Ways of Seeing: Homelessness comes into focus

Abi Sessions

I traveled to Washington, D.C., last year about this time. When I arrived with my little vacation suitcase and emerged from the Metro downtown at Union Station, I encountered a sight which took my breath away. On the grass in the middle of the large traffic roundabout were fifteen, maybe twenty makeshift shelters: tents and tarps and plastic sheets. Not a protest encampment, an encampment of people with no place else to sleep.

I pretended not to be shocked, but I was. I was also inclined to pause, to watch, to wonder, maybe to reach out in some way. Or maybe just to gawk. But, like everyone else entering or departing Union Station, I looked away. We crossed with the light and moved on, focused on our plans for the day.

That disturbing Union Station encampment has become an iconic image for me, dramatically representing all people who are without a home, there and here and everywhere.

What do I know about the people living in those ragged shelters? Only one thing: they are homeless. They have no place to take a shower, to wash their clothes, to cook a meal, to sleep, to sit around and watch the birds. No safe place to keep their stuff.

Yes, this is tragic. But what’s also tragic is that too often this is the only story we see. To allow “homeless” to become her only story will rob a person of her dignity, her past, and the beauty of her full personhood. Who is she really? Who was she before — before whatever happened to cause her current unhoused situation? What are her passions, her skills? How would I ever know?

Because I was yearning for answers to questions like these, I was excited to discover a New York Times article titled “What’s Homelessness Really Like?” Susan Shain and Aiden Gardiner interviewed 30 people who are homeless in New York City, and Lauren Tamaki provided portrait sketches. The questions begin with “How did you come to experience homelessness?” Here are some responses.

I had been going along my merry way as a regular user of meth while leading a life as an adjunct professor of anthropology. (Shea, age 42)

I was working on my associate’s degree while living with my mother, and we lost our home of 15 years. She is a veteran who had been struggling with mental health issues. While she was institutionalized, I received a notice from her bank saying they were going to start foreclosure.

(Akusua, age 42)

I went to live and work for this 93-year-old woman in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. I gave up my place. We put all our stuff in this storage facility in Talent, Ore. There was a wildfire in California in August 2020, and her house burned down. I was heading back to Oregon two weeks later when I found out about the wildfire in Talent. I called a woman at the storage facility. She said, “It’s all gone.” (Ana, age 70)

I had a great job. You have credit cards, right? You know that little hologram on the back of the card? I made those. I was a machinist. But cancer riddled my life — testicular cancer spread to my lungs. I had breast cancer, and they took out my right eye. I couldn’t work anymore. Five or six years ago, I got evicted. (Adam, age 61)

My mother, the last five years of her life, was bedridden. She was a very hard worker and retired as management at the Chicago Transit Authority. Then she had four strokes. I sold my house, and I moved in with her … But she took out a reverse mortgage for 24-hour care. By the time she passed, the interest had accumulated, and it was $46,000. That, I didn’t have. They came in November 2017 and locked me out of the building. (Claro, age 70)

Why do I find these stories so compelling? I think it’s because they are stories about ordinary people making good decisions or bad decisions, taking risks that didn’t pan out, or victims of circumstances or climate change. They’re regular people just like you and me, who have ended up on the street.

On Homelessness Awareness Day I stood on the Middlebury Green and held a sign that said “Don’t Look Away,” for the passing motorists to see. I am resolved now to take my own advice. I want to stop looking away.

I remember being at a meeting where Heidi, the Executive Director of Charter House Coalition, invited folks to come by for lunch, to visit with the interesting people who were guests at the Charter House shelter in downtown Middlebury. Maybe one of these days I’ll get up the nerve to take her up on that invitation.

Abi Sessions, formerly of Cornwall, lives in Weybridge with her husband, Bill.

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