By Theresa Wells
Last year, for one night, I slept on a park bench. It is an experience I recall very clearly, particularly some moments around 3 am when the entire world seemed cold, and dark, and hopeless. I felt very alone, despite being surrounded by friends who slept around me on the ground, huddle in their sleeping bags. For a couple of minutes, stark and scary minutes, I think I came close to knowing what it feels like to be homeless. And this year I will do it again.
I am taking part in the second annual “Hope in the Dark” event, hosted by The Centre of Hope, our local downtown drop-in shelter for the homeless in our community. This event is designed to raise awareness of homelessness by allowing people to experience it for one night, in the hope that they will better understand what homeless individuals face every night. And while one night sleeping in a park cannot truly be compared to homelessness I think it is a way to being to gain some understanding of what being homeless means.
It was certainly a learning experience for me last year, and the things I learned have stayed with me, too. This year I know some things I didn’t know last year – like why you don’t drink coffee late at night if it means you’ll have to get up at 3 am and find a bathroom in the dark and cold. I learned that one would quickly begin to rely heavily on friends, and that those friends would quickly become family, because being alone at night outdoors is scary. And I learned that the streets must be a harsh place if you have addictions or health issues, because the streets are a tough place even when you don’t have those problems. If you do it must seem virtually impossible – and hopeless.
And that’s where The Centre of Hope comes in. It’s right there, in their name: “hope”. Yes, they hand out socks to the homeless, and they feed them oatmeal in the morning. They do something else, though. They hand out hope, and they feed it into their patrons. The let their patrons know that no matter their problems, no matter the challenges, and no matter who they are that there is hope. The world is not a scary and hopeless place. The world is a place of hope.
This year my experience at Hope in the Dark will be a little different, as this year my daughter will join me. She is thirteen, and she and I often discuss issues like homelessness. It hurts me to think that I have met young women living on the streets in our community who are just a couple of years older than her. I have listened to their stories, their eyes wary and slightly distrusting. They have every reason to be wary, as life on the streets is not kind, and is particularly harsh, I think, for vulnerable young women. Their lives are so different from my daughter’s, and yet they are so similar in the ways that really matter. My daughter has insisted on joining me and so this year her sleeping bag will be close to mine, within arm’s reach or perhaps at the other end of my cold steel bench. I do not know how she will feel about all this the day after, when we pack up and go home – but I know we will be talking about homelessness, and home, and hope.
One of the things I have taught my daughter is about hope. I believe I have shown her that there is good in this world, and that hope is contagious. I think I have managed to teach her that we can share our hope with others, and that by doing so we can change their lives. And I think I have shown her that some experiences can change our lives, too, experiences like sleeping outside overnight on a cold park bench.
By the time you read this piece I will have slept on that bench, and my daughter will have experienced a night of homelessness. As you read this I suspect the way my daughter views the world might have changed, and my own understanding of it will likely have altered yet again. I will have experienced that feeling you get at three in the morning when you are cold, and scared, and alone. I will not truly understand what it is like to be homeless, but I will have had a brief glimpse of that life. And I expect that once again I will find the experience shakes me to the core, just as it did last year.
Look around your home. Look at the walls that surround you. You have a home, but tonight someone in this community is asleep on a park bench, or on the ground. Someone does not have a home. You might not be able to give them a home, but you can give them hope by contributing to The Centre of Hope and similar groups, and by simply treating those homeless individuals with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings. Don’t strip them of that hope, the very hope that may sustain them – and that might, one day, lead them home. Homelessness can all too quickly become hopelessness – but we have the power to instead make sure that hope one day becomes a home. We can find hope in the dark – and we can share it with those who need it the most.