When I was in
Africa this summer, it seemed that no matter which way I turned, poverty was everywhere. This feeling only intensified as I made my way through the “streets” of one of the largest slums in
Africa, Kibera. I distinctly remember walking through Kibera and feeling extremely uncomfortable, not necessarily because of the extreme poverty surrounding me, or because I was in a foreign space, but because I felt like I was on display. I, a white American English speaking educated upper-middle class female, was the exception in that environment not because I chose to be any of those things, but because I inherited my status, class, and privilege. Everywhere I walked people stopped what they were doing and looked at me. Little children paused their play and stared at me with curiosity. I’m sure my skin color immediately drew their attention, but there were other things that also set me apart. For instance, I tried not to make it too obvious that I was carefully maneuvering each of my steps so as not to dirty my expensive Asics sneakers in the mud and sewage, but I’m sure onlookers noticed. The Kenyans didn’t seem to care where they placed their feet as they walked barefoot through the alleys, or had sandals on that hardly seemed to serve a purpose as they trod through the muck. My clean hair was tied neatly back in a ponytail indicating that I not only had access to a shower and clean water, but to a mirror as well. My clothes were clean, my appropriate size, and even matched, indicating that I had the privilege to choose and construct my own appearance. There was no hiding or disguising my privilege, and I felt ashamed and exposed in that moment not because of my inherited privilege, but because I never paid attention to the signs of my own privilege until I realized that everyone surrounding me was taking notice of them.
That feeling of being the outsider, of being in a neighborhood where you feel you don’t belong, is how I expect many of the homeless people feel that I work with here in downtown
Portland. Sisters is located just one block away from the Pearl District (I think you can gather what that part of town is like just by its name). This means that there are often woman clacking by on their high heels, men strolling by with leather briefcases, people casually chatting on their cell phones with a holiday red Starbucks cup in their other hand. They don’t realize that as soon as they throw away their coffee, a homeless person will dig it out of the trash and bring it into Sisters so they can take some coffee to go for only 25 cents. I don’t say this to make people feel guilty for having these privileges. Heck I kind of miss wearing high heels and the clicking sound they make on the floor, and I definitely miss buying my Starbucks grande skim toffee nut latte (no whip). But when you live in a society where these signs of privilege are the norm, you often forget, or even worse, never realize just how privileged you are.
But to the exception, to the homeless person living on the streets, they are constantly reminded and can painfully never forget the position they’re in. Their lives are constantly on display because unlike the majority of people in the city, they have no space to call their own. I walk by the same people every morning, sleeping in doorways while the world watches as they pass by. I try not to look at them because when I do I feel like I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to, that I’m somehow invading their privacy and space when they ironically have none. There is simply not enough affordable housing. There are also not enough spaces to shower so the homeless go days without washing their hair or their face. There are no spaces for them to prepare their own meals so they are at the mercy of the soup kitchens, missions, and Sisters to provide good and nutritious meals. There are no spaces to go to the bathroom overnight so many homeless people resort to wearing Depends rather than risk being arrested for urinating in public. There are hardly any secure spaces for them to leave their belongings so they are forced to carry every possession they own with them wherever they go…including inside public bathrooms, inside soup kitchens, along the sidewalk, to interviews, to appointments, etc. There is no privacy, no space to go and be alone, no space to go and be quiet.
Being reminded almost everyday that not everyone has the privilege of private space, I now have a deep sense of gratitude for the spaces in my life….space to lie my head down, space to take a warm shower, space to have an intimate and vulnerable conversation, space to hang out and laugh with my community, space to cook meal, space to put my stuff down at the end of the day, and to be perfectly honest, even space to be naked. Yet what I am even more thankful for is that exposing moment in Kibera that gave me a profound awareness of the privileges in my life that I never took notice of before. That transformational moment continues to feed my passion to work with the people suffering from the injustices perpetuated by our societal system. I share this with you KC because I feel that this moment should be yours just as much as it is mine.
I will be home the week of Christmas and will be at KC on the 23rd. I look forward to seeing you all very very soon.