by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — With a change of underwear and a golf club for protection, Zach Crosthwait, a member of St. Patrick Parish here, started out on his summer vacation.
His traveling companion Megan Hogan, carried pepper spray and a knife. By the end of the day, she would wish she’d thought to bring Band-Aids.
Neither one of them had any cash, checks or credit cards.
While many young adults headed to exotic locations for the summer break, this couple took a week off work to hit the streets of Kansas City — literally. The two chose to live homeless for the week, in an effort to raise awareness and money for StandUp for Kids, a volunteer nonprofit organization committed to rescuing homeless and street children.
“I originally wanted to do it for a month,” said Hogan. “But after a week, I’m not sure I would have survived a month.”
The couple started their homeless odyssey by walking 15 miles from Crosthwait’s home at 73rd and Parallel in Kansas City, Kan., to 12th and Wyandotte in Kansas City, Mo. They finally arrived at the core of the inner city, they said, “tired, sore,sunburned and hungry.”
They begged enough money to buy their first homeless dinner—a box of Little Debbie zebra cakes — then rooted through a dumpster for a piece of cardboard to make a sign that read, “Be the Change.”
Their homeless experience had officially begun.
Homeless for a week
Over the next week, Hogan and Crosthwait spent their days traveling a circuit of drop-in day centers and various food kitchens. They slept in parks,shelters and on an outdoor basketball court. They panhandled and begged, encountering great kindness and sometimes bewildering meanness. In a week, the twenty-somethings put a face on homelessness — and were forever changed by their experience.
During the week their only contact with the “outside” world was a blog they posted each morning at the public library and a cell phone Crosthwait’s mother insisted he take with him.
“It took an hour to convince him to take it,” said Laurie Crosthwait. “He insisted homeless people don’t have cell phones, but I said ‘Just for my peace of mind, so I won’t go absolutely insane.’”
Crosthwait used the phone just once each day, when he turned it on just long enough to let his parents know he and Megan were alive.
“While he has a good heart, he’s also cautious. And so we felt as comfortable as we could as parents with he and Megan doing this,” said his mom. “It was for a great cause — so how could we be negative about it?”
Hygiene and shelters
When asked to name the greatest discomfort of their homeless experience, Crosthwait and Hogan were quick to agree.
“It was awful not being able to have clean clothes, take a shower, or be allowed in anywhere to use a restroom,” said Hogan. “At one point, Zach and I decided to stop by his aunt’s office building to say hello. She commented on how bad he smelled.”
The discomfort was so great that the couple decided to reconsider their park “accommodations” and chose, instead, to spend a couple of nights in a local homeless shelter so they could wash out their clothing and take a shower.
That wasn’t the only incentive — sleeping in the park had its drawbacks, to put it mildly.
“I woke up with stuff crawling on me,” Crosthwaitsaid. “I don’t know what it was, but it was on my face.”
The shelter experience was a true immersion into the homeless environment. For the first time, Hogan said they were surrounded by people “toting such things as shopping carts, radios, luggage, trash bags and even mattresses.”
For the first time also, the couple was separated. The shelter housed 55 men, outnumbering the women almost two to one, and the sexes were kept separate. If given the choice, Crosthwait would have preferred to stay with the women, he said.
“Our first night at the shelter, Megan was a lot braver than I was,” he said. “I was terrified. Staying with the men was a little bit more difficult because men are more territorial and overall, I believe, more — I don’t want to say dangerous, but I don’t know of anything else to call it.”
His uneasiness began when the men gave their belongings to friends on the female side of the shelter for safekeeping, and was only heightened by the realization that he would be trapped in the cramped facility for 13 hours.
“You’re in there at 4 p.m. and you don’t get a chance to leave until the next morning,” he explained. “There is a gathering hall where you can watch TV, play cards or read. But the hall itself is very small and seating is limited. If you are sitting down, you are scrunched up against someone. There’s no way to get away or be by yourself.”
But the shelter experience, like eating at various food kitchens, gave the couple a firsthand opportunity to observe the homeless community, which they found to be surprisingly warm and welcoming.
“People migrate from one place to the next in herds,” said Crosthwait. “Everyone knows everyone and they protect each other. I thought people were going to be more to themselves, but we were welcomed into that community with open arms — people protected us and let us know what was happening so that we felt comfortable.”
The couple got to know several individuals well enough to think of them as friends, and wound up caring on a personal level far more than they expected.
“Getting to know the individuals was great, and I loved it,” said Hogan. “I guessI never really expected to have our hearts touched by so many amazing people.”
Meeting so many good people forced onto the streets by unfortunate circumstances was heartbreaking. But experiencing the difficulties of surviving on those same streets increased the couple’s resolve to help the StandUp organization.
Panhandling with a purpose
Since they didn’t have to spend their days looking for jobs, like most of the homeless, Crosthwait and Hogan passed the time between shelters and food kitchens raising awareness of StandUp. From busy intersections to Plaza sidewalks, they posed as panhandlers, and displayed their “Be the Change” sign.
When people approached with a question or money, the couple explained their project and gave them an informational brochure. The two spent as little of the money as possible on food and drink, saving most to be donated to their cause.
Crosthwait and Hogan learned quickly that they couldn’t predict generosity by appearance. “We found that the people who appear to have enough money to give, in fact, don’t even acknowledge our presence,” said Crosthwait. “The majority of the people who stopped and contributed were jeans and t-shirts kind of people.”
It was those people, she said, who kept the couple going.
“The people who stopped and really listened to us were what kept Zach and I motivated all week,” said Hogan.
The week was not only physically challenging; it also took its toll on the couple’s self-esteem.
“It was hard for us to walk around on the Plaza en route to go anywhere,” said Hogan. “People would look at us and think, ‘They’re just lazy, they’re probably drunks or addicts.’ I wanted to say, ‘No, I’ve gone to school; I have a job!’
“I can’t imagine being homeless and getting that every day — and already being so desperate.” All told, the couple raised $132 for StandUp, and hope more donations will be forthcoming from those who accepted their brochures.
Home at last
As they headed home after the final day of their “vacation,” Crosthwait said both he and Hogan felt pleased with what they had accomplished for StandUp.
And pleased with themselves.
“Before this happened, I thought, ‘We’re going to be at each other’s throats by the third day,’” he said. “But we pretty much looked out for each other and were patient with one another.”
A hot shower was the very first thing on their list when they reached home — with “the luxury of using a washcloth and not having to check out a towel.”
The second, once they were cleaned up and feeling a little more normal, was a trip to their favorite Mexican restaurant.
Halfway through the meal, however, they both lost their appetites.
“An uneasiness fell over us and we began to talk about how guilty we both were feeling because, with every bite, the faces of the people we had left behind came to mind,” said Crosthwait.
“I thought about how they might not even get to eat in a food kitchen, much less a restaurant,” Hogan added. Though they both recognize that the intensity of their empathy may lessen in time, both Crosthwait and Hogan are committed to continuing their work for the homeless.
But Crosthwait admits that the experience tested his fortitude and made him thankful for more than his job and his home.
It made him grateful for his faith.
“I think just growing up Catholic and believing in the thingsI do helped me,” he said. “Believing when you’re in trouble, or you feel uneasy about something, you can always turn to God and he will direct you in the right path.
“So that’s how I got through — I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this, and I need God right now.
“And he was there.”