I probably won’t be updating Kloncke for the next week or so, and that’s because, for my second time, I’ll be joining the Faithful Fools in their annual Street Retreat: seven days and nights living, sleeping, and reflecting in the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood, in San Francisco.
Coming to terms with the street retreat as a reflective and humanizing practice has been difficult for me. To be honest, I still feel significant resistance to the idea. Fortunately, though, over the past few weeks I’ve been able to sit with this resistance and discomfort (a time when the dhamma practice has come in handy), talk with friends and other Fools about it, and work through it in a positive way.
Before getting into my reservations and reconciliations, here’s a nice, basic description of what the street retreat, from fellow Fool intern Josh Mann:
Starting this Saturday, I will be participating in my first week-long Street Retreat through the Faithful Fools. I’ll be leaving my money, cell phone, and keys behind and taking a sleeping bag and backpack. I plan to sleep outside and eat mostly in soup kitchens, and I anticipate a lot of searching for public bathrooms. Twice a day, I’ll be meeting up with eight to ten other people to reflect on the experience. And, some of us will be sleeping as a group.
Part of the mission of the Faithful Fools is to “participate in shattering myths about those living in poverty” and to help people discover what is common to all of us regardless of our economic standing or housing status. As a Street Retreat participant, I am asked to reflect throughout the retreat on what keeps me separate from others as well as what connects me.
Ever since my first term in college, I have felt compelled to engage the social issues of poverty and hunger, and I expect that this retreat will help me better understand these issues including the way that public policies, laws, and urban planning affect people with little to no money.
At the same time, the founders of the Faithful Fools put great emphasis on the fact that we are not pretending to be homeless. I will begin the retreat knowing that it has a specific end time on Saturday, October 30th. It also seems important for me to acknowledge that I go as an able-bodied, college-educated U.S. citizen who is white, male, and straight, which will no doubt be a factor in both how other people respond to me and how I experience the streets.
Please keep me in your thoughts this week. I seek to know my own heart, and I need all of the help I can get. I also invite you to participate with me in some way or another wherever you are. I recommend setting aside a little time one day to wander and see who and what you encounter. The spirit of this retreat as I understand it is to meet more deeply the people and places that we sometimes hurry past.
So there’s a little bit of background. As you can see, the retreat is not a study or experiment, nor is it a gimmick for “playing homeless.” The spirit is one of renunciation. We wouldn’t fast in order to “understand what it’s like to be a starving person,” but in order to push and expand our own views of the world we inhabit right now, as we are. It’s not about appropriating or trying on someone else’s experience (the simplistic idea of “standing in someone else’s shoes”), but about peeling off the layers of ourselves, the skins thickened by routine and dualism, that pervert our own views of reality — including our views of ourselves.
What had been bugging me so much, I think (and it disturbed me so strongly that I very nearly backed out of the whole thing), wasn’t the idea of the street retreat itself, but its purported connections to mechanisms of social transformation. I’ve talked on this blog before about what I see as the dangers of believing in a method for changing the world one mind at a time. This approach rightly observes that human social “systems” are made up of individual people, but wrongly induces that these systems are therefore merely the sum of their parts, and that persistent hearts-and-minds education can eventually (through influencing voters and “those in power”) translate into large-scale fundamental social improvements.
I disagree with this approach for various reasons; now isn’t the time to go into ’em. Suffice it to say, now that I’ve managed to decouple the reflective, community side of the street retreat from positive claims about its structural effectiveness, I feel a bit calmer about participating.
One common concern about street retreats is that we are “taking away resources” from people who need them, by eating in soup kitchens and sometimes sleeping in shelters (if we can get in). I sympathize with the concern here, but the way I see it is: we do far more to support poverty and homelessness through our everyday complacency with the capitalist system than we could possibly do by individually taking a couple dozen free meals. The scarcity (of beds, less frequently of food) is artificial.
Another frequent worry, especially from my dad: YOU ARE GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED. IT IS DANGEROUS OUT THERE.
Don’t worry, papa. (And others.) From my observation over the past year, there is little danger of random violence on the streets of the Tenderloin. The main types of violence we see here are (1) interpersonal violence among acquaintances, (2) low-level police violence in the form of harassment and enabling rape culture, and (2) structural violence, like the abovementioned artificial scarcity that keep families homeless while apartment buildings sit vacant for years, or the racist, sexist, homophobic criminalization of mental illness and drug addiction.
I guess both of these ‘responses,’ intended to allay fears, kind of sidestep the issues by pointing out how they are dwarfed by larger problems. Well, that’s sort of how it goes for me, at the moment. We’ll see if any more insights come during the week.
Wish me luck! I will try to log some time on the computers in the public library, but the lines are generally long, the connections slow, and the time limits brief.
Take care, friends.