Earlier this week, I gave a presentation to a group of teachers on a Personal Development day. There were 16 of them, and one of them was late. We sat in the boardroom chatting while we waited. One woman's cellphone rang. It was the missing teacher.
"Come to the building and ring the buzzer," the teacher who answered the phone said. "That way you won't have to park across the street in the parking lot and walk to the building alone." And she went on to give precise instructions on what to do and where to go.
Now, that walk across the street from the parking lot is in full view of the building. It is monitored by cameras. It consists of walking out the gate of the parking lot, ten feet to the roadway, crossing the road, and walking through the gates to our building and up the 50 feet of driveway to the front doors. Staff and volunteers do it every day. We have never had an incident of a staff or volunteer being accosted on that short walk.
I was curious. "What is it you fear might happen to her if she walks from the parking lot to the building?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm not really afraid," she replied with a smile. "It's just scary to walk across the street by yourself down there."
"And what makes it so scary?" I probed.
"Well," and she hesitated. "Look at the people around. Who knows what might happen?"
"What do you fear might happen?" I asked again.
She replied that old stand-by, "I don't know."
Most times, we do know. We're just afraid of saying, or facing the truth.I know what this woman feared. She feared her friend might be raped or or knifed or murdered crossing the street to the shelter. She feared her friend would feel fear crossing the street. Whether or not the fear is real, the feeling of it is scary. I asked her if that was the case.
"Well.... It's possible." she replied.
"Absolutely," I agreed. "But can we talk about what is the fear you're feeling in this instance? It is ultimately, part of what my presentation is all about."
The woman graciously agreed.
"Who are these people you fear?" I asked the group.
Several people spoke up and said, "But I don't fear them."
I disagreed (politely). "You walked to the building in a group and when one member came alone, you made sure she didn't have to walk across the street alone. I remember the first day I walked into the building for an interview. I was terrified. I stood in the lobby and wondered what on earth am I doing here. This is a scary place."
"Oh, I'm not scared being in the building," the woman with the cellphone said. "I just don't like walking into it."
"The people inside are the same people who are outside," I replied. "What's the difference?"
"Well, there's no staff out there. Anything could happen."
"Yes. Anything can happen. Who and what are you to trust? Your instincts or your fear of the unknown?" I looked around the group. "And what I want to do today is challenge your thinking so that we can dispel your fear of the unknown. Who are the homeless?" I asked.
The words came out. Addicts. Mentally challenged. Runaways. Working poor.
"Those are all labels," I replied. "The labels help us make sense of something we don't understand. The labels help us separate from who 'those people' on the street are, and ourselves. They help us maintain our difference. But, if we peel away the labels, what do we have? We have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, next door neighbours, the old guy down the street who spent his life savings caring for his wife and lost his home. Peel away the labels and we have everyday people lost on the road of life."
On that morning, I trusted myself to ask tough questions of a group of people who came into the shelter to learn about something they didn't understand. To do that, I had to ask them to question their fears, to confront them and to step into them.That woman was afraid of having her friend cross the street, not because of the people, but rather, because of her fears of the unknown.
Now -- I don't think it's a good idea to walk in this neighbourhood after dark. And I do acknowledge if you've never been in the Drop-In before, coming here can be scary. But, to let fear limit learning, to let it keep you from walking across the street -- that is fearful.
I believe it's important to be vigilant. But, to fear 'simply because', is not healthy. We expend too much energy fighting the unknown and lose our ability to recognize when our intuition kicks in warning us of people and circumstances we need to fear.
On that morning, 16 people walked away with an understanding of what they fear. As I told them at the end, "What separates us and people who are homeless is an address. What we share is fear. We fear them. We fear what has happened to their lives. We fear the street. We fear what it is that takes human beings so far from home. And we fear that it could happen to us too."
Heads nodded around the room.
I continued. "They fear the street too. Fear is the predominant emotion on the street. Fear is real. It's up to us to stay real with our fears and not give into our imagination's desire to drive us into fear when we are safe."
For those who are homeless, our fear of them surrounds us every time we meet on the street. It breathes into and out of our pores. In our fear, we lose the ability to understand, to hear what they're saying, to look at them through different eyes.
Being homeless is not a game. It's not a cakewalk. It can be deadly -- not for you and me crossing the street, but rather, for those whose lives are eroded day by day by the fear that permeates their lives every day on the streets they walk.