The Paw Print
Trying to understand poverty solely through numbers is like looking at baseball purely through statistics. The fact that Ty Cobb had a career batting average of .366 just can’t say as much as the famous picture of him on the ground in a cloud of dust: spikes in the air, teeth gritted, stealing third. Even more crucial to understanding baseball is the feel of a ball on a bat or the smell of a well-seasoned leather mitt. Or the smell of outfield grass or infield dust. These things will never be conveyed in writing or numbers, they have to be experienced. In the same way, it’s only when we close our books and actively engage the poor that we can actually begin the complex process of understanding poverty.
As a member of an academic community you are lucky enough to live in a setting where curiosity, inquiry, and exploration are encouraged almost without bounds. Please enjoy this and take advantage of it while it lasts; along with my friends and Chapel Hill in the springtime, this is what I miss the most about college. There will be few times in your life when you have as much access to as many resources and ideas as you do right now. My hope is that, in addition to taking full advantage of the opportunities available to you at Adams State, you’ll also come have lunch or dinner at the homeless shelter where I work. In addition to enjoying a meal that is both delicious and free, if you step outside your comfort zone you will be rewarded by learning something that statistics will never convey. The things you’ll learn from eating with the folks at La Puente are sometimes surprising and occasionally shocking or tragic, but usually they’re just interesting and funny. Eating lunch with a man who sleeps outside goes a long way toward putting some pretty important things in perspective.
At this point I want to make the vital disclaimer that if we set out to “talk to a homeless person” only for the sake of a novel experience, we run the risk of patronizing this person and in turn hurting ourselves and the person we’re talking to. It’s easy to homogenize the homeless into a big lump, but in doing so we end up taking big steps backwards. To me one of the great things about La Puente is the fact that some folks who eat there are homeless and some aren’t. Abandon your assumptions
When it comes to addressing poverty in a personal way, we tend to look at what we can do only in terms of work or donations. It seldom occurs to us that taking what seems to be the more passive approach of sitting down and talking to people can often be just as helpful. In a culture that demands constant action and tangible results, it takes a great deal of confidence to wait in a line at a homeless shelter and to have a conversation with the person sitting across the table from you. It seems counterintuitive, but I think that talking with folks might be the greatest service that you, as a college student without a whole lot of material resources to give away, can perform. Instead of standing beside another student serving dinner, you’re engaging in the deeply personal act of sharing thoughts and food with someone much different from yourself. When you approach someone that you see as drastically different from yourself as an equal, you are working towards bridging a divide that must be closed if we are ever to fully understand poverty. So before you come to volunteer, please come and eat. Lunch is at noon and dinner is at six.