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The Homeless Challenge Project

Homeless Challenge graduate and college student Pete Danelski describes his "Lessons Learned in Becoming Invisible" in the Street Sense street newspaper.

Lessons Learned in Becoming Invisible

Economically‑privileged people dressing down, emptying their wallets and spending time on the streets as homeless people.

To learn more about the project, download our Homeless Challenge Manual.

Interested in participating in the homeless challenge?

1. Fill out the HCP event form, making sure to include your preferred dates and number of participants.
2. Make sure all participants read the Homeless Challenge Manual and fill out and sign a waiver form.

Once we receive your event form, we will confirm with your group that the dates work.

For more information, please contact us at: 202.462.4822 or speakersbureau@nationalhomeless.org

Why Take the Challenge?

In general, it is very difficult for housed Americans to comprehend the realities of daily life for several million homeless Americans who constitute the poorest of the poor. How do we overcome the separation that divides housed from homeless?

Thomas Merton said it best when he wrote in 1949 that "it is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God's will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you, try to share some of their poverty, and see if you can accept it as God's will yourself."

You have probably never put yourself in the shoes of a homeless person. You might have said, "I can't imagine living like that" once or twice, but you have never really experienced what it is like. And we hope you never do.

Our answer to breaking down some of the barriers between housed and homeless Americans is the Homeless Challenge where the streets become your teacher.

The National Coalition for the Homeless wants you to do this so you will be able to know (even better than you already know) how it feels to be without a home. We think that participants will come away with a better understanding of the scope of the problem, and of how the system currently deals with the hardships of homelessness. We think you will be better able to address solutions at the local level when you have an experiential and emotional knowledge of some parts of a homeless person's situation. We also want to bring more attention to the dire situation of both homeless people and of social services providers (who lack adequate resources to address the problem) ‑ both are worthy of your time and understanding. This Homeless Challenge will be a great way to see the problem from the inside out and from the bottom up.

"Aimless wandering" is what one Challenge participant called it. On the streets you meander aimlessly looking at everything from the street. You notice things you do not usually notice. You talk to people, especially with people you might not normally speak. You ask them how they are doing. You ask them where there is a good place to get food. "Walking everywhere, but arriving nowhere," the Challenge participant concluded.

If you truly take the Homeless Challenge, you will never avoid street people again. They always have been there, but now you are aware of it. While we know the Homeless Challenge experience is not for everyone, it is essential if you want to work with people who are homeless and hungry.

Purposes of the Homeless Challenge:

  • To familiarize and sensitize persons with the realities and hardships of homelessness

  • To see a different side of life

  • To gain firsthand knowledge of the growing crisis of homelessness. You will undoubtedly be struck by how many homeless people look just like you, tearing away at the myth of who constitute the homeless.

  • To see the world through the eyes of a homeless person. When people on a Homeless Challenge experimentally dress as homeless people, loneliness is the pain they most often report. You become invisible and as one Challenge participant reported, "Nobody looks at you.”

  • To have the world view you as a homeless person

  • To make friends with homeless people. You will accomplish this by sitting in the subway stations, watching the trains go by, getting into the rhythm of your homeless friends, talking, sharing a smoke, etc.
  • To become aware of community attitudes toward homeless people.

  • To become familiar with the social services network for homeless people, and how homeless people survive.

Stephen Beachy wrote about his experiences in the novel, The Whistling Song:

"I learned how to walk without looking scared, how to be invisible, to look impoverished and insane. How to talk to myself, gesticulating wildly.... How to slide down the streets, steal candy bars, bananas and bran muffins for that extra fiber we needed so bad. We washed up in fountains on hot days, collected the wet change from lovers' wishes. Sometimes we split up. I liked to hang out with tourists by the arch or in bookstores or in malls. I'd follow families around, pretend they were mine, wait for them to leave their table at McDonald's or Wendy's and eat the food they left behind.... I learned to eat and run, find dry corners out of the afternoon rain, search for quarters on laundromat floors. I asked strangers for money but most just ignored me or said, "Afraid Not!" in a tone implying that they were good citizens and I was hardly human at all. Others threw me change so I'd have to chase nickels or dimes ... across the sidewalk. Some suggested various paths to salvation, some offered money if I'd do certain things...”

Ralph Ellison, author of the Invisible Man wrote in his novel about how invisible the black person was in America.  He wrote:

"I am an invisible man.... I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me .... When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination ‑‑ indeed, everything and anything except me."

National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: February 7, 2013

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