This year I have decided to experience what it’s like to live as other people do. Although my short experience living as others do will be tiny in comparison to the hard lives other people live each and every day, I hope that my experiences can be tiny samples of the lives of others. Each month I will walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and feel what it’s like to live like they do.
On Sunday, Oct. 6 at 11:35 a.m. I stepped out of my car in the Rockridge BART station parking lot and onto the streets; it was time to experience homelessness firsthand.
Ever since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated with homeless people. There are so many questions that surround their lives. What do they eat? Where do they live? And what is it truly like to live on the streets? I hoped maybe some of these questions would be answered if I put myself into their shoes.
I casually walked from the back of the lot towards the part of College Avenue that passes under the BART tracks. Coincidentally, it was the Rockridge “Out & About” Street Festival and College Ave. was closed off around BART, creating a plaza packed with people.
The first moments were the most intense. I stared out from under my gray hoodie at the throngs of people passing by. People were already noticing me. I sat down against a gray pillar supporting the BART station and set up my stuff. Out came the sign, the money cup, and the blanket.
As soon as I sat down and established myself as a part of the street I could already feel that people’s attitudes towards me had dramatically changed. I was no longer a human being. I had become a flea, a street rat, an incessant fly that wouldn’t go away, all by pulling out a sign pleading for help. My little spot on the pavement had become a separate dimension, one protected by a magical bubble which no one dared come close enough to pop.
Reactions were varied. There were people who awkwardly looked away as they passed by me. Others hurriedly glanced at me and quickly threw a half smile in my direction. Some people even chose to cross the street before they could get to me.
Little kids usually interacted with me differently. They would stare intently at me and then hurry to catch up to their parents who had already passed by, asking “Mommy, mommy, what is that guy doing?”
About half an hour in I received some charity from an older woman. She walked over and dropped a dollar bill into my cup that was erected in front of me and said, “Hey sweetheart.” It ended up being the only money I would receive. One dollar in an hour.
In some ways, getting money actually negatively affected me. It made me finally realize how pathetic I was, wearing my beat up clothes and begging for money on a street in Oakland. The psychological impact of doing this day after day for hours at a time must be enormous. Faced with incredible loneliness and absolute patheticness, homeless people must make something out of their situation. Unfortunately this tends to cause rampant alcohol and drug use among the homeless population.
An hour after I first sat down the cop arrived. He approached me and calmly commented on what a nice day it was. Then he asked me if I had any identification. Does he expect homeless people to have ID? It seemed a little naive to me. Finally he told me I had to leave and that I couldn’t stay in Rockridge. I wonder where he wanted me to go.