Learning from Unlikely Sources

Story By: Iesha Mendez

When I was a child, I was always interested in helping the homeless. I was fascinated by their stories. I wanted to find out what happened that made people become homeless. But I never got close enough. I was always warned to stay far away from the “bums”, so I never got the chance to be involved with it.

For some reason, I had thought that the life in the tents would be interesting and carefree.  I always imagine nice, well arranged furniture in the tents and people whose lives were normal, except of course for living in the tents.

When I finally got my chance as a reporter, I was nervous. Driving to Tent City was not as nerve-wrecking as walking through it. Instantly, a feeling of heaviness came over me. What first caught my eye were the tents. Of course, they were not as I had pictured. Some tents were make-shift and others that looked fairly new were lined up against the wall under the freeway. There were also a few people lying out on the concrete with no blankets.

I could see the devastation and emptiness in the eyes of most I dared to look at. I tried to remind myself – YOU’RE HERE AS A REPORTER.  YOU MUST STAY DISTANT. YOU CANNOT GET INVOLVED.

As much as I tried, I could see the hardships and stories — stories I hoped to unveil. However, I could not look into their eyes for too long; with most, I felt as though I was trespassing. I felt as though I were taking away what little they had left.

The whole time I was there, all I could do was think of ways that I could help these people, so it was hard for me to focus on the story when all I could see were people who were consumed, trapped and defined by this affliction.

When the day ended and I went home, I felt guilty and selfish in a way. I had a place to come home to. Just spending those few hours walking through and meeting different people made me realize that, though I may not have as much as everyone else, I have a place to call home where I can shower, eat, be warm, be safe, and sleep. I knew that although I struggle to make ends meet, my issues were nothing compared to their plight.

I enjoyed meeting the people in Tent City – and I say ‘meeting’ so formally because for me, I needed to know them on a personal level before asking such intrusive questions as to why they were homeless. There were two individuals who struck me the most: Samuel and Otis. They are very intelligent men with so much to say. I admired their perspectives, not just the situation they were in, but about the world in general.

Most people who think the homeless are unintelligent have never interacted with them. In the time I got to spend with them, I found that they had more to say than anyone else. Writing this and remembering the wonderful conversation I had with Samuel and Otis makes me want to go back to Tent City. They weren’t just research material; they shared heart-wrenching stories with me and became my friends.

I learned a lot out there. I spent 18 years of my life believing that all are homeless because of tragedies that happened in their life. But I found out that most want to be free from responsibilities and choose to be homeless. Realizing this was hard. Like many others, I would like to say homelessness is due to an event that shattered their lives, but from what I know and experienced, that is not always the case.

Dealing with this subject was challenging, but important. I read nothing but sob stories about the homeless and I felt that everything I have read until now was a lie. I don’t believe the stories told their true stories. I had to find out for myself. I had to go out myself and experience it first-hand. What I got out of this “research” was knowledge, stories I can pass on to others and most of all, the truth.

I look at the homeless now in a different light than I once had and I cherish the things I have more than I ever did. I did not expect for this story to impact me as much as it did, in the ways it did, but I am glad and better for this experience.