Monday, November 21

Shelter nights: Images of the homeless

Just as those seeking to alleviate African famines push the image of the children whose bellies are bloated by kwashiorkor and limbs are skin wrapped around bone and eyes are touched by flies, the opponents of homelessness have their dominant images. The first, and kinder, is of someone, generally younger, of college age or so, and clean, bending or crouching toward someone sitting and obviously homeless in layers of filthy shirts and coats. The younger offers the elder a tray of food or some clothes or just a smile. It demonstrates the work the organization does, offering both something concrete to and acknowledgment of the homeless people. The second image is of the homeless asleep outside, lying atop cardboard boxes, under a torn sleeping bag or too thin military surplus blanket. The face is always covered. The feet might be visible. These images show the material poverty of the homeless and their great need. They also seek to shame the viewer. Hidden underneath whatever they have to keep warm, the lumpy, sleeping bodies appear like bags of garbage. Do the homeless deserve to be treated like garbage is the underlying question.

Neither are the images I hold of the homeless. My image is of someone waiting, someone bored. Perhaps they are just sitting on a bench crowded on both sides by either people and blankly staring ahead for hours, or maybe they are someone who is woken from bed in the morning only to go directly to the day room, rest their head in their arms and go straight back to sleep. The most fortunate are actually waiting for something, for their housing application to go through and to be placed on a sixteen-month waiting list or to hear back from a temporary employer. The rest are just waiting because they are discouraged from being in and around many places, because their families are scattered or no longer see them, because they receive disability and can't work. The overwhelming boredom of homelessness is my first image of it.

My perception is skewed, of course. I have so far only worked in shelters, the provider of the most basic services and entry point for housing and other opportunities. I have never been a case manager, actively working with clients to file paperwork to move on, and have never spent time with outreach services, meeting people on the streets, but it is a facet of homelessness I am not likely to forget.

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