Open Mic

Family of Man

Who do the homeless resemble? That’s simple: look in the mirror.

By Angie Moeller

Last night my oldest son came in from a late-night pizza run with his teenage friends. It had been raining and he was wearing a wool shirt and knit cap. “You look cozy,” I commented as he breezed by.

“One of my friends said, ‘You look like a homeless person’–the rest of them just laughed,” he offered. Before I could respond, this son who has volunteered for a homeless shelter and helped pack boxes of emergency food for needy families countless times stopped me with, “I know, Mom–they don’t have a clue.” And I knew then that a sad irony had not been lost on him, either.

These were the same kids who had been spotlighted in the local paper because they’d “toughed out” a night in the cold in an effort to learn what it was like to be homeless. Of course, even before this pizza run, my kid had shaken his head over his classmates who thought they knew what it was like to be homeless after spending one night on the manicured lawn in front of their many-thousand-square-foot home, or because they had brought some unwanted cans from their family pantry to dump into a collection box at school.

Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply grateful to all the schools in our county who sponsored special events and projects during Homelessness Awareness Week. It’s just that I realized we’d missed the mark on some fundamental level. These kids still don’t realize who the homeless are–or what they “look like.”

What does a homeless person look like? Pull out your most beloved’s baby photo and set it alongside the one I saw today taken of a newborn baby girl brought home from the hospital to a local emergency shelter for homeless families. Those pictures will be identical images of perfection, innocence, unspoiled hope.

What does a homeless person look like? Imagine the gap-toothed grin of an impish six-year-old excitedly awaiting her first visit from the Tooth Fairy. That’s another image of a homeless person in our own neighborhood.

What does a homeless person look like? Heck, my kid’s friends aren’t entirely wrong. Because another picture of a homeless person is a 16-year-old boy in a wool shirt and knit cap. It’s just that this boy would die if his friends ever found out that he really does live in a shelter with his mom and little brother since his dad was laid off three months ago and hasn’t found work since.

The better question might be what did a homeless person look like, because, yes, right now some of them do look dirty, sick, unshaven, crazy even.

But what did they look like before? The answers would be the same.

He was a beautiful baby.

She was a gap-toothed, trusting six-year-old girl.

He was a teenager hoping against hope in the face of unimaginable despair.

My kid’s friends aren’t bad kids; they’re just ignorant. Even the well-intentioned ones, the ones who tried to take seriously the assignments intended to help them empathize with “those homeless people.”

Like I said, we really missed the mark on that one, and we’ll keep on missing the mark until we all realize that “those homeless people” could be any one of us. That face on the letter asking for your hard-earned $20 could be any one of ours, if we hadn’t had the fortune to have been born into a sound and loving family, or graced with some inner strength to make it through life’s disasters without falling to mental illness or addiction.

You look just like a homeless person.

Angie Moeller works for the Committee on the Shelterless, a nonprofit serving the homeless in southern Sonoma County.

From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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