By: Chris Hummel
For me, it’s about the stories of our clients.
When a new client takes a seat in our office, the first thing we ask is “what happened?” Where were you and what were you doing when the police officer put that ticket in your hand?
We hash out the facts from their perspective but, before long, we’re talking about their life. It starts with the basics, as I fill out the client intake form: living situation, contact info, financials, health. But more often than not, the dry rote of intake unfolds into a deeper conversation as clients open up about their day-to-day.
Like most people, I’ve always had some understanding that street life is hard. I’ve read the news, heard the stats and the stories. I care about these issues and the struggles of street life and yet, too often when I’ve encountered someone living on the street, whether or not I spare some change, I’ve passed with ambivalent footsteps--- feeling some guilty blend of pity and detachment.
But something different emerges when you sit down and listen to peoples' stories face-to-face: respect, even admiration, for those that wrestle with the tribulations of street life. When you let someone take the time to tell you their background, the facets of their humanity become apparent. Stereotypes and assumptions are challenged by the very presence of the individual underneath.
What you learn about a person can be downright unexpected. As a law student, I was particularly surprised to meet one client who had himself been admitted to law school 30 years prior. Schizophrenia and financial struggles had later placed him—and kept him-- on the street.
It quickly becomes clear that the challenges that many street-involved people have to face are monumental. Eking out a day-to-day existence can be, in itself, a major accomplishment. Affordable housing is hard to come by, let alone a job and a steady income. Shelters can be unreliable accommodation and fellow guests can be hostile. Add in the potential pitfalls of addiction and mental illness and the vicious cycle of poverty can seem inescapable. Homelessness is often a fluid state, with people oscillating on and off the streets with frustrating regularity.
Our job at Fair Change is not to rescue people, but to help them confront the disheartening systemic barriers that a punitive justice system can construct for them. For many, court appearances are a humiliating and perplexing experience. By accompanying our clients to court and reaching out to prosecutors, judges, and police officers, our hope is that we can help our clients retain some dignity, eschew the arbitrary encumbrance of fines and be better equipped to confront the unique challenges in their lives.
As a last word, I’ve embedded a video below made by 'Rethink Homelessness'. It demonstrates the humanity of various homeless people in Orlando by asking them to display facts about their past on cardboard signs. Check it out and appreciate that these are competent human beings that deserve, at the very least, a presumption of respect.