Op/Ed

Living Together: Don’t stereotype the homeless

ILLUSTRATION BY JACKIE Lorie

Tenth in a series

The writer of this piece, who wishes to remain anonymous, offers the column to show what it’s like to be without a place to call home.

I sat on a chair outside my teacher’s office, the classic institutional tile floors and endless painted cement block hallways stretched in either direction. My mother had been in there for 15 minutes, which was way too long and every minute she stayed mounted, exponentially, my feeling of doom. I was a good kid, I was bright and got good grades, I was compliant with teachers, and I made friends, many friends, easily. I knew people thought well of me, which exacerbated the growing dread. 

The door opened amid some niceties that don’t really matter, basically whatever exit strategy the two women had nonverbally agreed to — cordial, respectful and of course superficial. My teacher held out her hand to give me something, I reached out, palm opened, and her hand unfurled three gumdrops, releasing them into my hand. Three gum drops, no words. This was a teacher usually flush with treats, so I knew they were what she scrounged up from her desk. They were gum drops, low on the scale of candy deliciousness. Three of them, scraps, no words.

As a child, I knew we were homeless, not houseless or unhoused but homeless. This was for a period of just under a year. We slept in basements, garages, on the floor, all of us on a single twin bed, chairs (recliners please), anywhere we could stay for any amount of time. Houseless or unhoused gives no respect for the experience or depth of pain of someone who lacks a stable, safe place to live. Homelessness was painful. I owned no more than what I could carry with me, let me carry my pain. As a child I knew we had places to sleep, but I knew we were homeless even though those words were never spoken. Homeless, unhoused, houseless aside, my teacher was easier on me and expected less of me than before. She treated me differently, and it made me different. I think it was antithetical to the result she wanted. 

It was good intent, but it was really for her benefit. She felt better because she was being helpful but to me it said 1. you aren’t capable, 2. you’ll never get anywhere, 3. you are less than you were before. A lesson I’ve learned in my profession is it harms people more to have something taken away than to never have been given it. My home was taken, my things were taken, my security taken and now my teacher has taken back a part of who I was, what she gave to me. But I got three gumdrops, they were leftovers, and no words. I was the same, but she made me different.

I don’t want to procure your sympathy or pity. I’m not interested in trying to increase your empathy; you either have it or you don’t. I’ve been increasingly involved in Addison County and the meetings and discussions regarding homelessness. I considered writing a piece that reflected on my profession, that connected the work and values that I uphold in my field of expertise to what is happening with homelessness and our response. Frankly, I found it boring and likely something that people have heard before. “According to these statistics….” but realistically I don’t see it changing the lens through which people look at homelessness. I don’t know the answers on how to change the lens, but I do know what it needs to look like, and I hope, if you are reading this, you take a moment to convey what you think it would look like. 

• When you see people living under the bridge, your shock and disbelief is because you are reminded of the invisible number of children, families and vulnerable adults in shelters that vastly outnumber what you see on the streets.

• You believe that the human condition is marked by our ability to transcend adversity and you are drawn to appreciate and hold in regard the strength of people who struggle.

• We make investments that are meaningful and impactful. Housing that is safe and affordable, food that is as nutritious as it is joyful to eat, clothing that is clean and intact, personal connections that are genuine and reciprocal because people can’t rebound from homelessness on less than it takes for you to survive in the same community. 

• That you don’t see me differently because of my experience of being homeless. Until then, I’ll remain anonymous because, at least today, people will try to see if there are remnants of the pain behind my otherwise ordinary, “normal” and upstanding exterior; squinting as if you could look harder or more closely, then you’ll see homelessness somehow carved into my being, like those memes where squinting at a picture of three girls eating pizza turns into Nicolas Cage. I work and live with you, but my experience stays in the shadows of my life.

Editor’s note: The picture accompanying this was created by Charter House Coalition Board member Jackie Lore.

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