Down & Out in New Orleans photo by Derek Bridges
On March 28, 2014 I went undercover as a homeless person in New Orleans.
Let me begin by saying that my half-day experience of “pretending” to be homeless in no way qualifies me to speak about the complicated issue of homelessness in our nation. In no way do I believe that I know what it means to be homeless simply because I posed as a homeless woman. All I can speak of is my experience of pretending to be homeless for half a day in New Orleans.
Two months ago, I was cast in an inspiring short film entitled, “Kate”, by writer/director Chris Pierce. It’s a beautiful and moving tale of the relationship between a homeless woman and her day shelter counselor. In one of those “art-meets-personal-passion” moments, this role compelled me to do the thing I had thought of doing for some time: go undercover as a homeless woman. As an actor, I believe the power of our imagination trumps personal experience in creating a role. I don’t believe that for me to play a drug addict convincingly, I need to shoot heroin; however, I do believe that research and experience can add truthfulness to the work we do when approached sanely, mindfully, and respectfully.
Why go undercover?
With the new role of a homeless woman to fulfill, it was important to do all I could to get it right. I believed in the film and in the writer’s commitment to truth, and I wanted to do my part to honor that truth as fully as possible. I’d considered going undercover before for other reasons, but my respect for the men and women who live outside kept me from it. I’ve had friends who are grindingly poor, friends who are homeless and friends who were homeless. Their influence has been transformational in my personal life in profound ways, but that’s another article altogether. Learning from their experience wasn’t the same as experiencing homelessness first hand. Let’s be clear, I still haven’t and I know that.
I procrastinated. I felt scared and guilty. I wasn’t necessarily terrified of being alone on the street dressed as a homeless woman, but I certainly wasn’t at ease with it either. I also felt guilt at the pretense of what I would undertake. How dare I pretend to be homeless when so many had no choice? I had an escape hatch and could fly to the luxury of my safe, warm home when it got to be too much for me. Could I really learn anything truthful when I could stop the experience at any time? Who might come up to me? Could I stay safe? Would I be “ousted” as a fake? Would other homeless people be angry with me? I’d already decided that if anyone gave me food or money that I would give it to someone who was actually homeless. But all this and more kept me procrastinating. Mostly, I think I was afraid of the unknown. I was right to be afraid. But not for the reasons you might think.
An unscheduled day opened up before me and I decided that today was the day. After a quick trip to Goodwill, I came home, changed clothes, and packed the bag I would carry. A blanket, a cardboard sign with the word “homeless” on it, and not much else other than a few items, including a couple of dollars, my identification, and a hidden cell phone. I decided to walk to a busy street close to my mid-city neighborhood in order to start slowly and see how things went.
It was sobering to walk the streets alone looking as I did.
Clothing is privilege, and privilege masquerades as safety, so walking in homeless garb made me uncertain and uneasy, as if I had a big sign on my back that said, “AVOID and IGNORE.”
No privilege. No contact. No safety. People crossed the street to avoid walking on the same side as me. Step after step, it didn’t take long to begin to feel separate from the houses, coffee shops, and restaurants I passed. Separate from life. The streets were noisy with car and bus traffic as I walked miles on that cold, overcast day. The dark skies and the broken sidewalk seemed to reflect my inner emotions. My normally self-assured gait and posture changed and I began to pull in to myself and feel small. There weren’t many people on the street but when I did pass people, they would predictably, intentionally look away. I passed an outdoor patio of a bustling coffee shop with well dressed, laughing colleagues; young mothers; and laptop-laden college students. Not one look. Each step, I grew more surprised that not one person would look at me with concern, offer me something to eat, or a hot cup of coffee. I longed for connection, but I kept walking. At one point, on a very empty stretch of street, I felt the need to put a large rock in my pocket. Multiple miles of walking and not one person would connect with me in any way, with the rare exception of a small-boned and slow-walking elderly African American man with a cane, who refused to pass me until I met his eyes. He said, “Hey, baby” with concern and kindness, the way you would speak to a daughter. He seemed to know what it meant to be alone and ostracized.
Jackson Square Cathedral and Park is, for many, the heart of the French Quarter. It’s bustling with tourists, street musicians, street artists, residents, and resident street people. I knew it would be a place where there would be other homeless but crowded enough to be safe on the streets as a homeless woman.
I parked my car and tried to get out of it unnoticed so as not to blow my cover. I walked for a while down Decatur until I smelled the unmistakable French Quarter gumbo of horse dung from the tourist buggy rides, last night’s liquor, and the powdered sugar and coffee from Café Du Monde. I’d arrived at Jackson Square.
The streets were full and people brushed by me easily and without notice. I caught a few sideways glances but that’s all. I made my way to the park and sat down on the steps between the park and the Cathedral. No chance of being missed here. It’s one of the most traveled paths in the Quarter. I took out my blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders. It was cold enough that it felt less like a prop and more like a necessity.
And here’s where things got really tough.
No. One. Will. Look. At. Me.
Hundreds of people went by and the only people who engaged me in any way were other homeless. I find it difficult to convey the emotional and physical weight of such consistent rejection and invisibility. Here’s the thing: I wasn’t invisible. People actively chose to ignore me. People had to walk right past me, a foot on either side of me, to make their way out of the park. People from all over the world, all races and nationalities. This wasn’t just American apathy, disgust and fear. I felt equally rejected by all nations. I watched them all going about their happy day. Frat boys. Bachelorette parties. Couples pushing strollers. Young couples in love. Grandparents with maps. Women. In fact, let me stop here.
The women were the worst.
Or maybe I simply expected more tenderness and compassion from them. This cut me deeply. If I could depend on anyone, it would be the women, right? You have no idea how difficult it is to share that I felt most rejected by other women.
You reach a point when every passing person feels like a personal rejection, a condescending slap, a body slam. And a surprise. Each person who passed me by surprised me. I simply couldn’t believe no one would acknowledge me in any way. Surely someone would stop to either say hello, hand me a dollar, or ask if I needed information on local shelters. That didn’t happen. How quickly you begin to feel like a non-person. A waste of flesh. It is physically painful. Can it be that no one really cares? If I felt this bad in a few hours, I cannot begin to comprehend days, weeks, or years of this.
The kindnesses of other homeless people was my undoing.
Put yourself in my shoes. It is clear you are a woman alone, cold and struggling on the streets. No one seems to care. Hours go by. Then a young homeless man—handsome in a rough around the edges kind of way—with a backpack and a rust-colored dog, looked directly at me and smiled the most tender, compassionate smile. I could only respond with some kind of guttural noise. I sounded like a wounded animal. I don’t even know where the sound came from. His kindness landed hard.
Kindness hurts, too.
Then there were the two grizzly middle aged homeless men who passed me and one of them doubled back. It was clear they had been on the streets for years. The tall one who spoke to me came over, tentatively, and cautiously said, “ Hey, you alright hon?” I didn’t want to speak. I wasn’t alright but I also wasn’t really homeless and he was. I felt awful in all kinds of ways.
I muttered something like, “I’m okay.” Then he asked me if I needed a smoke. I said no, but thanks.
He took a few short steps away and then came back again, looking almost apologetic and said, “You need a swig?”
“No…” I say again, “but thanks, I really appreciate it.”
He looked like he was deciding whether to stay or leave and then finally said, “Ok. Hey… I’m not trying to bother you, you know? I was just checking on you.” He smiled with closed lips and nodded like he knew a secret I had only just begun to contemplate, and then they walked away and didn’t look back.
The very worst was the Nola Tour Guide and his group.
I was nearing my breaking point. The cumulative emotional weight was getting hard to bear. The church bells chimed the hour from the Cathedral and a group of 15 or so tourists poured out with their guide leading the way to the steps where I was huddled, broken in spirit, and hanging on by a thread emotionally. It was too late to remember this was pretend. This felt all too real.
The tour guide, a young man in his late 30’s ushered his group to the steps where I sat, to gather for the next part of the tour. He stood no more than two feet from me. I could have tugged on his pants leg. They gathered in a semi-circle around me. (I would be lying if I said I wasn’t crying as I write this. I can still feel the power of that moment.) The tour guide continued with the history of Jackson Square. They snapped pictures just over my head. I could reach out and touch ten people easily. They laughed and chatted and enjoyed the tour.
I. AM. NOT. HERE.
I could barely raise my eyes to them because it had become so painful. Is this what we have become? I saw an Asian grandmother with her grandchildren, and I felt this primitive need to be loved and I thought she, of all of them, would give me some kernel of compassion, of human connection, if only a pitiful look. I raised my eyes intentionally and directly into hers and I did not waiver. Silent tears were pouring down my cheeks. Everything about me was saying, “Help me.” Here was a broken, human being, crying on the steps across from the Cathedral you just left, searching your face for some kind of human connection and compassion.
As they left, I sensed a woman digging in her purse. I half-heartedly thought she might bring me a dollar but by this point I didn’t hold out much hope. She didn’t. And this is where I could take it no longer and sat looking at the church, silently praying for us as a people. Then I stood up and walked to my car to go home.
After a long cry and a hot shower, I tried to cut them all some slack. Most of us don’t really know what to do about homelessness. It can be intimidating and frightening for many when faced with a homeless person, some even react with anger or sadness. In short, it’s complicated. The problem is huge and what can you do? While we need a solution as far reaching as the problem, in those brief moments when you encounter a homeless person anything is better than ignoring them. What can you do? Look at them. Say hello. Give them a nod and a smile. If you are the braver sort, speak to them. Say something like “how are you holding up?” “What’s your name?” “You doin’ okay, today?”
I know you don’t know what to do but when did blanketed, unwavering rejection become our best response?
When I drive around Nola, I have begun to recognize and connect with a few of the homeless people since they tend to claim their own street corners and are there consistently at certain times of day. I know now that Mike really likes the GNC strawberry protein shakes. One night, I rolled down my window just to say hi and I happened to have an unopened shake in the car. I asked him if he wanted it and he did. Now I carry them in my car for him. “These are awesome!” he says. It’s not much and I know it. And sometimes, at the light, when a ponytailed homeless woman is on the corner, I roll down my window and just ask her how she is and look her in the eyes and talk to her like the human being she is. I hate the look of shame in their eyes when I speak to them for the first time, a shame we share, but I love watching their faces soften when they see that I am not judging them and just want to say hi.
I have shared money, food, a kind word, a short conversation. I know it’s not much, what I offer. And I know I’m not the only one who shares in this way. I know that there are others out there, reaching out in small ways and also those who have committed their life’s work to aiding those on the streets. I am grateful to all of them. There is much I could say about how these seemingly small interactions have changed me, but for now, I’ll just say that it helps me keep my eyes and my heart open.
In downtown New Orleans, there are homeless people at almost every major intersection. I know it can feel frightening and intimidating to interact with a stranger on the street. If you pull up to a traffic light, and you are anxious about rolling down your window for a chat or to share something, you can still nod and make eye contact, smile or wave. I now try to use those red-light moments to stop and connect instead of hiding on my phone. Any intentional effort in that direction whittles away at the isolation and has to be better than what feels like full-on rejection. Of course, I know that so much more is needed. Of course I know there aren’t easy answers. But in the meantime, we can all share compassion and simple human connection. It costs nothing and means so much.
With credits in theater, film, television, and radio, Mary Thoma is a versatile actress, commercial talent, director, certified Meisner technique instructor, and a proud member of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Her acting studio, TASA STUDIO (The Art and Soul of Acting) is a sister studio to The True Acting Institute and the only studio with this distinction in the state of Louisiana. Mary is currently teaching and acting in New Orleans and is having more than a little fun getting to know the Crescent City and it’s vibrant people. And, you know, the food’s pretty good. She is still madly in love with her husband, Ron, and they are equally smitten with their two daughters, Megan and Shelby. Mary and Ron have a tiny Yorkie named Bali and his scardy-cat sister, Sox. For more on Mary, visit her actor website , her Studio website or her actor Facebook page.