How a homeless person changed my life forever | The American Word

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How a homeless person changed my life forever

Emily Kvalheim | 4/25/13 11:32am

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the April 25 print edition of our magazine.

If you’re reading this as an American University student, chances are you’ve had an internship or you will before you graduate. If you fall into this category, you might wake up early some days, put on your business casual and take the Metro downtown. Then, once you’re back above ground, you start briskly walking down a crowded sidewalk to bigger and better things and you don’t really take the time to look around you. Or maybe you do, but you choose to selectively see only those people who look and dress and smell just like you.

But when you see out of the corner of your eye that person sitting on the sidewalk, cup filled with a few coins in one hand and a sign saying, “Homeless – please help,” in the other, you might look in the other direction, bury your face in a newspaper, or reach for your cell phone and pretend to send a text. Then you walk by and—whew!—you forget about what you saw, proceed to your internship and push that guilty feeling to the back of your mind. How do I know this? Because I am just like you, or I was, until one homeless person changed my life forever.

Her name is Daniela and I met her while volunteering at a men’s shelter last year. As a transgender female, Daniela pretended to be the gender she was assigned at birth in order to stay at a safer, cleaner shelter. We immediately clicked, speaking in Spanish together, the language she has not been able to really use since she fled Mexico many years ago, running away from the men who assaulted her for being a “faggot” and breaking her nose.

Over the past year, I have gotten to know Daniela well, first when we practiced her English in Bender Library once a week, and then later when she agreed to help me with my sophomore SPA Leadership project in exchange for fellowship and the chance to eat at TDR, which, according to Daniela, is like a party, especially if it is following a day when she could not eat at all.

Daniela has been homeless for a few years now, since the economic downturn made it much more difficult for her to find a job as an undocumented worker. She does not enjoy it, but she has learned a lot from her situation. There are so many little things I take for granted, like the ability to wash my clothes (and not in the Potomac River), to sleep in a bed (without a baseball bat next to me for protection), to afford medication (such as the depression and hormone therapy medicines she has to purchase each month), and to use the bathroom (somewhere other than McDonald’s).

But there are also big things that I take for granted, like the fact that our structured society and my ambition have prevented me from really living—the best part of homelessness for Daniela is that she does not have to be in an office all day like many of the people she sees walking past her. Instead, she can get lost in books, make new friends, spend time with her girlfriend and even attend GED preparation classes, as she loves to learn.

Daniela is an incredible woman, with a compassionate heart, gentle embrace and beautiful laugh. She, like the rest of us, carries the scars of her past with her every day, some of which, like her failed suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse and the sexual assault and harassment she faced as a child, still haunt her today. But, with a strength like no other, Daniela focuses on the small joys she has and feels blessed by the people in her life who were brave enough to be her friend, when many people instead turned their heads away and walked past her on the sidewalk.

Like many of our homeless neighbors, even more than basic necessities, Daniela desires to really be seen, to be acknowledged with just a simple smile or “Hello” by those walking past, flaunting their immense privilege. So that is what we should always try to do: address the people who are ignored and forgotten but who are likely just as wonderful—and as hurt—as Daniela is. Challenge yourself to make a friend, ask a homeless person for his name, buy him lunch, or share your extra package of crackers with him (because let’s face it, as an intern, who really gets a lunch break anyways?). It doesn’t take much to make a difference, just the willingness to open your eyes. And maybe when someone sees you say “Good morning” to a homeless person, she will be inspired to do the same. Who knows?

What I do know is that this injustice will not change if we—the generation who will soon make the policies that affect people like Daniela—are not even brave enough to say “Hello.”