The Empathy Walk
Updated: Apr 12
I did my empathy walk with Craig and Sara. I chose to speak with members of the homeless population because I have a vastly different economic understanding of the world and I've never struggled financially like my new friends Craig and Sara. The conversation and the experience I put myself through taught me a lot. I knew already that I had glaring differences in terms of experience living in comparison to a person without a home. I understood that there is a certain type of lifestyle that goes along with not owning a home. I felt that my conversation with Craig and Sara would be better spent if I had done something to attempt to understand what it may be like to be in their shoes. I decided to put myself through a small fraction of it. I decided to conduct my interview after and only after I had completed 24 hours of homelessness myself. No phone. No wallet. No food. No water.
The 24 hour challenge that I had set for myself was difficult. I am a person who loves experiences. I believe that experience trumps everything else in life and all redeemable learnings come from self-questioning and challenging yourself socially, mentally and physically. This is how I conduct my life on a day-to-day basis and this is how I conduct the growth of my initiative that I recently started called “The Concept Project.” I completed the 24 hours with very little restless and cold sleep , drinking melted snow and interviewing each currently operating homeless shelter in Halifax. I learned a lot from these interactions just like the one I had with Craig and Sarah. Although I only completed a singular day and understand that it doesn't come even remotely close to the challenges of being homeless for a full year my perspective was enlightened. I was removed from 3 separate locations by police and security. The police even offered me a ride to the “out of the cold” shelter, which I turned down. After I completed the 24-hours I decided that I was in a better headspace having the homeless experience being fresh in my mind. This is when I found Craig and Sarah.
With a mask on, I had an hour-long conversation across the sidewalk from both ex-alcoholic Craig, and recently unemployed Sara. The first three or four minutes of the conversation were a bit awkward. I kept tripping up my words and I could tell that neither of them anticipated the conversation carrying on for much longer. The conversation continued, becoming much more comfortable. I first approached Craig panhandling on Spring Garden. Having spent 24 hours outdoors I had a better understanding of where populations are concentrated in the city and why they tend to hang out in certain areas. After my initial conversation with Craig, Sara came by and started talking with Craig. It took a minute for Sara to warm up to me as well but eventually we all learned a lot about each other. Craig was born in Nova Scotia and lived in Toronto for 14 years and recently moved back to Halifax before the pandemic, homeless once again, getting into "trouble" as he calls it. Sara had a job through a temp agency but was let go because of her inability to complete an incredibly commanding job. She was honest with her employer and told them that she didn't feel she could physically complete the job. With this change in employment she was no longer able to afford her house on Oxford which she was originally paying 800 in rent for.
At the beginning I felt I was asking more questions than answering, but then I realized it isn't about asking. It is about letting them speak. I slowed down and added more clarifying questions to get them to start speaking about interests. Once I found what interests they had, we were able to have much more dynamic conversations. We agreed and disagreed about nuance in the Canadian vs American healthcare systems. We talked about the recent switch in the presidency. Most conversations circled back to our main point of agreeance which was the kindness of people in the province of Nova Scotia. Craig said "I'm pretty sure it's the only thing keeping me going ."
We found plenty of similarities and things that we agreed on. One of the main topics of our conversation was the positive and friendly atmosphere of Nova Scotia. We all agreed that this place is full of very kind people who are resilient and look after one another. The most glaring differences between us were the fact that I got to go home to my apartment that night, Sara did not. Craig had addictions that I have never had myself. The conversations spurred my curiosity. I walked away from the conversation feeling like we had affected each other's lives in a very mutually beneficial way. As the conversation continued I had mentioned that I was trying to take the bus to Dartmouth but had no cash. Craig pulled out a ticket for one bus fare. In response I gave him what was left of my food from the challenge and we laughed about the little exchange. I voiced my gratitude to Craig and he laughed a little bit saying that he asks people for money all day everyday. Oftentimes when someone asks for something he can actually provide he happily does. Bus fares is not that much but to Craig the bus fare cost him about 30% of what he had accrued in his jar for the day.
Later in the conversation, I made a pivot to something I can talk about for hours. The concept project. I told Craig and Sara all about my initiative and the events that we have done in the past and what we plan on doing in the future. What I learned was that projects can strike all people. No matter the background humans can resonate with initiatives. The empathy walk is not the only assignment that I completed during the 24-hour challenge concept. I also conducted interviews for a leadership course at all the shelters that I passed through understanding more about homelessness in Halifax, the amount of people served everyday, the impact of low income families on each shelter and how this incredible pandemic has changed the realm of homelessness in Halifax. I had a third assignment for a class on research. I decided that if I were going to challenge myself 24th hours straight, it would be smart to be researched on the topic at hand. My experience was incredible. By the end I was incredibly tired and aggravated. I slumped down onto my warm bed and slept with no interruptions. (very opposite of my previous night) I would highly recommend this sort of experience to those who are trying to broaden their perspective and learn. I say that the smartest people are avid learners because they want to. I walked out into the cold for 24 hours hungry for experience and learning. I got both of those things. I feel strongly that this experience will have value in my future because I have a better appreciation on the difficulty of being without a home but also because I learned a lot about how to turn something that was assigned to me into an experiment that taught me much more than just the assignments completion would. Welcome to my world. That is how I turned three separate school assignments into one concept project.