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Recently, some of our staff participated in the Urban Plunge Street Retreat hosted by Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin. Check out the last of a three part series of first-hand accounts reflecting on the experience and lessons learned:

“I just don’t have anywhere to go…not until the semester starts at least…”  John explained to me, as we stood in line for hot chocolate under the overpass. I had asked John how long he had been living on the streets and what brought him there. He shared that he’s a student at a college outside of Austin, studying cyber security and already has multiple job offers after graduation. Unfortunately, until his students loans were credited to his account, he was without any funds for housing.

Passionate, hardworking and dedicated.

Not the description many think of when they meet someone living on the streets.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to join in the Urban Plunge Street Retreat in Austin. What is a Street Retreat, you may ask? It’s best explained as a weekend submerged in the reality of homelessness. We carried what was necessary on our backs, left our technology and wallets at home, and found shelter where we could.

Over the three days I met many people like John: caring, uplifting, and calling the streets of downtown Austin, home. I witnessed a community that grew out of survival and instinct. John explained to me that it was important to know people, otherwise you might not make it. “On Saturday’s if you get to the church down the street at 9:00, you can get breakfast and out to the mission for lunch by 11:00, which will give you time to make it to dinner under the bridge by 2:00. Save your bus pass so you can get some warmth.” The temperature had dropped into the 20’s the night before and the sun did little to warm us against the wind.

I talked with John for a while until I left and joined my team. I watched as he offered the pair of hand warmers I gave him to an elderly gentleman nearby.

Over the course of the weekend I had been extended grace, community, and concern in exchange for a few days of vulnerability. I felt exposed and at times uncomfortable, nothing new to those living on the streets. It dawned on me that I had the opportunity to do this…I was able to choose an experience while so many others have no choice. I was also able to return to warmth and the comfort of my own bed at the end of the weekend. And while this was just a small glimpse into the everyday lives of roughly 7,000 unsheltered Texans, it taught me lessons that will remain.

I learned the importance of community, as John shared, and how valuable it is in order to navigate through life. I have a support system that cares and motivates me, one that picks me up and forgives me when I’m wrong. Often times I found myself wondering where some of these people might be if they had that same support. Would their lives be different if they had someone to help them when they made a mistake? When they lost their job, or got sick?

I learned how easy it is to walk by someone sitting on the corner each day, and not once ask them their name. I asked myself why and whether or not we are we more afraid with acknowledging the homeless than we are with acknowledging the problem of homelessness. What causes that? Guilt? Shame? Fear? Regardless, it’s unfounded, and a challenge for us all to rise above.

I was reminded that your socioeconomic and housing status mean nothing when it comes to the ability to offer grace and compassion. It was given to me not only by those serving our meals, but those standing next to us in line. Strangers in both case, who had no reason to give to me, did. They offered food, comfort and sacrifice. There are so many genuinely good people in this world.

Lastly, I walked away from this weekend with an appreciation for the servant hearts beating inside my fellow coworkers and social service partners. I also left challenged to stop assuming for a second that those like John shouldn’t be described as dedicated, passionate, and hardworking. Regardless of where you lay your head at night, we are each shaped and created, reflected in the image of the same Creator. And there is something so raw in that connectedness that we must come together on. – Shannon Rosedale