Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plungers at the Mission

The short-term exotic experience of being in Homeless World is called taking a plunge. While it can be a valuable learning experience, it can also be something that falsely confirms people's terrible stereotypical beliefs about the homeless.
I was walking back to the Union Gospel Mission late yesterday afternoon, going north on N. 7th Street, just emerging up from the underpass to the vast desert-like undeveloped area called the Railyard, when I saw ahead of me a group of people sitting under the only circle of shade within a mile.

I thought they were light-rail construction workers taking a siesta at first, my vision being so bad, but as I drew closer I could see that they were mostly young people with sleeping bags and backpacks and amid them was Abigail!  Hark! Plungers!

Abigail, you see, is a former-JV [i.e., Jesuit Volunteer] who got domesticated, turning her  volunteer job in Loaves & Fishes' Friendship Park into the same job, only with pay and vacation time and a green hat, indicating she's staff, which effectively robs work from a job-needy homeless gal or guy. [Absolutely no offence meant toward Abigail … but still.  Jobs for homeless people to work in Friendship Park have gone only to SafeGround people — that is, people who drank the Kool-aid of L&F's communist politics — and not to those many who are most able.]

A plunge — with those participating being called "plungers" — is a period of a few short days being taken on-tour out in Homeless World, all as if it was an E-Ticket Adventureland ride at Disneyland.

The Plunge Group, which consisted of about seven teenaged girls and four guys, their teacher/chaperone and Abigail, showed up at the mission about forty minutes before chapel time, and settled in on the grass in the courtyard.  I got out my notebook and got Abigail's OK to talk to the teenagers about their experience.

Ricardo and Chelsea [not their real names] were the first two I approached.

Ricardo told me they had been at Cesar Chavez Park, earlier, where they wrote down their thoughts in journals.  I asked if they knew it was sometimes called Wino Park, and they indicated they didn't.

I was told that they were students at St. Ignatious [which means Sacramento's Jesuit High School] and would be seniors in the fall. Jesuit High has a "Christian Service" requirement that includes the option for upper-grade students to come to Homeless World to work or take a plunge.  Wording from Jesuit High's website tells us this [emphases, mine]:
Students have a wide variety of choice when it comes to selecting service placements. Sites include agencies that serve the elderly, the poor and the homeless, the physically and developmentally challenged, children of prison inmates, at-risk youth and pre-school aged children. Sophomores can make lunches for children at the Mustardseed School for homeless children at Loaves and Fishes, or cook and serve breakfast at Maryhouse or Wellspring Center, both places for homeless women and children. Juniors can participate in an overnight "Plunge" at Loaves and Fishes where they simulate some of the experiences of homelessness. Summer school options for seniors include service immersion trips to Mexico and Latin America and counselor positions at camps for the handicapped.

. . . and Reflection:

At every level, but especially at the upper levels, reflection is seen as an indispensable part of Christian Service. In Jesuit schools, learning is expected to move beyond rote knowledge to the development of the more complex learning skills of understanding, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Jesuit education insists that students consider the significance of what they learn and to integrate that meaning into their lives. Reflection helps students make connections between their personal experience of service and the larger issues of social justice.
Chelsea told me that, with Ricardo, she had worked on a project understanding homelessness in San Francisco, but when it was presented in class, those who heard what they came to say found it boring.

I asked Ricardo if they had any expectations, and he told me that he "didn't know what to expect."  A good indicator of being opened-minded, perhaps.  He also told me there was not a preparation meeting for the plunge.

Chelsea told me that earlier that day they'd been at Loaves & Fishes and had attended an NA [or was it AA? My notes are terrible.] meeting and had talked to some of the people, there.

I asked what they knew or had found out about homeless people in Sacramento.  They told me they know about the anti-camping ordinance here, and that from their San Francisco Project, they knew that there there was an ordinance, proposed by the mayor, to make lying down on the street or in a park illegal.

Chelsea said she now knew that homeless people were dirty — not themselves, she said, she knew they showered, but their clothes; and that she knew a great many had addictions or were recovering from addictions.

I asked what they hoped to learn.

Chelsea said "to be thankful for what you have."  Ricardo said, "How you can help."

Chelsea said that the opportunity to take the plunge was largely to "learn about ourselves."  She added the information that her "whole family" couldn't understand why she was doing this.  But Chelsea said she hoped to gain "awareness that would break down stereotypes."

I was told that they'd learned that "people who have less care more" about spiritual matters.  And that doing the plunge might prompt them [that is, Ricardo and Chelsea] to being "more open to new discoveries."

I had certainly hoped to talk to others of the students, but when I began to, the teacher/chaperone that was with the group shooed me away.
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Previous blogposts about plungers in this blog:

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