Participants of the challenge sleep on the sidewalks.
credit: National Coalition for the Homeless

With trash bags slung over their shoulders, a handful of adults shuffled back into the kitchen at the office of the National Coalition for the Homeless. They were tired, ragged, and hadn’t showered in days. The few possessions they had they earned begging on street corners. Now, as they reconvened for the last time, they knew they would return home and back to their normal lives. Yet, they were leaving with an intimate knowledge of what life is like for those who live without homes, for those who live anything but “normal” lives. They had just completed the Homeless Challenge.

Michael Stoops, the Director for Community Organizing for the NCH, established the Homeless Challenge (originally the Urban Plunge) in 1989. Since then, over 1,000 people and 59 groups and organizations have participated in the program by living on the streets of Washington, DC for a few days in order to develop a greater understanding of what the more than 10,000 homeless people in DC region experience.

“Empathy-building, that’s the best way to describe the challenge,” explained David Pirtle, a guide with the program. “People come out wanting to be lifetime advocates for the homeless.”

Challengers learn more about the homeless experience by participating in more activities throughout the day than a homeless person might typically do. They spend time panhandling for money, dumpster-diving, asking restaurants for leftovers at the end of the night, and eating at soup kitchens. They sleep on the concrete outside under the watchful eye of their guide, so as to not take a shelter bed from someone else who needs it. Although spending a few days on the street is not the same as being truly homeless, it does enable participants to understand some of the challenges homeless people face.

One organization in particular is intent on raising awareness among its members about the homeless community: the National Community Church, a Christian non-denominational church based in Washington, D.C.

“The heart of God breaks for the homeless and the vulnerable,” said Dave Schmidgall, a pastor at the NCC. “It’s the calling of the Church to be right smack-dab in the middle of it.”

The NCC, which has a special ministry devoted to serving the homeless, learned about the Homeless Challenge about a year and a half ago. Since then, they’ve sent three groups on a 72-hour challenge, and more groups are scheduled for the future. The congregants are attracted to the program because it enables them to experience the world of the homeless population they serve.

“It’s like I’ve been on a storefront looking onto the streets, entirely blind,” said Schmidgall. “During the challenge it was as if, for the first time, I was on the inside looking out.”

During the challenge, the participants discover how emotionally and physically draining homelessness is. They beg for money, get kicked out of libraries, receive rude comments from strangers, spend most of the day walking and get very little sleep. Yet, in spite of these hardships, there are still beautiful moments.

“For all the people who walk past, the ones who stop make you feel grateful,” said one member of the NCC who recently completed the challenge.

Some strangers buy the participants food or coffee or direct them to the nearest shelter. Others offer words of encouragement or a handful of spare change. Such instances remind participants that such individual interactions truly make a difference in a homeless person’s life. Though they may not have the capability to change the world, they simply have to begin one step at a time.

“While you don’t have the capacity to change it all, you have the capacity to change it all for one person,” said another challenger from the NCC.

And, when people return from the challenge, they returned renewed with the urge to find more and more ways to “change it all” for one person.

Some participants decide to change the course of their education and later careers by changing their majors to more service-oriented professions. Others decide to promote advocacy and teach others how to serve the homeless. Stoops has a bulging manila folder full of school papers, reflections, emails, and newspaper clippings about the challenge and how it has affected lives. The participants learn more about the homeless than they ever did before and are committed to serving them and treating them as human beings.

“Every twenty-four hours they do on the challenge brings a new awakening in different types of ways,” expressed Steve Thomas, who has been a guide for the challenge over the past six years. “Afterwards, they take a different direction with their lives.”

When the challenge ends, the passion for serving does not. The NCC hopes to enable more of its members to have this passion by expanding its participation with the Homeless Challenge.

“Our compulsion is tangible,” emphasized Pastor Schmidgall. “We want to end homelessness in the city.”