I had to stop by the high school in our neighbor town today, and as I approached the front door, I noticed a student sitting on the bench outside. He seemed like a nice kid, he greeted me with a “hi, how are you?” as I walked past him.
I finished my business inside the school, and left the building. He was still there. So I stopped and asked him, “What are you doing out here? Just enjoy sitting in -20 windchill?”
He replied, “I’m sitting outside all day for a class.”
Me: “For a class? You’re just sitting?”
Him: “yeah, I’m just sitting here. We’re taking turns doing it, so we can see how the homeless people feel.”
Me: “oohh kaay. Well, good luck with that.”
And, as my head exploded inside the gorgeous hat that Joy gave me (I promise, I’ve washed it), I walked away. I was in a mad hurry to get Josh’s lunch to him on time, otherwise I might have stayed and quizzed this young man further.
My head was exploding because this “exercise” he was doing is, plainly put, idiotic. His teacher is a moron if she thinks that sitting on a bench for a day is going to help kids understand homelessness.
First of all, homelessness happens for myriad reasons, and rarely is it related to sheer, unbridled laziness. Homeless people do not just sit on benches for 8 hours a day. When it’s this cold out, if they don’t have shelter, they are seeking it out, either by finding a soup kitchen or other public/church funded ‘warm spot’, or by moving to an abandoned building, even into a cardboard box.
But our young friend had none of that. He was sitting on a bench, in front of a brand-new high school, wearing a parka, snow pants, snowmobiling boots, a thermal hat and mittens. He was ready for the weather. A homeless person likely would consider himself lucky to have one of those pieces.
He was not searching for firewood to warm himself. He was not looking for food, nor was he asking me for money – either through a handout or by offering to wash my windshield.
He was not drunk or otherwise addicted, or fighting a mental health condition. He was not trying to find a job. Likely, he would return home to a nice, warm house where his mother had made a nice warm and filling dinner for him.
He was not “experiencing homelessness”, he was experiencing the job of “Wal-mart greeter.”
So how would I change the exercise to make it relevant (since I don’t have a problem with people understanding homelessness)? Take the kids on a field trip for a weekend. Do one of two exercises:
- Set up in a park. Assign the kids to set up a “homeless community”, using whatever they can find as shelter. They’d have to find their own stuff to burn for heat, and seek out their own food. I don’t know that this would work very well in a small town like ours, because there are people on every block who would open their hearts and their homes – providing everything from firewood to tents to sleeping bags, and bringing out meals and hot chocolate.
So, plan B comes to mind, one I like a whole lot better…
- Take the students to a “real” big city. A place like Chicago, or Minneapolis, which are 4-6 hours from here. Take those kids to a homeless shelter and allow them to volunteer for the weekend, serving in the soup line, or cleaning linens. Actually talk with those people who come through for a meal and a warm place to sleep. Find out how they ended up there, and what they actually go through on a daily basis. How do they survive when it’s so bitterly cold out, or when the temps are excruciatingly hot? Do they see a way out? What are they doing to improve their situation? Or are they like the “hobos” of old, riding the rails, as it were, and enjoying their life “on the outside”?
But don’t just plop your backside on a bench for a couple of hours and say you know how they feel. That’s like putting on a sleep mask and taking your dog for a walk around the block, and saying that you know all about being blind.