Short of seeing a panhandler on the way to a ball game downtown or seeing someone sleeping under a freeway overpass, most of us do not think about what it’s like to be homeless in Detroit. We hop in our cars, give a passing glance at the person standing on the corner if we are at a stoplight and then drive on … save for a few people who want to make sure you have an opportunity to truly understand what it’s like to be homeless, one street retreat at a time.
Action by Presence was started to help give people a real look at homelessness by taking them out for a night or two on the streets of Detroit. There are no cell phones or comfy pillows allowed. This is not your typical view of Detroit.
Stewart Smith, treasurer for Action by Presence muses, “This is not intended to be a tour of the city. We experience what the homeless experience.”
That experience begins when you sign up for a retreat. The cost to participate is $250 … no checks allowed. You have to ask family and friends for the funds to participate. Learning to beg is something the homeless do on a regular basis, so Executive Director Jeanie Murphy O’Connor says even this beginning helps make the experience more real.
“A lot of people have a problem with asking, that practice is a good first experience,” she says. “In fact, the most powerful moment on my first retreat was having to beg and being ignored.”
While they avoid staying in shelters on the retreats so they don’t limit access to people who are truly homeless, participants do use soup kitchen and other homeless outreach services. Half the money raised goes back to the organizations used during the retreats.
During the retreat everyone participates in a meditation and sharing circle twice a day. This helps address issues and emotions that come up during the experience. They also travel as a group. While many homeless people roam alone, the retreat participants travel as a group in order to ensure their safety. This also gives them a strong sense of community, especially after spending a few days being vigilant for your group.
Curious to find out a little more about the organization I checked out the website further and found a reflections button. Here participants can reflect on their experience. Here’s what Mike Horlocker had to say. Mike had been told to keep it simple, keep it real and live in the moment.
“I understand that now. Living in the moment is letting go of the past and not worrying about the future. It is literally living in the present. This sounds very cliché, I know. But there is more to it. Living in the moment is when we allow ourselves to look beyond our small selves. It is a self-awareness that allows us to bear witness to the things that are going on around us.
“For me, living in the moment that weekend consisted of laughing with my new friends while watching a couple of pigeons try to hop up a flight of stairs; watching the freighters move down the river; enjoying the spring flowers on the trees; taking a nap at Cass Park; the excitement of panhandling enough money to buy a bus ticket on our last evening; the joy of running into a familiar face at the Cass Café; embracing the holiness of being caught in a rain storm; the wonder of God’s creation; breaking down barriers and stereotypes that separate me from them; the uncertainty of my own acceptance while eating at the soup kitchens; forcing myself to eat everything on my plate; the companionship of friends who also could not sleep at night; the fear of the darkness; the outpouring of love from my family upon my safe return; longing to be back on the streets of Detroit.”
All participants leave the retreat with a similar experience and many different thoughts about the impact of the retreat. “This is an opportunity for people to step out of their usual surroundings,” O’Connor says. “It takes great courage to step out of the familiar. There is a lot to learn from taking those risks.”
Smith is just as philosophical while talking about the dichotomy of gentrification and how it effects perceptions of homelessness.
“What impressed me was that the retreat wasn’t geared on improving the lives of the poor or removing the undesirables. It allowed me to learn how homelessness impacts me in my middle-class community. This experience allows for personal reflections as well as reflections on society,” he says.
The organization currently produces a weekly community meal with hopes to expand that to every night of the year. They also work with homeless people who are motivated to get off the street and change their life circumstances. Among the dreams is to find a space for a drop-in community center for the homeless. Most importantly, they hope to keep changing the minds of the community.
“I hope we would be able to get the major decision makers out on a retreat to have them experience this,” said Smith. “Then I hope they let the experience start influencing their decisions in their communities.”
Do you have the courage to go?