The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


I was invited to Stephanie and Will’s wedding in Washington, D. C. Steph was the manager for my temp business. She was a young woman with incredible talent and she was going to marry her college sweetheart. Naturally, I accepted their invitation. I hadn’t been to Washington for many years and looked forward to doing a little sight-seeing in conjunction with attending the wedding.

The wedding was a beautiful affair. It was held in an outdoor setting and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom that Saturday. I couldn’t have been happier for the two of them. They were a wonderful couple.

My departure from Washington was scheduled for late afternoon on Sunday which allowed me plenty of time to attend services at the Church of the Advent, about a three quarter mile walk from the Marriott Hotel at which I was staying.

As I started my walk I noticed two homeless people sleeping against a building. And in the next block there were several more. And yet more on every block. Washington’s clement weather allowed them to sleep outside in relative comfort.

But I found this to be extremely disturbing. In less than a mile I had counted over twenty of these homeless people sleeping on the street – within a few minutes’ walk of both our nation’s Capitol Building and the White House.

I thought back to an experience I had more than a decade before – and the thought caused me to shudder. I had been a homeless person for a week on the streets of Chicago.

My encounter with homelessness occurred as part of a “sensitivity training.” I was trying to gain an understanding of what it was like to be someone who was less fortunate than I was. Although I was never a member (and am not now) of the “upper-crust,” I had never experienced real want. This training would correct that deficiency in my life.

The “group leader” for this training, (I was a group of one), met me in his office at two in the afternoon one Sunday. I had arranged that a friend take care of my two dogs for the week I would be absent.

I met him at his office and his instruction was that I go into the other room and change my clothes to the ones I would find there. These clothes consisted of a ragged pair of bluejeans, a torn flannel shirt and a pair of shoes. The clothes had a nasty smell to them and the shoes were about two sizes too big for my feet. As I put my hands in the jeans I felt a piece of paper in the right pocket. It was a dollar bill. That was all the money I had to spend for the next week.

The instructions for this week of training were simple. I had no friends or family on whom I could call or rely on for help. I had this dollar bill to spend as I saw fit. I had to live on the streets of Chicago for a week. I thought to myself – am I merely stupid or just insane even to consider doing this? (I was offered the opportunity by Cal, my instructor to back out). But I decided to give it a go – although unenthusiastically.

So I left Cal’s office on Michigan Avenue and entered the world as a new person – a homeless person. As it was a beautiful spring day, I walked across the street into Grant Park, trying to develop a plan for how I was going to survive.

As I sat on a park bench, the weather started to change. Clouds swept in from the west and a light sprinkle began. I moved from my spot near Buckingham Fountain and tried to find some cover under some trees – but they provided little protection from the rain as they were just beginning to bud. Nevertheless, a little protection was better than none.

Then the downpour began in earnest. I was getting thoroughly soaked. The only good that could come of this was that I hoped the rain would wash away some of the odor that was attached to my clothing. It did.

I slept in Grant Park that night – next to a clump of bushes. And when I awoke in the morning I felt a little refreshed – but very hungry. How would I spend part of my dollar? What could I buy for a dollar? And when that dollar was gone – how would I survive another six days.

I realized that I had only one option – and although it troubled me to do it – I would have to beg for spare change. And so, like the people that I see on the street today who hold up signs on the side of the road, I began asking strangers if they could spare a few cents – anything.

Some people were kind; some people gave me money just so that they could get past me without a confrontation; most just  ignored my request.

This experience helped me gain a new understanding of what real need is all about. I had settled into my routine of sleeping in Grant Park and was counting down the days until I was released from my training. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday … I was over the hump. Less than three days to go.

And then a startling realization came over me. I had only a few days to go and I could go back to being your average middle-class person. But the other homeless whom I had met along the way had no such expectation. This was their life and it was the one that they were condemned to follow for however many days were left to them.

Because of this experience and because of dad’s statement, “There but for the grace of God go you or I,” I never refuse to give money to those who are less fortunate. And I hope that this post will give you reason to do the same.



Comments on: "ON BEING HOMELESS" (4)

  1. What a wonderful sharing. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Peace, Eric

  2. Nice column. I participated in a poverty simulation a couple years ago, and it was very opening.


    • I’m sure that having gone through something similar you know whereof I speak. I forget the name of the rock song that has the line, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til you lose it.” But that is so true.


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