The most important days of this work are often the worst ones.
They are the ones that feel the most helpless. The ones that make us believe we are small and ineffective. The ones we cry about on the drive home. They are the ones that make us wonder if our work even matters. They break our hearts for all we could not do. Everyone has their own version of these worst days, but for many of us, the days an encampment of our unhoused friends gets closed is our “worst day.” These days are enough to make you wonder if you are changing anything. They are enough to make you wonder if this work matters.
In the days leading up to an encampment closure, we do our best to prepare. We prepare our friends who will be affected. We search for resources. We reach out to connections. We look into all options. We prepare ourselves. We meet, we strategize, we gather gloves, trash bags, and water bottles. We pray and tell our families it will be a long week.
When the day comes, it is the worst day. But we knew it would be. We try to help those frantically moving their belongings. We bag up everything people have in a couple of trash bags and help them get out of the way. We hold hands with crying strangers. We say we are so sorry this is happening. We look for lost items, we help round up someone’s dog. We stay calm because that is what is needed. And then we watch side by side with the people we’ve come to love as what is left behind is demolished. We watch as tents are crushed and loose belongings are thrown into dumpsters. We watch as someone’s sense of place, existence, and of home ceases to exist. We reassure. We try to console. We hope we can offer alternatives, but sometimes they don’t exist.
And we go home. Back to the stability we can’t provide for others. These are the longest days, the most exhausting, and yet the hardest to fall asleep after. These are the days that we often feel least accomplished, but these are the days we do our best work. These are the days that matter most.
As crushing as these days feel to the soul, these are the days we are truly called to be here. When we can’t control the outcome, when we can’t fix a problem, or negate a crisis, it is in those moments that we are called to simply be. To be present. To be steadfast in our friendships. To be reliable in our support. To be a witness.
Being with someone matters. Not allowing them to confront the hurt, fear, and despair alone matters. Being extra hands with extra bags for your belongings matters. Being able to help carry a tent or move a mattress matters. Being willing to hug a stranger or offer a shoulder to cry on matters. It matters that we see people, that we acknowledge them, that their plight is not unknown or undocumented.
This work will continue to have worst days. Gut wrenching, heartbreaking, exhausting ones. And because of that we will continue to do it. We will continue to show up early on those days and stay late. We will take the work home with us, despite being told not to. We will worry, cry, and pray for our friends on the streets.
We will keep coming back because sometimes the woman whose hand you held when she said she had nowhere to go drops by the office to say hi and tell you more about her life. Sometimes the man whose wheelchair you pushed to a safe spot away from the bulldozers invites you to stay and chat the next time you pass his tent. Sometimes the stranger you bowed your head and prayed with becomes a lifelong friend.
And those are the best days.