Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Last Word: An Eye-Opening Experience

Going into my internship at Street Sense, I felt ready to leave an impact on the lives of the homeless vendors. I also wanted to show that I was a determined worker, make some necessary professional contacts, sharpen my journalism skills, and get a taste of D.C. Going in, I didn’t expect that I would get more then I could ever give. I didn’t expect that my internship would reward me with more than a couple stories in a great nonprofit newspaper.

Interning at Street Sense two days a week for three months has been the most rewarding experience an 18-year-old moving D.C. would hope to have. Street Sense has provided me with the opportunity to mature, meet amazing people, and understand what homelessness is.

Before working at Street Sense I didn’t understand the complexity of homelessness. Coming from a suburb in central New Jersey, I always looked at poverty and homelessness as if they were some far away problem that I would never experience directly. Working at Street Sense has taught me that the effects of poverty and homelessness can be felt all around, and can easily and suddenly touch anyone’s life. While interning at Street Sense, I have became familiar with the real world, a world away from the shelter of my family. I discovered aspects of life that I came to college in hopes of discovering.

What I have learned about homelessness comes in the form of intellectual gifts and kind gestures felt around the office daily. The more vendors started treating me like a friend, the more I was able to understand that homeless people are no different than I am.

I have also perfected my ability to work under extreme conditions. I don’t know what I would have done if I had an internship with no distractions. The Street Sense office isn’t exactly the most serene place to put together a paper, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t look forward the times that Jeffrey McNeil came in and put together his political slogan signs or when I got to walk to the post office with Lisa, or Mary.

Street Sense has given me the perspective needed to value every second of life and to push through the stressful or difficult times because they are always a little something in the world that will make you smile.

At Street Sense, there was always something to do; there was always something that I wanted to do. As took on more tasks, sometimes all at once, and as I became acquainted with more vendors, I felt like I was digging to the center of the thousand unanswered questions about poverty and the politics of poverty in Washington, D.C. Learning about homelessness is learning about an important D.C. subculture necessary to understanding our nation’s capital.

The most rewarding lesson I can take away from interning at Street Sense is to value people for their personality and not whether they have a home or not. I have accepted the idea that you can learn something from anyone and I am glad that I allowed myself to learn an important life lesson from our vendors: the lesson of struggle and perseverance.

--Carol Cummings

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Last Word: Doing Good and Getting Real

I was starving. I did not have money to buy food; I’m an intern. I did not have time to go home and grab something.

And then, a vendor offered me part of his Subway sandwich; I almost cried. It was deadline day and this meant a 12-hour-day, the usual internet hassles, laying out pages at the last minute and getting work done while vendors came and went. That tuna on wheat – it got me through the rest of the day.

As I came into this internship I hoped to make a difference, get some good clips, lay out pages. I did not expect that the relationship between vendors and interns would be a two-way street.

Sometimes it was. But sometimes it wasn’t. And sometimes it felt like social work. Somtimes I felt frustrated when that came into conflict with other work, like redesigning pages or writing a story. Sometimes I felt like people didn’t understand that if we didn’t get our work done, there would be no paper to sell.
Sometimes people would come in under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And some of those times I was here on my own with a volunteer and another vendor. I’ve never been trained in social work, so those situations could be nerve-wracking. But I knew that the volunteer and vendor would have my back.

I came into this a die-hard liberal, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sure that homelessness and poverty are simply systemic, and always forgiving of the individual. I still believe this.

Now I recognize that people can have a part in their destiny. I began to feel frustrated when people occasionally came in asking for food or clothing, having received something by chance on an earlier occasion. But when we said no, we gave out everything, they would get angry. Or people would sometimes for their ten monthly emergency papers, inadvertently ask for more, and then say I needed to get in the “Christmas spirit.”

It was hard to keep my head on straight when I knew Street Sense did not have to give out the extra ten papers a month. Poverty and homelessness is systemic. But social service agencies are here to enable people to get back on their feet. There is a huge element of free will that goes into getting your own place that I see now, cannot be denied.

People sometimes come in with their issues off the street and dump those on us. At first, I did not know how to handle it. Now, I would not take it personally.
The Street Sense office is like a stereotypical WWII field hospital. Phones ring constantly, I never know what desk I’ll be sitting at when I come in, foot traffic is constant, no one can ever find the bathroom key, the mentally and physically disabled tell their woes or grumble about the woman who told him/her to get a “real job.”

After working in this half social-service agency, half-news room, I could work anywhere and deal with anyone. Before coming here I felt more comfortable in the presence of local political players and even celebrities. Now, I’m comfortable around ex-cons and guys who live on the street.

There have been so many times when I would go home grumbling to myself. But then, there were times when a guy gave each of us in the office a pink rose (the fulltime staff is all female). Or when I’ve run into vendors on the street and they’ve recognized me and given me a hug. Or the time a vendor gave me silver earrings on my birthday. Or when a vendor gave me half his sandwich.

Lisa V. Gillespie just finished a semester-long editorial internship and graduates in a week from the University of North Carolina at Asheville with a degree in mass communication. She plans on moving back to the District to pursue a career in journalism.