Debt of Gratitude
The new editor of Toledo Streets asked me to write about poverty and my experience with starting the street paper which changed my life. This post is the result, with the editor’s permission for a preemptive release.
Debt of Gratitude:
What Toledo Streets taught me about poverty, people & myself
I remember always being fascinated by tunnels, secret passageways, and rabbit trails in the woods. I’m curious about what’s around the bend, less because I think something fabulous is just out of view but more because the adventure of exploring something new is alluring. The thrill is in the moment – the journey itself – and not in the destination. I’ve had some amazing expeditions through the unknown, but starting and running Toledo Streets for three-plus years proved to be the richest – and strangest – of odysseys. Especially when it took me through the secret places of my being.
It was 2004 when I first started to wake up, but it took three years before I actually moved myself to get out of the bed of obliviousness I had made. Even losing my home to fire in 2006 didn’t bring me around. But when I did climb out, I jumped and landed with one foot in one organization, and the other foot in a similar group. This was about to take me for a journey I never expected. Two years later, in 2009, would have me helping launch this street paper.
It was over a year of volunteering with both 1Matters and Food For Thought that started the wheels turning. After my second Tent City, I had started to wonder about how the unhoused and others in poverty could change their circumstances. Actually meeting people who lived on the streets and in shelters was challenging my formerly simplistic ideas of who they are and how they got where they were. I was learning just how many obstacles were in the way for most of my new friends and acquaintances, how many barriers to employment existed for even the most motivated of them. I wanted answers, so I went online and made a few inquiries, a la Google search. That was how I first discovered street papers and the concept of microenterprise.
At that time, words like “social justice” and “living wage” weren’t part of my vocabulary. I was raised in a fairly conservative bubble with no concept of why some people were poor and others weren’t. The typical rhetoric I heard about poverty, despite most of my own family having been poor growing up, was to largely blame those in need for their own hardship. A die-hard belief in bootstraps shaped that worldview.
Fortunately, I was born “broken”, in comparison to my father, and certain events in my life widened what appeared to be a fault-line in who I was. I was emotionally-driven and not motivated by achievement. My dad was all about actions, and I was all about words. We didn’t “get” each other and I had a hunger for loving approval that went unsatisfied. I wrote a lot of angst-y poetry as a teen and continued it somewhat into adulthood. I resumed writing again a few years ago, this time with a bit more maturity in my contemplations. While it felt good to express myself, the poured out words still weren’t what I was looking for, and I still felt torn between my emotions and a sense of self-stagnancy.
This was the person I was in my in my early 30s, when I started volunteering. My circle of people was growing and the type of people I was around was quite different. I had changed churches not long before, because I had read through the gospels without any extra teaching and with a conscious effort to ignore what I thought I knew about the familiar stories; I found the words of Jesus refreshing, demanding, and revolutionary to how I understood my faith. He seemed to focus a lot on caring for others without caveats or attaching strings. In my new group, we talked about what real compassion and justice looked like, and then – most world-shattering of all for me – we took action.
I remember the first time I did something with my new church. It was something we called “coats, coffee and cookies”. This was when I learned that a lot of homeless people hung out at the library, and it was there we went with a trunk full of caffeine, carbs and used coats. Don Schiewer, who would later head up Food For Thought as it established itself, got mad with our small group because no one wanted to go inside and invite people out to get the goods. I was terrified to talk to strangers, and worried about approaching some person who “looked homeless” and offending them. Yeah, I had a big issue with rejection.
I’m not going to lie. It was awkward. I still thought of unhoused people as “them” mostly because I had never done anything like this before. But in the middle of the awkwardness was a lot of grace. People were genuinely grateful. There were a few hugs, and some smiles. I got to meet Aman, a dapper little man in a coat, tie and hat, who smiled widely and turned my name into an acrostic of flattery. Overall, it was good.
Despite this, it would be a couple years later, when Food For Thought was a few months old, before I would venture out to “do charity” again. At the same time, I responded to a Yahoo! Group email asking for website help for the folks who did Tent City. I met Ken Leslie, and although we were opposites in many ways, we became friends. I introduced him to Food For Thought, and we would eventually both serve on its board as it became a nonprofit.
I’ve come to recognize that poverty is more insidious than a lack of basic needs.
Still apprehensive of rejection, handing someone a lunch on Saturday mornings or working as a guide at Tent City gave me a “legitimate” reason to talk to these strangers who lived lives I could imagine but not comprehend. My church friends introduced me to new friends, who just happened to live in poverty, and I learned what the power of hearing someone’s story can do to your heart. It turned out my own brokenness, regardless of the incredible pain it had brought me, was a bridge that let me hurt for other people. Compassion was becoming more than an idea, and charity was turning into real love.
It’s been a few years now. We started Toledo Streets, and in writing about homelessness and poverty, I learned about the sheer amount of obstacles and issues that are wrapped up in leading to and keeping people in these circumstances. I’m still learning. I’ve had my heart broken by friends who struggle with drug addiction, and vendors with so much potential who just disappear. I’ve gotten angry alongside vendors with amazing work ethic but were repeatedly rejected because of their past. I’ve been frustrated by the very perspective I used to have when I hear it from others. I labor to remind myself of the path I had to take to wake up and realize not everyone has bootstraps, and there are a lot of reasons why.
I think, though, that the greatest lessons poverty had for me were about myself. I’ve seen my own pain reflected back from people I have little else in common with, and I’ve come to recognize that poverty is more insidious than a lack of basic needs. It eventually gets into your bones and infects you with the idea that you’re not worth the work it would take to improve your life. Experience has taught you the odds are stacked against you, and you’re surrounded by others with the same bleak prospects. Poverty of material goods can lead to a poverty of self, but it’s not limited to those in need of homes or jobs.
Throughout my journey with Toledo Streets, action led to relationships, and relationships led to conversations – with words, and without. Some conversations were pleasant, and some were full of conflict, and all of them were healing in some way; whether I felt I deserved the words and silence or not, I had to process them. I was in the middle of a network of relationships that was giving me a life I loved – some emotional bootstraps I desperately needed – and I couldn’t let that go by neglecting the work my heart needed. I had what I needed to pull myself up; I was getting richer all the time; my hunger was getting satisfied; I was waking up.
I was also watching what was happening to other people. Conversations at these intersections were changing people, erasing lines, meeting poverty head-on and, while not eliminating it, altering the way those who were talking saw poverty and saw themselves. You have to be pretty determined to be isolated to enter into that kind of community and not walk away transformed somehow.
I recently married – another blessing I credit to this journey I’ve described – and moved away from Toledo, which meant I had to turn over Toledo Streets to someone I felt was incredibly gifted to take it to the next step. I’m on a new adventure, but I miss my community, all the friends who changed my life. Yet I know what they gave is with me now: An understanding that poverty, no matter how subtle or obvious or widespread or deep it appears, isn’t invincible. If you don’t have bootstraps, go looking for community – someone there will help you find some.
Do you volunteer? What have your experiences taught you about yourself, others, and the cause for which you volunteered? Please let me know in the comments area! Thanks! – Amanda
Please consider supporting Toledo Streets to help the paper reach sustainability. Like our vendors, there are obstacles the paper faces to getting firmly on its feet. It is a nonprofit program focused on awareness and microenterprise, which makes it not quite a commercial rockstar. But if you believe in giving people opportunities to help themselves and supporting projects that seek to educate people on significant issues, Toledo Streets does both of these and more. Thanks for helping!