home sweet home

The other day I watched a man with a long white beard in a worn suit walk across the street with the help of a cane, while I waited at the signal in my car. He walked so slowly I wasn’t sure he would make it across the street before the traffic light changed. Then I saw his shoes. They were at least two sizes too big. There was an inch of space between his heel and the back of the shoe. No wonder he walked slowly.

While I have nothing but his appearance to go on, my guess is that he is among the many homeless in America.

According to an April 2010 report by the National Alliance to End Homeless:

There is some troubling evidence that homelessness is beginning to increase among elderly adults. In addition, there are demographic factors — such as the anticipated growth of the elderly population as baby boomers turn 65 years of age and recent reports of increases in the number of homeless adults ages 50 to 64—that suggest a dramatic increase in the elderly homeless population between 2010 and 2020. While the country’s changing demographics may make this finding unsurprising, it has serious implications for providers of homeless services and should be deeply troubling to the policymakers that aim to prevent poverty and homelessness among the elderly through local and federal social welfare programs.

That report uses the term “sheltered homeless” as a reminder that sleeping outdoors on park benches or in a doorway is not the only criterion for labeling someone as homeless. In the summertime in Arlington, Virginia, volunteers in the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) Homeless Bagged Meal Program (I am one of them) prepare more bagged meals to serve in the evening at the two sites than they do in the winter. In the winter, more homeless persons find shelter for the night in buildings, not vehicles, getting their meals indoors.

As a child, I remember using the term “bum” to describe someone who looked like the man I watched cross the street. The stereotype then was that anyone who was homeless was either lazy, running away from something, or an alcoholic or worse – that the condition of homelessness was the result of poor choices by the individual. “They” brought it on themselves. Some may still choose to believe that stereotype, but the evidence indicates that there are single men, single women, children and families who live in their vehicles, in shelters, in public restrooms, or wherever they find protection from the elements and and other hazards. Now it is hard not to acknowledge that the primary cause of homelessness, poverty, can result from many different situations, most entirely out of the hands of those who end up without a home. Loss of a job, loss of a life partner, a serious medical condition – each of these can result in depletion of one’s life’s savings, then the loss of a home.

I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself other than firmly in the middle class. I’ll never be rich, if the measure of richness is solely money. And I will always consider the homeless person on the side of the road as my neighbor. We share the same space even if we don’t share the same circumstances.

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