Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The heartbreaking effects of homelessness

For a few years I worked for a non-profit that helped homeless children and their families get access to early education services and become self-sufficient. Our communications director used to joke that we never needed a public relations campaign because the thought of homeless children was compelling enough on its own. She was right, of course, as no one likes to think of children being homeless. As a result, people donated time and money to help our organization help these children.

As heartbreaking as the thought of a homeless child is, I had an even more profound experience with homelessness today. As I was driving to work this morning, I saw a young woman standing near the off-ramp of the highway with a cardboard sign that read "Homeless. Please help." As my car neared the place where the woman was standing, the light turned green and I drove past her with a line of cars both ahead of and behind me.

I knew as I passed, however, that I had to do something. For the first time, I saw someone who looked like me, standing on the side of the road, and it broke my heart. It really made me think—she could have been one of my friends. She could have been me.

We've all seen homeless men sitting around with their paper cups out, asking for change, walking around with their cardboard signs reading "Help a homeless vet," and "Will work for food." We've seen the woman with her shopping cart wearing eight layers of clothing. And when you've worked with homeless families, like I have, you've seen all kinds of women and their children. Black, white, recent immigrants, native speakers, old, young, educated, uneducated... I thought I'd seen it all.

But today I saw that woman and she looked like me. She was younger, granted, but not by much. She was probably in her early twenties. She wore a light jacket and carried a messenger-style bag over her shoulder. She looked like a college student.

For a minute, the thoughts of a scam ran through my head. She's so young! How could she be homeless? It must be an act.

But it was dreary today and raw. It had been drizzling all morning and showed no signs of stopping. Who would stand out in that weather looking ashamed if it was just a ruse?

Scam or not, I decided to go back. I stopped at a convenience store just down the road and bought some food. I tried to choose things that were both appealing and would provide some nutritional value—a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, a bag of trail mix, a bag of snack mix. I asked for a plastic bag and drove back to the girl on the side of the road. I had to honk, since she was on the far side of the median and her back was toward me. I motioned her over and she came in an instant.

"Here," I said. "I don't really carry cash, but I stopped and bought some food for you."

She looked at me with wide eyes and just said, "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"You're welcome," I said. "I hope it helps. Good luck."

She thanked me again and we looked at each other for a few seconds before I hopped back in my car. As I pulled away and turned around to drive to work, I saw someone else talking to her through the window of a car. I hoped that whoever it was might be able to help her.

I thought about that girl all day. Would she be okay? How did she get there—both literally and figuratively—in the first place? I wished that I had contacts in the area who could help her get the services she needed. My contacts from my former job were all hours away on the other side of the state, and it made me feel helpless.

Regardless of how the woman got there, homelessness is a real problem in America. It's easy to say "he brought it on himself!" when we see a grisly old man drinking on the street. And in some ways, maybe he did, but he—like 39% of the homeless, up to 76% of homeless vets—may be fighting a debilitating mental illness. The homeless woman with small children may have lost her home to a fire. A young woman may have left an abusive relationship. A young man may have aged out of the foster care system.

The point is, homelessness is devastating—not only for those who experience it firsthand, but for those in the community. It broke my heart to see that girl today; people shouldn't have to live like that in this country. We should all worry a little less about how people got in the situation and worry a little more about what we can do to prevent it from happening to other people.

And to the girl I saw today, I hope you're okay and that you've found a safe place to stay the night. Tomorrow is a new day; may it be the day you get back on your feet.

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