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FROM READERS: Project shatters student's stereotypes on homelessness

Thursday, September 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Megan Schultz, an MU journalism student, wrote a story about homelessness in Columbia for a reporting class. The project shattered her stereotypes of what it means to be homeless.

Megan Schultz is an MU student who left the beautiful beaches of Naples, Fla., to study broadcast journalism. She works at KOMU, is a student-athlete tutor and a community adviser for The Reserve.

Schultz was asked to write a story for a final project in her reporting class. Initially apprehensive — she lacked a car and a passion for newspaper journalism — Schultz stifled her complaints and began running up to 8 miles to interviews. The experience ended up shattering her previously held stereotypes on homelessness. This essay is a reflection on the experience.

It was a Tuesday morning — not too hot, not too cold, a perfect day for running … and for an interview, I suppose. I tied up my shoes, cranked up my iPod, and secured my backpack, filled with pens, notebooks, and a tape recorder. I ran to my destination, the Interfaith Day Center. The shelter was much smaller than I had anticipated; I even had a little trouble finding it.

Once I spotted this one-room day shelter, I opened the door while gasping for air. The room was quaint — also smaller than I had expected. There were two shanty picnic tables taking up most of the space. Two men were sitting at the table staring into space. Deep breath. They can’t hurt you in a shelter, I thought.

“Uh, hi. I’m looking for Mr. Yeager.”

“He’s over there preparing dinner.”

“Ok. Er. Thanks. Can I sit here?”

The man smiled and nodded slightly. I sat down, staring across from a long-bearded old man with deep-sunken eyes and yellowed teeth.

“The name’s Leo.”

“Hi, Leo.” My voice trembled a little. “I’m Megan.”

Leo told me his story — a story of success, love, letdown, and brokenness, a story that could describe any of us. He was a Pittsburgh native but came to Columbia after the company he had been working for let go a mass of its employees. The reason he came to Columbia was for family and the reason he stayed was because of family — or, rather, lack of family. His family wouldn’t take him in. They didn’t have enough space or money to provide for an unemployed man, related or not.

And so he took to the streets, trying to find a job — anything that would provide a source of income. But nothing ever came up. As more and more time went on, his prospects of getting hired were less and less. He was out of the workforce for months, and then years. No one would hire him now, and he couldn’t move anywhere else to look for a job. He couldn’t afford food; how could he afford a bus ticket?

“Are you Megan?” I jumped, breaking my trance and remembering I was here for an interview with the director of the center.

I spoke to Mr. Yeager for what seemed like hours. He told me countless stories of individuals that, to put it simply, were just unlucky. Mr. Yeager told me that most Americans view homelessness as a choice. But in reality, the main cause of homelessness is actually mental illness, which then causes substance abuse, which then causes a lack of housing resources.

Thus, to combat homelessness, society must first provide resources to assist those with mental illnesses. Society must treat the cause to treat the problem. I never thought of it like that. He also said most people think the average homeless person is a white, middle-aged, dirty man with a dog and no relatives. The truth, however, is the typical homeless person is a female with children.

It seemed like he was taking a hammer and to the massive glass mirror of stereotypes I made about the homeless population. Crack. Crack. Crack.

Every word he said sent a jagged piece of glass to the floor. At the end of our conversation, I felt as broken as the mirror — my stereotypical thoughts were shattered, my pride was shattered, and most importantly, my heart was shattered.

“Feel free to hang around and chat with any of the guys here,” Mr. Yeager told me.

“Will do.” We shook hands.

“And thanks again. You opened my eyes more than you know.”

He smiled. “Yeah, that usually happens here.”

“Is there anything else you’d like me to include in this story?” It was a question I had been trained to ask.

Mr. Yeager was genuine in his answer: “Just please remember that everyone is an individual. They are not homeless first. They are people first. Everyone has a name.”

Everyone has a name.

I went outside still tripping over the glass from my broken mirror.

That’s when I met Jack. He invited me to sit on “his bench” — the only item he had to call his own. He didn’t have a home. He didn’t have a bed. He didn’t even have blankets. He had this bench, a bench I would have normally walked past, thankful I didn’t have to sit on that stained, old, splintery seat.

Jack had a similar story to Leo in that it was truly a series of unfortunate events. He was mentally ill, not able to afford medicine. His sickness landed him on the streets, and he had no family to run to. But he had his bench, and he was proud of it.

His authenticity made me smile. I asked a (perhaps silly) question I had been wanting to know, being from Florida, yet was too embarrassed to ask earlier with the other guys. Maybe it was his smile. Maybe it was his eagerness to pour out his heart to a silly college freshman. Or maybe it was simply his belly laugh. But something in me knew Jack wouldn’t mind.

“Jack?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do when it’s cold outside here in Missouri? Where do you sleep? Where do you go? What do you do?”

I was thinking of my own selfish habits and how, if the heat wasn’t blasted in my cozy apartment, I would complain terribly.

“If it’s cold, we suffer.”

And that was it. It was at simple as that. Suffering to him was sleeping outside on the cold pavement in nothing but a sweatshirt, pants and a thin blanket. Suffering to me was not having one extra blanket in a home heated to 75 degrees, with two comforters bundled around my body and fleece pants.

Yet, why did I seem to complain more than he did?

After talking to Jack, I prepared to leave. Just as I did in the morning, I tied up my shoes, turned on my iPod, and secured my backpack. But, I didn’t let out a groan … not this time. You see, I was running home — I was running to a warm shower, food, a bed, and most importantly, friends who cared about me.

Tonight, the homeless people in Columbia weren’t. They were walking farther than I was even running to a concrete floor, a small amount of food, and, if they are lucky, a thin piece of sheet to shield their body from the wind chill. I had a new pair of running shoes and an iPod to comfort my run. They didn’t.

And yet I was the one who, up until this very moment, was complaining about not having a car. They weren’t even thinking about a car; they were thinking about food and shelter.

And so I was wrong. At the beginning of this project, I thought homelessness didn’t affect me. I thought it was their fault they were homeless. But, the homeless population does affect me. It affects everyone. We have all had unfortunate and unfair situations happen to us. But their stories just took these moments in the valley a step further. I have been blessed; the men, women and children of the homeless population perhaps weren’t so lucky. I have a family I could run to, unlike Leo. I have a bed, unlike Jack, who just had a bench to call his own.

This wasn’t about a grade. My sought-after A was insignificant to me after this story. What mattered was what I learned.

You see, I learned it is the responsibility of those of us who have had a “break” in life to help those who maybe weren’t so lucky. It is, at the very least, our duty not to judge. It is certainly our duty to break down our own glass mirrors we have wrongfully and selfishly constructed. But, most importantly, it is our duty to give other people a chance to explain their life stories because they may not be that different from our own after all.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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