I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone.– Allen Ginsburg, New Stanzas for Amazing Grace
You got a fast car
We go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain’t got a job
I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted
We’ll move out of the shelter
Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs.—Tracy Chapman, Fast Car
Remember the homelessness crisis? It used to be something we cared about, but then we got tired of it, like a faded movie star who embarrassed us one time too many.
The guy on the corner, hustling up a couple bucks for a sandwich or Magnum Malt Liquor. The old woman with a swollen face, her black teeth pushing against wind-chapped lips. The woman and her three kids in the shelter, hoping that this time she won’t go back to the man who grabs her by the throat and slams her head against the wall. The Army veteran who mutters about the Agent Orange in his blood, turning his chromosomes to jelly.
Remember when they were in the news? Remember when they were on your mind? Remember when your heart ached as you considered their plight?
But there were Kardashians and Real Housewives to keep up with, there were dances with Stars, and billionaires promising to give everyone jobs. Important stuff. Who has time to cry about people who choose to live like the homeless do? We’ve got jobs to do, kids to take to Soccer Camp, and we can’t feel guilty about people who don’t have those responsibilities. Homeless people have it easy: they get free meals, free clothes, free medical care at the Free Clinic, a free ride. We have to pay, through the nose, for all those things. Sure, they live under bridges, or crowded like stacked firewood in shelters, or under dirty blankets behind the Dumpster. But life is a choice, and they choose to live like this. At least that’s the prevailing narrative.
For a number of years, I volunteered to be part of the annual Point in Time Homeless Count, where we tried our best to determine how many homeless people there were in our community, by actually counting them, on a single, cold, January night. We would bring them little gifts: a bar of soap, some snacks, a bottle of pure water, a list of programs that might help them. We would get them to talk if possible about why they were living on the streets on in a homeless shelter.
With few exceptions, we found that they were just like us. There was the forty-something guy, living along the railroad tracks, in a shack he had built out of scavenged scrap. He was from Upstate New York, and he had a college education, but here he was, in the freezing cold, at the end of the line. I asked him how it had happened.
He looked at something past my right shoulder. “First one thing happens and then something else. And then you’re here.”
Or there was the old woman, wrapped in a filthy blanket, on the fine granite steps of the First Baptist Church. She shivered—whether from the cold, or from fear—I don’t know, but it was a full-body spasm. I asked her why she was sleeping outside, instead of at the emergency cold weather shelter. “I’ve been raped five times in shelters. There’s a security light here, and the guards from the hospital,” she nodded towards the Emergency Room across the street, “they keep an eye on me.” She was someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. But they were not around anymore. She was probably insane, and likely addicted to something, but she had been young once, and dreamed the dreams that young girls dream.
In the morning, people would look right through her into space and pass with eyes of stone.