For many bikini clad, tequila shooting college students, Spring Break consists of a week making out in Cancun. But Spring Break, for a group of Seattle Pacific University students, is very different. They’re spending five days on the streets of Seattle, living like homeless people, for a project called Urban Plunge.
“Just completely different from my own experience,” 21-year-old Christian Theology student David Meade told me. “Just wanted to be able to empathize better and ultimately I just hope to learn more about the real people that are out here and how I can better love them in the future.”
When I met the students, they were leaning up against the brick wall of the Union Gospel Mission, bundled up in flannels and beanies. Freshman Megan Boyd, 18, speaks to the difficulties of the experiment.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting to be so affected by the cold. My shoes and socks got soaked last night and I had to put those back on this morning. They were so wet. I don’t know, missing meals too.”
She’s been wearing the same clothes for five days and only has a few possessions with her.
“Sleeping bag, backpack, little journal thing, Bible.”
She opted to leave toiletries like deodorant and tooth paste at home so that she could truly take in the whole experience.
The students don’t have cell phones or even watches, so they have to ask other homeless people what time the soup kitchens are serving meals. They’ve been sleeping in churches and…
“We’ve been sleeping in a lot of different places,” says 19-year-old Naomi Metzler. “On benches and in doorways. I’m at the point where I will sleep anywhere if I have to. Also, I will eat anywhere. We’ve been Dumpster diving. People do that on a regular basis.”
They’re out on the street from seven in the morning until 9:30 at night, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“We just end up places, talking to people about their stories,” Megan said. “People we would usually just pass by. We just learn the most incredible stories. A lot of them are so willing to share and tell us why homelessness is so prevalent. We learn a lot just having time, which we never do.”
For Megan, the experience is extra significant. She says she was kicked out of her mom’s house in high school and could have easily become homeless.
“For me, honestly, it’s been kind of easy to relate because I have been through a little bit more in my life. It’s kind of cool to tell them, ‘We’re not so different. I promise you I’ve been through things. I only got to college because I decided that’s who I wanted to be. I could have been in the same place as you right now.'”
After meeting a bunch of homeless kids her age, Megan says she will longer ignore people she sees on street corners.
“People walk by somebody and they’re like, ‘Oh, they just want money for alcohol. That’s their problem. That’s why they’re on the streets.’ But really, they have issues and that’s one of the ways they’re dealing with it and we just find other ways to deal with our crap. It’s just not the problem and people think it is.”
David says one of the hardest parts of the exercise was being ignored.
“We don’t have watches, we don’t know what time it is. So when we try just sitting on a street corner and we ask people, you know, what time it is, we can see their watch. They wouldn’t talk to us. They won’t even tell us what time it is. We were standing on a street corner for probably 45 minutes or so and it was a long time before we even made eye contact with anybody.”
The students will go home today, to their warm homes, to take showers and put on fresh clothes. But they all learned some really big lessons.
“Just try talking to the people,” David said. “Don’t just try to come in and fix problems from what you see sitting in your armchair, you know, where you’re comfortable, and not talking to actual people.”