Refueling a Passion to Address Poverty

By | Apr 15, 2014

povertyI remember my first encounter with extreme poverty.

I was 20 years old, an idealistic middle-class college student raised in Long Beach and fed on meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I was sitting on a chartered bus with a small group of churchgoers at the end of a day visiting an impoverished African mega-city.

I was completely overwhelmed by the day’s activities—the conversations with starving mothers, the encounters with hungry children begging to know if I had anything to give them, the smells of poverty. I was filled with emotions I had not experienced since I was in grade school.

On our way back to the hotel, I remember we all just sat there in our air-conditioned van, numb from the experience. I buried my face in my sweaty arms, pretending I was exhausted.

In truth, I was quietly weeping.

I couldn’t figure out why I was so upset. Was it guilt for being raised in America? Was I tired from the long day’s activities or, perhaps, angry that our world allowed such poverty? I still don’t know.

I do know that I came back a changed person, wanting to pursue a career that would address the inequities in our world.

Today, I run a community-based organization with 22 locations in Southern and Central California. We house America’s homeless, our first world version of extreme poverty.

The work we do at PATH is truly inspiring. We house people who have been languishing on our streets for decades, many of whom are struggling with debilitating illnesses or mental health issues. Helping someone in need transition from extreme poverty to a new apartment is exhilarating.

My role as the organization’s leader may seem just as exciting but, most of the time, my days are filled with the mundane activities that are necessary to operate a large organization.

Every week, I spend hours with our finance team going over spreadsheets. I sit in long community meetings as advocates decry our country’s lack of resources. I have lunch with potential donors, trying to convince them to support this important cause. I sit in overstuffed chairs in political offices, hoping that our elected officials will embrace policies to make their struggling constituents’ lives better.

I sometimes wonder how my passionate younger self would have felt about this paper-pushing, meeting-attending administrative leader. Have I become jaded, perched in my ivory tower?

Two weeks ago, I visited a few developing countries during a vacation from work.

Once again, I found myself in a mega-city in the developing world, this time in South Asia. Once  again, I was surrounded by people struggling with poverty: the elderly woman hunched over a can of donated coins, the one-legged man leaning on a broken crutch, the smell of burning trash and urine. Everywhere I turned there was shouting, pushing, and stifling crowds.

It brought back memories of my travels through Africa.

One early morning during my South Asian trip, after fighting chaotic traffic and maneuvering through the mass of humanity at the train station, I boarded a packed train for a two-hour journey to this country’s most famous cultural site.

I found myself looking out the train window as the city zoomed by me. But the speed of the train couldn’t hide the mass of impoverished citizens.

Tears streamed down my cheeks, just as they had when I was in that van in Africa. A Canadian couple sitting next to me uncertainly asked if I was okay. I told them that the heat and sweat were messing with my contact lenses.

I lied.

The passion for hurting people that has always burned deep inside me had begun to stir again. I was reminded why I’ve spent most of my adult life working to empower people in need. I was reminded that homelessness in America is not just an issue of compassion. It’s a social justice issue that needs to be corrected.

I realized that going through spreadsheets and sitting in boring policy meetings can be just as important as the street outreach that actively empowers people to move off the streets.

Thanks to that train ride, my passion for helping people who are struggling with overwhelming difficulties has been refueled.