This past winter, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado - Mike Coffman - decided he wanted to learn more about what it is like to be homeless by pretending to be homeless himself for a week on the streets.
He's using his experience to influence how his city addresses the issues around homelessness. His assumptions, based on his observations, have been heavily criticized by homeless advocates around the country.
The mayor's initial desire to understand more of what is going on was the right one. Our public servants should do more to understand what people are experiencing. He should be commended for attempting to understand and be willing to be uncomfortable to gain that understanding.
The desire to understand others is essential. Understanding doesn't come from observation alone. I do not fault the desire to understand and the instinct to feel what other feel is the right one - my issue is one of implementation.
But first, let us talk about vulnerability.
Being vulnerable has become a popular goal through the work of individuals like Brene Brown. Her work has helped people open up themselves to some potential pain to communicate more fully. Being vulnerable has lead to extraordinary results for organizations and individuals, but unfortunately, it also clouds the word vulnerability.
The vulnerability that you experience when you dare to be seen as imperfect is different from the Vulnerability you feel when you are afraid for your life.
The difference is the ability to chose to be no longer vulnerable.
When someone is experiencing homelessness, they are, in almost all circumstances, experiencing Vulnerability that they cannot escape without help. There is no option to say, 'I'm done, time to go home.".
Another way to understand this is using a parable:
A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.
The Chicken says: "Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!"
Pig replies: "Hm, maybe, what would we call it?"
The Chicken responds: "How about 'ham-n-eggs'?"
The Pig thinks for a moment and says: "No thanks. I'd be committed, but you'd only be involved."
The moral of the story is very simple: In life, you're either involved or committed. The difference is the ability to walk away from the situation if things go wrong.
Applying this parable to the scenario described above with the mayor of Aurora pretending to be homeless for a week, I hope you can clearly understand the difference between being involved with homelessness and being committed. At any moment, the mayor had the opportunity to leave, return home, and no longer be homeless. The choice to go home is not a viable option for the majority of people experiencing homelessness.
He was a chicken - well-intentioned, willing to supply eggs, but living in an entirely different reality than the pigs.
This difference between the realities of those committed vs. those involved or those experiencing Vulnerability vs. vulnerability drastically changes how we understand a situation.
When seeking to understand any vulnerable population, we must continually keep in mind the effects Vulnerability has on them. Attempts to empathize should always be built on the foundations of respect for someone's experience. Any attempt to explain away that experience is a form of gaslighting.
The easiest way to respect people's experience is to ask them about it in a way that makes them feel safe. The Vulnerability that people feel can make them reluctant to share, but once you provide a safe place, you can start understanding the individual root causes of someone's issues and how you might be able to help.
By listening to people's experiences, we can then empathize with **how it feels for them, **instead of putting ourselves in a similar situation and explaining how it feels for us. We can fight the subconscious urge to gaslight and bend things to meet our reality by accepting the realities people are experiencing all around us as valid and justified.
There is a common phrase in America that goes something like this: "You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." - we need to break the habit of walking a random mile in a military-grade boot and think we know what it is like to live life without shoes.
In the end, until we understand the realities, the Vulnerabilities, and the experiences of the people we serve, we will forever be attempting to fix the problems *we *experience, not the issues that they experience.