The stories keep making the news. Citizens everywhere are fighting to keep homeless camps out of suburban neighborhoods. Outraged homeowners claim it is a safety issue. They are quick to pass judgment. After all, isn't the ultimate goal to protect and preserve the pretty picture?
I certainly hope not.
As a volunteer and a journalist, I’ve spent time with men and women living on the streets. They are just people. Some are kind. Some are distant. Others are down right mean. Some fight illnesses. Some fight inner demons. Others fight to keep a positive attitude. Some are married. Some have children. Others wander the streets alone. Similar circumstances loop the homeless into one big group but ulimately, the group is made up of individuals.
A roof doesn’t define an individual person’s character. It's true, some homeless turn to crime. So do people living in multimillion dollar estates. Statistically, homeless people committ less violent crimes than housed people, does that mean we should hide from our neighbors?
I understand being concerned. It's important to look out for the safety of your family. Still, is that the real issue? Are people fighting to keep commmunities safe or are they fighting for something superficial? Aren't people more important than preserving the image of shutters and well manicured lawns?
Here is a short story I wrote on the topic:
I smell her before I see her. She stands behind me, a confused look on her wrinkled face. No one says a word.
She doesn’t seem to notice the disgust in their eyes. I’m not sure she understands. I’m not sure she knows how badly they want her to disappear.
We’re all in line at the department store, holding various items destined for the back of overstocked closets. We smell like perfume and laundry detergent. We wear stylish pressed clothes. We take pride in our pretty hair and pretty smiles. Not her.
She wears a torn white t-shirt and urine soaked sweat pants. She’s not in line or out of line. She just stands there, floating between us. Her graying brown hair is knotted and filthy. From the deep frown lines, the thin cracked lips and the bags under her eyes, I’d guess she’s fifty.
She mumbles to herself.
The unnaturally blonde woman behind her looks at me, making that “Oh My God Can You Believe it Face.” Or maybe it’s “Oh My Gosh,” because she wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. She’s to pretty, to clean, to rich.
I wait for someone to come. Surely, someone will come. They’ll ask the confused woman what she needs. They’ll help her. There’s a homeless shelter downtown and a hospital just ten miles down the road.
Still, no one comes.
We all try to focus on other things, like the televisions playing music videos overhead. In the meantime, we get lucky. When we’re not looking, the woman leaves the store.
Now it’s my turn to pay. I step up to the register. The cashier looks relieved, removing my purchase’s security tags with a pleasant smile. Still, the smell lingers.
I pull out some plastic and pay for my new shirt. It’s pink with little yellow flowers. I found it on the sale rack. Only 19.99.
I sign my name, take the bag and say thank you.
As I walk away, I hear the woman next in line whisper to the cashier. “Did you see that?” “What was that woman doing?’ “It’s so sad.”
I stop at the bathroom to wash my hands and check my lipstick. I’m meeting a friend for lunch. I toss a wad of paper towels into the trashcan and head out, refreshed.
In the parking lot, I try not to see her. I look down at the pavement until I reach my four-door sanctuary. I pretend she isn’t there, wandering alone. I pretend it doesn’t look like it might rain.
I know what I’m about to do.
I take one last look at the woman and I turn the ignition. Then, I deliberately look away. I turn on the radio and tune it to a pop song.
I make a right out of the parking lot, just as it starts to rain.