This 'backstory' is the second of three you will find about the experience of going to homeless camps and the mental and emotional effects this had on the writers. The words come from Amy, Larissa and Dawn who joined me as we filmed three different locations and met the wonderful people who call these camps 'home'. We now consider them as our homeless friends.
(Introduction by Randy Bacon)
The day finally arrived. The day I would visit my first homeless camp. As a production assistant on a film crew creating a short film of our homeless neighbors, a potluck of emotions were brewing as we approached the entrance of the first camp. Feelings of excitement, nervousness, scared, sadness, being humbled, and happy… Happy? Why would I be 'happy' to visit a camp of homeless people? To see their sadness and misfortune? I was happy that these people trusted us to come into their space. Their space that is typically private and secret to those on the outside. They let us come in. I walked into their neighborhood as a stranger and walked away with new friends.
I saw ultimate survival mode. Doing whatever it takes to make it through one more night. I am not sure I can formulate the words to describe what I saw and felt.
Jakki emerged from her tent to talk with Randy (filmmaker and co-founder of 7 Billion Ones). When I saw her, I didn't initially recognize her. Jakki's story and portrait are actually part of the exhibit, 'The Road I Call Home, and I have gazed upon her photograph that Randy took and hangs in his gallery. On this day, however, she looked like a coal miner. Why? Why are her hands and face as black as a coal miner coming up from the mine shaft? She is using warming candles and burning cardboard in her tent to stay warm. If her skin is covered with soot, what damage is she doing internally? She is coughing, congested and sick. She has no medicine to relieve her headache and help her sleep. She is hungry, hasn't had substance in a few days. She wants a cheeseburger, Randy promises her one that night. She can't remember her last cheeseburger. She just wants to take a shower. A shower to clean her skin of the black soot.
She appears broken, with no hope for her future. This is not the Jakki that is on display at the gallery. I walked away from Jakki's area of camp not able to comprehend what I just saw and heard. When I need medicine, food or medical care, I just go. When I feel dirty, I go take a shower without a second thought. Maybe 2 or 3 in a day. It never crosses my mind that these luxuries are just that… luxuries. Most of us just go and do or get whatever we want or need without second thoughts.
Next stop is D… what can I say about D??? At first I was leery… BUT WOW… he was funny, conversationalist, smiling, finding the positives in his current situation and making me laugh. He searches for quartz, rocks and gems as a challenge and to help pass the time. I loved that he spent so much time sharing those adventures with us. It was time to wrap up here and go to another camp. It was so hard to end this conversation with him. But as we did, D shared a rock with each of us - an unlikely I am truly thankful for that rock… I purposely left it in my coat pocket as a constant reminder.
Every time I feel that rock in my pocket, I will be reminded to be kind, giving, compassionate, accepting and show love towards others. Just as we were shown by those who were less fortunate . While D is in a less than optimal situation, he was generous and kind by sharing those rocks with each of us. I will also be reminded of their strength and drive to survive. I will be reminded to appreciate all that I have and not take it for granted. Yes, that rock cost zero dollars, but truly one of the best gifts I have ever received.
After leaving this community camp, Michael invited us to his camp. He doesn't live in a community camp. He lives 'on his own' and prefers it that way. He has been in this location for 2 years and 9 months. Apparently, that is a long time to be in one location. I was impressed with his location, the tidiness of it and the fact that he knows how high the water can get when it rains. His tent is setup to allow for rising waters AND he has stepping stones so that his feet do not get drenched while entering his tent. The thought that they have to put into EVERYTHING they do is amazing. Again, the things that we would not even consider, they are so many steps ahead. So much strategy and forward thinking to survive the elements and unfortunately, to survive people.
Ursula and David are Michael's neighbors several yards away. Their camp was similar to the first camp in regards to the 'stuff' laying around. Everyone else's leftovers. They are alone in this camp and trying to clean it up. They are a young couple… too young to be homeless. They showed us how their tent does not zip completely. Which explained the excess of tarps covering it. The naïve person I am would think that is okay and keeps them protected. No… on cold nights, ice crystals form on their blankets. Big deal right? Once those thaw, the blankets become wet and useless the next night if they aren't able to dry them out. God, once again, showed me that I take so much for granted.
I still haven't fully processed what I saw and the stirrings inside of me. I did walk away from these camps a much different person than when I entered. Selfishly, my homeless friends are helping me in my own personal life in ways that continue to unfold. By meeting and getting to know these individuals and really hearing their stories, it is helping me to look at life with fresh, more loving eyes for all people. I will make sure that each person I meet and haven't met yet, know just how special they are. Even in their darkest hours. We all deserve that… no one wants to be defined by their worst moments.
As I finish writing thoughts about my first visit to a homeless camp, I am still holding that small, black rock that D gave me. To many it may mean nothing, but to me it is almost priceless. I am so thankful for the rock that D gave me. Maybe we should all carry a rock as a reminder that kindness will cost you nothing.