"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think."
-Michel de Montaigne

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Face of Homelessness

"We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."

-Martin Luther King Jr.

This week the temperature in Atlanta dropped to an unprecedented low for this time of the year, clocking in at 15 degrees Fahrenheit this past Tuesday morning. Walking to work from my car, completely unprepared for the sudden shock of winter weather, I could only think: how do the homeless do it?

The truth is I already knew the answer to this question, in part, because I've been homeless. Twice in fact. I am the face of homelessness.

When I was a young child, about 2 or 3, my mother and I were homeless for awhile. I don't really remember it, but my mother has told me stories of us sleeping in her car. The lights and rattling of the city bus would frighten me, so she'd place a blanket over my head at night to help me sleep. In the morning we'd wake, and wash ourselves in a Taco Bell bathroom.

As an undergraduate student, after a series of unfortunate financial and personal circumstances, I found myself homeless again. I was an Honors student sleeping on the subway. Every penny I had, I scraped together to afford the 2.5 hour bus ride to and from college, and the occasional item from the dollar menu to feed myself. During the day I walked around New York City visiting free places like St. John's cathedral or the NYPL to stay warm. Luckily I still managed to look presentable, or even these luxuries would have been denied to me by well-meaning security guards protecting patrons or customers from the uncomfortable reminder of poverty in their midst. Now I work at one of the finest research institutions in the world. I go home everyday to a comfortable and modest house. I am well-fed and have insurance and the luxury of time to be able to write. I'm nearly finished with my Master's degree.

I say this not to brag about some arduous journey that I've come through victoriously, but rather, to say I could very well be homeless again. And so could you.

Lately I've learned that Atlanta, my own city, has the highest rate of homeless children in America. I've also recently read about the alarming increase of tent cities across America. In Florida alone there are a projected 8,000 people living in the woods near Disney World. While tourists spend nearly $100 in admission for the privilege of playing in a fantasy world, 8,000 people live in the shadows of Cinderella's castle in pop-up tents, cooking their food in coffee cans. Please understand, I am not condemning people for wanting a good time. But I do feel that there must be some sort of coming together as a society, or we will perish.

I don't know where I am going with this post emphatically, other than to say that something's got to change in this country. We need to wake up. Stop bum-rushing stores and trampling each other for gizmos from China, and start looking at each other, talking to each other again. Start helping one another with the same voracity we use to please ourselves. Not just because it's cold outside. Not just because it's nearly Christmas. But because our collective fate is determinant upon it. Because it's time to be human again. Because the true success of our lives is measured by what we do to help one another chip away at the overwhelming struggle that life guarantees.

One small step we can take is to understand the face of homelessness. It is not always the crazed beggar on the train, or the limbless veteran downtown that you give change to on occasion. It is families. Children. Someone's impoverished grandma. It could be the Honors student you sit next to in class. It could very well be you.

Check out this article by The Huffington Post about tent cities in America.

Get the latest facts about poverty in America.

Connect with a local charity you care about.

Say 'No' to the extravagant and indulgent lifestyle we've come to accept as the American Dream, and live within your means.

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