Developing Compassion and Dismantling Stereotypes

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Elizabeth Quinones (Gresham, OR ’17-18) shares how developing compassion and dismantling stereotypes are key parts of her service assisting clients experiencing homelessness and providing high school and college students experiential learning opportunities at JOIN. Read more about Elizabeth’s experience below.

As I unlocked the door to JOIN’s Dayspace at 10:00 am after a cold and rainy night, a rush of clients power-walked in to seek warmth, sign up to be first on the shower list, and grab a cup of coffee after a cold night of sleeping outside. I welcomed new clients and said my usual “what’s up” to our regulars, but this morning one interaction struck me.

“Hey man, what’s up? It’s good to see ya!” I said. His face lit up. “Well hey, it’s good to be seen.” I just stood there. My heart sank a little bit, and I gave a forced smile as I tried to process what he meant.

I began thinking about some of my favorite interactions with clients during my service year. When I was having a heart-to-heart with a client who suddenly hugged me so hard she lifted me off the ground and started spinning me around the Dayspace in bliss (I’ll admit, I totally let down my boundaries, but it felt right). When I got to jam out to *NSYNC with a client during cleanup hour as we happily danced while mopping and sweeping. How jokingly reading daily horoscopes with one client is our way of bonding and engaging in discussion. These are usually interactions similar to those I’d have with my friends from home.

In my JV AmeriCorps position as Immersion Coordinator at JOIN, my role is twofold. This unique position not only gives me the ability and autonomy to get to know folks experiencing homelessness, but also gives me the opportunity to share their beauty and strength with high school and college students through experiential learning opportunities. JOIN supports folks experiencing homelessness in countless ways, from street outreach and housing services to providing basic services in our Dayspace like showers, mail, computers, snacks, etc. The interconnected nature of my position allows me to spend half my time in our Dayspace building relationships with folks and assisting in providing basic services. The other half is spent facilitating immersions for high school and college groups by educating them about homelessness and poverty through conversations and relationships.

At JOIN, we believe the best way to learn about homelessness is to ask the people experiencing it. This is exactly why 25 years ago JOIN was founded initially to provide experiential learning “immersions” for students to learn about homelessness through conversation, relationship building, and service. Immersions can last from a school day to an entire week and are rooted in the values of solidarity and simple living.

Immersions require students to have courage to confront their own personal stereotypes and fears by directly interacting with folks experiencing homelessness. It’s easy to watch videos or read articles about this issue, but it’s hard to actually meet people living outside, hear their stories, and not question your prior judgements. Hearing about how someone has a college degree but tragically got into a messy health situation or how someone first became homeless while still employed makes you think.

Sometimes the most important takeaway from immersion experiences is developing compassion and dismantling our own stereotypes. Realizing that folks who live outside are people who have truly fallen on hard times. They are people. People with stories and interests just like you. People who never would have thought they’d end up in this position. People who show overwhelming resilience and love even when they feel invisible in society. They are not bums, addicts, or criminals. They are people first.

Seven months into my JV AmeriCorps experience. I realized my impact goes beyond the day-to-day handing out socks, serving food, checking mail, or leading immersion experiences. I am at JOIN to remind our folks that they should be and are allowed to be treated like people again – no matter how many others in our community put their heads down and choose to pretend they don’t exist while walking around downtown Portland.

It doesn’t matter what someone did five years ago or even five minutes before he/she walks into JOIN. JOIN is a place for second chances, being met where you are in life, and about “being seen” and acknowledged for who you are.

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