring” the lives of people in our communities who are experiencing homelessness. We wanted to learn about the realities of homelessness and what resources are available for people experiencing homelessness, but we felt as if the process of walking us through these spaces put the people there on display—Look! Come look at the homeless people!
I am still wrestling with this idea within myself, but I think if a person goes into an experience such as “A Day in the Life” with the mindset that I am here to learn, and that I am here to uphold the dignity of people experiencing homelessness while learning that maybe it is acceptable. In order to do this I think we must be intentional in describing what we are doing in the meal center or the opportunity center. We are here to learn. We must be purposeful in asking questions, and if a person who is using the space opens up a conversation with us, we need to ask them what their opinion is on the affordable housing crisis in Minneapolis and what they think are the causes of homelessness. In order to not be tourists simply looking through the glass of the zoo enclosure we must recognize the voice of the person whose space we are invading and also the intelligence within that person. People experiencing homelessness are the best teachers of the realities of homelessness.