Experimenting Life on the Streets and Being Shunned
This past summer, Bill Muck, a former Air Force bomber pilot and graphic designer turned minister and homeless activist, spent a week living on the streets with the lead pastor of the New Life Christian Center Angelo Austria. Muck had previously done a similar experiment as a class project.
“That week literally, it changed my heart,” he said. “It changed my outlook… I used to be rather cavalier about the homeless thinking that if they just would go out and get a job, they wouldn't be homeless and if they weren't drug addicts and if they weren't alcoholics … I was very arrogant about it. I would be the guy that would roll down their window and yell at some guy, ‘Hey, get a job.’ That week showed me so much about what it means to be homeless and to have nothing and how our society looks down on homeless people,” he said.
He said people avoided him because they were afraid he would ask for money. His first experiment was in March in frigid temperatures.
“Over the course of that week, I walked into 11 different casinos. It was freezing cold, it was snowing. All I wanted to do was just warm up and 10 of them kicked me out and the record was 16 seconds from the time I walked in because I had a big beard. I had a big backpack. I looked like I wasn't there to gamble. I looked like I was there to, you know, maybe beg money, I don't know, but they, they, they're not only escorted me out the door, they escorted me off the property. I couldn't even be standing outside on the sidewalk. I never experienced that before. I never experienced walking into a convenience store and having literally the clerk walk just a foot or two behind me to make sure I wasn't stealing things from him. That was so foreign to me and it made me realize how our community regards people just based on how we look,” he said.
From Chapel Services at the Pit Back to the Heartbreaking Streets
After his first revelatory experience living on the streets, Muck began leading chapel services in what’s called “the pit” outside Reno’s main downtown shelter.
“The pit is the one area in Reno, where the homeless people can kind of hang out without fear of being run off,” he said. “And so for five and a half years, I became intimately aware of our homeless population and I will tell you that over the last year or two, the numbers have just exploded.”
He then tried the living on the streets a second time, but this time in entirely different weather conditions.
“This time it was just miserably hot. Everyday was over 100 degrees. So I can say that I've experienced Reno from both ends of the spectrum now. It was smoky, it was hot, it was just miserable,” he said.
The Get A Job Line Does Not Make Sense
While back on the streets, Muck said he came to understand yet again why the ‘hey, just get a job’ line just doesn’t make sense. “We stunk and there was no place that we can get a shower,” he said. “So I'm thinking, how are they going to go get a job when they got to carry this backpack with him, they got to carry everything they own and, and, and they stink, they don't have a change of clothes. And then you're gonna fill out an application and you're going to come down to that point that it says address and you're going to put none. And how likely is that person going to be to get hired?”
He said he came to realize the complexity of being homeless. “I mean, for that whole week, we looked at it from the point of view of the homeless. We got close to them. We talked with them because we looked the part. We looked like we fit in with them, they were able to open up and give us some amazing stories about what they had been through, why they were homeless. These people people feel overwhelmingly that nobody cares about them. Their families walked out on them, their friends have left them. They feel like God has walked out on them. And as a pastor, that's what really broke my heart, was they feel that they weren't even good enough to be able to talk to God because he was ashamed of them or they were ashamed of what they had done.”
Helping Beyond Food
Muck says he’s seen progress lately, with better ideas to help in the community, new projects orchestrated by government agencies, and more acceptance of the homeless population.
He says feedings have not been a problem in Reno, with plenty available, and that his new organization is trying to address other issues.
He listed recent examples, including someone needing shoes. “He was a big man and he needed size 15 shoes. We were able to find some for him. Someone came in and said my electricity is going to be shut off. You know, they're not homeless. They're making money, they're just not making enough. And so, many times they come down to … do you buy food or do you pay your electric bill? And that's where we're able to help out a little bit with and do some things to either defer payments or work with them.”
Muck would like to see more available services, to really help people get to where they can start thinking of trying to apply for jobs. He listed more examples of what’s needed: “places to shower, places to change clothes, places to put your bag, while you're out doing a job interview, places to get a decent looking outfit or suit where you can go and present yourself in an interview, in a respectable manner. These things are vital to these people and they're life changing. We have goals down the road of having training for job skills training, for resume writing, for job placement, for medical insurance, and, you know, being able to apply and qualify for insurance here.”