Changing views on homelessness

By United Way of King County, on April 8, 2015 | In Fighting Homelessness

Will Ross United Way VISTAVolunteer Program Coordinator for Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, Will Ross, is tasked with helping improve access to housing, education, and employment for homeless and at-risk youth and young adults. Read on for impressions from his first day on the job.

Walking to work my first morning on Capitol Hill to work as a VISTA would change my perceptions in ways I could not have predicted.

I saw a very select group of Seattle’s homeless, they were all male, all young and all of the same race. Those who were waking up were very attentive to their surroundings, those who were still asleep looked angelic. Their complexion, eye and hair color were no different than the majority of housed young men I saw walking on the hill that morning.

I could not help but to reflect on their commonality—their origin from the same or similar communities. They all could have been brothers. But there were differences that at first I did not initially understand, like the housed men seemed oblivious or indifferent to their surroundings most fixated on their handheld devices.

It was only the homeless that looked in my direction—at my eyes. Sometimes offering a smile, always acknowledging my presence. When I came close to work a young man with multi-colored hair looked at me, smiled and said hello. He was the only person who did all that. I would see him later that day at my agency. I thanked him for his warm greeting and told him how important that was to me.  I knew at that moment deciding to be a Vista would change the way I see the world in ways I had not anticipated.

I have been reflecting on that first morning about-

  • How I and others interact with the homeless?
  • How do the homeless view those of us who are housed?
  • What does it mean for me as the person recruiting and managing volunteers who will work closely with the homeless.

I have recruited a volunteer to help serve lunch one day a week. He had been homeless until recently and I understand his need to feel that he is making a contribution to this world. He told me his stories of feeling isolated and about how days would go by when not a soul would speak to him or look in his direction. How he was living a life of constantly looking over his shoulder for potential threats. A life of not knowing who to trust on the streets.

Maybe that was the reason the young homeless men I saw that first day were quick to look in my direction as we each shared a moment of acknowledging the humanity of the other. Maybe that’s why they were so aware of their surroundings—the need to always be vigilant when you live on the streets.

These are the things I will need to teach my volunteers. One of my biggest challenges will be to find volunteers who comprehend their own privilege, who can avoid the savior mentality and see the intense humanity and strength of the homeless. It is also one of the challenges I must also face myself.

I hope that my greatest contribution will be that I and the volunteers I recruit will reaffirm the humanity and dignity of each homeless person we encounter.

Will has only been a VISTA with United Way since February but his grasp on how important it is that we do all we can to help our homeless neighbors is vital. Learn more about what we are doing to help and what you can do.


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