One night last January, I went with a friend to sleep on the street, to try to understand a little better what it might be like not to have a bed to go home to. I had been thinking more and more about what it must feel like to be a homeless person, rather than a volunteer, as I have been, in programs for people without homes.
In 1978, a friend who was working in the women's night shelter at Luther Place Church began inviting me, with more and more insistence, to come help for a night. "I don't want to!" I said. But at last I went. I was devastated to see women who actually lived on the street, and even more devastated to meet and talk with some of them.
Until that point, I had always assumed that people on the street were simply unable to "make it." But I soon learned that the histories of some of the women were not so different from mine or from those of people I knew. There was a European woman who years ago came to the United States as a bride; after years of being a housewife in an abusive marriage, she left her husband, with no money, no work experience, not knowing where to go. There was a woman retired from the government, living on a pension too small to pay for necessities; she had no relatives to live with. There was a young woman who reminded me too much of one of the teen-agers I worked with at Red Cross in a youth service program; she had dropped out of school, had a child and somehow dropped out of whatever support system might have helped her.
There were other women, of course, who were recently out of St. Elizabeths Hospital. Even so, I began to look at homeless people a little differently.
I have a friend who reaches out easily to people. She too had worked in shelters. But she had gone a step further, stopping to talk to people on the street, and several times staying overnight there herself, alone or with others.
I'm not always brave. Sally's invitations to stay on the street for a night always made me draw back. But during Christmas last year, a time of so much warmth, I could not forget those people with no warm place to be. So, on a Sunday night in January, when the ground was covered with ice-packed snow, I called Sally. "I think I want to try it tonight," I said, hoping that she had other plans. She was at my house in an hour. "Wear long underwear and bring a blanket," she advised. Sally herself was wearing only a thin shawl over her other clothes.
At 10 o'clock we set out from our neighborhood near the zoo and walked down 16th Street. It was cold but fresh. As we walked, Sally talked of people she had met on the street. While many were there because of personal trauma, others were there because of a commitment to a cause, like the woman who for five years kept a vigil to protest the nuclear arms race.
A little past 11, we found a spot on a sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue, near a few sleeping forms. We sat together wrapped in my blanket, said a short prayer and tried to sleep.
It was cold, and my blanket was thin. Instead of sleeping, I watched the traffic, the darkened buildings, the sleeping people. I said another prayer: that our being there in the cold night, two more bodies, would make a difference somehow.
A few minutes before 2 a.m. -- halfway to dawn, as Sally pointed out -- we set out for coffee. We walked for several blocks. The streets were pretty that night, with almost no traffic or pedestrians. Somehow, with nothing but some change in my pocket, I felt strangely safe, protected perhaps by the cold and by Sally's companionship. I'd heard stories of women on the street being harassed and assaulted, but I did not feel in danger.
We did find coffee in a small carryout where we stood for 20 minutes by a radiator until we thawed out. Back outside we decided to look for a bathroom. We passed a couple of hotels but were too intimidated to walk in in our rumpled state. Finally we went to the Greyhound station. A posted sign said, "Restrooms for ticketed passengers only," but we tried to look ticketed and walked into the ladies' room.
Later, Sally told me that people sometimes have to resort to bushes or dark alleys.
The rest of the night went slowly, until about 5, when traffic began to increase and the first bit of light appeared. I think I did doze a little around 4, but woke soon feeling absolutely cold.
After that I just sat, thinking that I should be thinking about everyone else who was on the street and cold and would not be able to go home after this was over. But all I could really think about was the cold.
About six, we left, feeling a rush of joy to see the morning and to know we'd survived the night.
Since then, I've thought more about why people are homeless and about why people who are homeless are often invisible, or written off as just crazy or incompetent, somehow not really fully human.
I've thought that in one night you can get only a small understanding -- I'd like to find the courage to attempt two, three, five nights, without depending on someone else's being with me. Maybe I could find the courage to stay in a shelter, many of which I know are places offering warmth and human dignity to persons who are lonely and afraid. But even one night was a gift I am glad to have had. I would wish such a gift to everyone who has his own bed to sleep in.
-- Roberta Stewart