[Photo Credit: Amanda Shi & Monica Shi]
I was traveling out of state a few weeks ago, and it gave me the good occasion to meet a close friend for breakfast. I arrived a bit early, so I decided to use the restroom first.
To do this, I walked toward the ordering counter. Then, I barely turned my body left to follow the signs toward the restroom, and an employee instantly spoke up. “The code is 8700,” she said. Somehow, in that tiny turn of my body, she already knew I was going to the restroom rather than walking forward to order, and she told me immediately how to crack the code.
I recognized there was a tremendous amount of privilege in this exchange. Before I even ordered, this employee assumed I would be a paying customer. She granted me the privilege to use the restroom in that establishment even before I requested the code.
I would be a paying customer in a matter of minutes, but in a split second, as we frequently do, she had made a lot of quick assumptions. It was hospitable for her to give me that code, and I appreciated her doing it. But in one quick glance, I was a future paying customer and not the kind of person these keypad locks aim to keep out.
That is, I’m not a person in the throes of homelessness. I am not displaced or transient. I am not considered to be poor, nor am I associated with any stereotype that conveys, “This person just wants a handout,” like a free restroom.
I can understand a business wanting to limit their restroom usage to paying customers. But at the same time, this had me thinking about my privilege and how difficult these realities must be for people without shelter. In such situations, one must find creative and free solutions to meet basic, bodily needs, while simultaneously maneuvering social situations that are potentially stigmatizing and unwelcoming.
Love Wins Ministries is a community of presence and pastoral care in Raleigh, North Carolina for those who are experiencing homelessness. Hugh Hollowell, founder of this ministry, says something beautiful and eye-opening about homelessness: “The opposite of homeless isn’t housed; it’s community.” When people have opportunities to belong in community relationships, they are less vulnerable to living on the streets. Without community connections and spaces of welcome, people are banished to live on the streets almost indefinitely.
One form of privilege becomes obvious when we can easily use a public restroom. Many of us are wealthy in relationships and forms of public access. How will we honor the humanity of those whose access we’ve impoverished, and how can we change that reality through intentional acts of welcome?