A group of college kids piled into a crowded SUV in March for a 30-hour, round-trip drive to Denver, where they woke up at an ungodly hour to serve breakfast to the homeless, got to know gang members, dove into inner-city society and then spent two days homeless themselves — on their spring break.
I was part of that group, and it took a lot for me to approach an intimidating character on the street who I would previously have labeled a "bum." But the very first time I did, it turned out to be one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life, helping me to see for the first time that homeless people are people. They have a lot more than just needs. They have big hearts, hearty laughs and sturdy, philosophical heads on their shoulders.
The irony of the week we spent in downtown Denver is that, in my little world, I was going to help and bless people; instead, they helped and blessed me. I thought I would have to step over their lowliness in order to meet them where they lived. In reality, they had to break through my ignorance in order to stoop to my level.
I'm learning that social status is a figment of the human imagination. I experienced this firsthand when I woke up the Friday morning of our stay in Denver and was turned out of the house where we had been sleeping. It was all part of a simulation so our group could get a taste of what life was like without a place to call home. After two days of trudging the city streets, scavenging for food, asking for money and searching for shelter, however, we began to cross over the line of imitating homelessness to actually feeling homeless.
The day before, I had been at the Denver Rescue Mission serving meals. Now, I was in the massive line of hungry men — most homeless — waiting to get a free noon meal. It must have been the way they herded us through the building, down the stairs to the basement, into narrow hallways and into the stuffy "dining" room that made us feel like cattle.
Back on the streets, I waited until the last possible minute to ask someone for cash. How could I? I had no intention of murdering my pride in cold blood. But when we found ourselves stranded far away from the motel for which we had received vouchers, I finally made my move.
Even with all the beers and cheers being tossed around on St. Patrick's Day, I mustered up only $1.50. So we walked.
With the small glimpse I caught of that lifestyle, I began to see people in a new light. Individuals I would normally have passed without a second thought suddenly had a spotlight on their faces.
I approached dozens of homeless people. I asked them to share their stories, opinions and burdens. And the ones I met loved to talk. In fact, it was much easier to commence a conversation with them than to end one.
The car ride back to college was silent: Our minds were far away, pondering and processing the things we learned. I knew the knowledge and revelations I took away would change my perspective forever.
Sophie Stiles is a freshman at Greenville College in Illinois majoring in environmental science. She graduated in 2011 from Cascade Christian High School in Medford and spent the past two summers working at Champfleuri, a youth camp in the French Alps.