A plunge into homelessness

POWERFUL JOURNEY<br>Chico State students revisit one of the nighttime refuges from their 48-hour homeless “plunge” in Washington, D.C., last week. This walkway connects parking lots in the Homeland Security complex—something they didn’t know when they slept there. Melissa Guitron (below) coordinated the March 16-23 trip.

Chico State students revisit one of the nighttime refuges from their 48-hour homeless “plunge” in Washington, D.C., last week. This walkway connects parking lots in the Homeland Security complex—something they didn’t know when they slept there. Melissa Guitron (below) coordinated the March 16-23 trip.

Courtesy Of Melissa Guitron

When Clairisa Maygren returned to Chico State after a spring-break trip to Washington, D.C., people asked about her experience. Nothing unusual in that—who doesn’t like to hear travel stories?

Her reaction was unusual, though: For several days she wouldn’t talk about it to anyone.

Tuesday afternoon, seated in a semicircle of friends from Community Action Volunteers in Education, she was less restrained. “It was great and terrible at the same time,” she said.

Maygren and 10 other CAVE members, along with CAVE’s assistant director, Ann Schwab, visited D.C. to immerse themselves in homelessness. They attended panel sessions, visited outreach centers and got 15 minutes of face time with Rep. Wally Herger. What affected them the most—Maygren in particular—was the 48-hour “plunge,” when they left their hostel behind and joined the ranks of the homeless.

Growing up the daughter of a single mother, with finances tight, Maygren has faced the prospect of homelessness herself. She never had to live on the streets, and when she became the first member of her family to go to college, she thought she’d banished that specter.

“This trip made me realize that a degree doesn’t insure the rest of your life,” said Maygrem, a senior. “Anyone can become homeless. The biggest thing I’m taking away is fear. But, at the same time, I feel empowered—I’ve done it, so I’m not as afraid.”

She also feels empowered to help, something her CAVEmates feel as well.

Sophomore Melissa Guitron, who coordinated the Alternative Spring Break trip, is developing a new program at CAVE (set to launch this fall) to help serve Chico’s homeless. She is working with the Torres Community Shelter and others to determine where students can make the biggest impact with their 30 hours of service a semester.

Meanwhile, Schwab, who’s also Chico’s vice mayor, said she met this week with city Housing Director Sherry Morgado about establishing a countywide coalition to obtain grant money for transitional housing.

Speaking about the plight of the D.C. homeless (which happens to hit home here, too), Schwab noted that “a number of public places and public institutions are just pushing them along. We need to provide services that help them get a job and move up, not move along.”

Melissa Guitron

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

She added: “I don’t think we really would have understood without the plunge.”

That experience came about because of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a group Guitron contacted while planning a follow-up to last year’s Alternative Spring Break in the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast region.

CAVE, along with groups from Kansas State and the University of Illinois, participated in a week-long program that culminated with a stint on the streets. Eight in the Chico contingent made the plunge; health and safety concerns kept the others from joining them.

With just the clothes on their backs, four quarters each and their driver licenses, they broke up into groups and headed into D.C. “We stuck out like sore thumbs because we were white,” senior Bryant Pender said, “and most of the population was African-American males"—and not college-aged. So they came up with a cover story: They’d come for a peace rally and got stranded.

They had some fearful moments, particularly when the group including Guitron, Kate Bruno and sophomore Aly Gill got followed by a man their guide recognized as a criminal who targets the homeless.

One of their sleep sites was the entryway of the Federal Trade Commission. Another was an Astroturfed, covered walkway connecting parking lots of Homeland Security agencies, and another was the site of a demolished convention center that could have housed hundreds of people.

“The people who have the least were the most helpful,” Gill said, “and the people who have the most were the least helpful.”

One man offered to show them the best places to spend the night. One beckoned from across the street, “Do you need advice?” One gave Maygren the sandwich he’d just procured. As “Joe” (who the next day called himself Al) told them, “we’re so blessed in D.C. because people are so giving.”

CAVE didn’t find the soup kitchens and shelters to be as compassionate. Schwab sat down for a meal next to people who turned out to be staff members. “Nobody asked what I needed,” she said; instead, they had her fill out an intake form. “They have me as a statistic of someone they served, but they didn’t serve me very well.”

Now back in Chico, the CAVE group knows it didn’t get the full experience. The college girls had an edge when it came to panhandling, garnering more in a day than a homeless man they met earned in a week (the students donated all they collected to NCH). They also knew they had plane tickets waiting back at the hostel.

Still, the experience affected them. Chico’s problems differ from D.C.'s—for one, the homeless population here includes more young people. Now the students at CAVE feel added motivation to bridge gaps.

“It’s been really hard to talk about,” Bruno said, echoing Maygren’s sentiment. “Every emotion I have is conflicting with another emotion. I feel discouraged, and encouraged; powerless, yet empowered at the same time.

“I’m angry at how selfish people are. I’ve always known how lucky I am, but the trip really brings home how much I take for granted. It’s really powerful for me that people who have nothing are willing to give you everything.”