Introduction to Life at the OAC

In order to lay the groundwork for future posts, it seems fitting to begin with what I have learned and loved about my work placement at the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center. First, a here’s a little about the center itself. The mission of Central Outreach is to prevent and reduce homelessness through a multifaceted approach that addresses the needs of individuals as a whole. Most of the guests we see are experiencing chronic homelessness or transitioning from an institutional setting to independent, stable housing. Given this population, one of the primary services the center provides is helping guests obtain proper state identification. There are also ongoing programs to address other areas such as job readiness classes, eye clinics, and a self-sustaining food co-op.

Obtaining ID may seem simple and mundane at first, but it truly is neither. I learned that the process of getting an ID is often heavily convoluted and procedural. An ID or lack thereof often determines one’s access to resources ranging from emergency shelter, employment, transitional housing, to the basics of food and clothing. I was very unaware of how complex the process was until I started at the OAC. One of the hardest things I have become more aware of is that often one’s name is less respected and one’s story is not valid if one does not have the proper documentation to “prove it”. Therefore, having identification is not mundane because it dignifies the guests and enables them to empower themselves on their own journeys.

This relates to one of my favorite things about the OAC. One beautiful irony of the OAC is that the passionate staff and volunteers strive to find the humanity that is often lost in a dehumanizing system of procedures, regulations, qualifications, and tons of referrals. We cherish the full stories of each of our guests. We try to cultivate and maintain a sense of sacred ground within our office as a place where everyone is met exactly where they are in their vulnerabilities and innately respected as full human beings. It’s encouraging to see that some guests do truly feel welcomed and heard.

Conversely, the hardest part about working for me is that there must be boundaries and our own regulations for the center to function. We are limited. The number of people seen changes every day based on the number of trained volunteers. We are only allowed to pay for certain documents. For everyone’s safety, some struggling guests are asked to return on another day after waiting in the cold for hours. It is very hard to maintain a sense of sacredness and dignity while working with systems not designed for that, and the OAC as a human organization is not perfect.

I appreciate learning from the guests and sharing in their lives. Their reactions to their situations are as varied as their experiences. I hope the OAC continues to be a place where guests can express the range of their personalities when they are otherwise being reduced and categorized. The majority of the guests I have encountered so far have been patient and willing to persevere in a system that creates obstacles. It is not simply out of necessity. They feel they must do whatever they can for themselves. I feel there is wisdom in that sense of agency.

Lastly, working with IDs everyday, I learned to look at my own driver’s license and wallet differently than I used to. In my privilege, I once assumed that I would always have an ID on me, which is not guaranteed. It is never just paper cash and plastic cards or things your well-meaning guardian tells you never to leave home without. In the interlocking systems of our society, each of these grants me access and dignity that is not afforded to many. Even worse, large populations are disproportionately denied both. This is why I try to recognize my position and use it for the benefit of the most people. Often, I don’t always know the best way to practice that.

More updates, stories, and hopefully pictures to come…

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