What Does a Homeless Person Look Like?

When I was around seven, I thought I knew what being homeless looked like. I knew it was the very smelly and very dirty “bum” I saw almost daily, poking through the garbage by my corner store, looking for discarded food. He frightened me a little, but on the days I stayed at school for lunch, I would often leave the sandwich my parents had packed me right on top of the garbage bin for him to find because I thought it was gross to eat someone’s half eaten food.

I knew what poor people looked like too. I used to beg my mom to adopt one of the babies I saw on the World Vision commercials while watching my Saturday morning cartoons. I would cry over these babies who had no water, wore dirty clothing, and had flies swarming all over them. If their mommies  couldn’t  take care of them better, my mom could!

How little I knew…

A few weeks ago, my ten-year-old son was preparing for his grade five class speech. He chose to write his on “Poverty in the Niagara Region”, and I, (who was busily cracking my knuckles preparing to hunker down with him and share my “expertise”) was very surprised when he handed me his finished copy. I was  proud of his insightfulness and resourcefulness in finding statistics that he could use. The only problem was that his idea of homelessness and poverty were exactly what I described above. It took me until I was close to 30 to understand that there are so many faces to these issues, so now, how do I explain them to a ten-year-old?

He is your classmate whose parents always send him to school with a fantastic lunch, but sometimes…he doesn’t get dinner because the family grocery budget doesn’t stretch that far. She is the 40-year old woman who has worked hard all her life, but lost her job, then lost her car, and lost her home. He is the new immigrant fleeing his country. She is the young girl who ran away from home to escape unimaginable things—but is the prettiest, bubbliest teenager you’d ever meet. She is your own mom dear son….who raised YOU in poverty.

Yes that’s right.

I’ll never forget the day I was told I was considered “living in poverty”. It was the first year I had been with the YWCA Niagara Region and I was attending my first annual general meeting.  Commissioner Brian Hutchings had been invited to speak, and he chose to speak on something that was very important and personal to him. The report, A Legacy of Poverty? Addressing Cycles of Poverty and the Impact on Child Health in Niagara Region had just been prepared for the Region and Brian was speaking not only about those statistics, but about his personal upbringing in poverty.  I was shocked as he read through this report, and described the struggles his mother went through. I was shocked and quickly beginning to feel like I had a spotlight on me in that room. I could feel my cheeks going bright red as it dawned on me that he was describing my own situation to a “T”. He was describing the way I was raising my son.

Weird… I didn’t feel poor. Sure I struggled at times…  I knew I dreamed of going into the grocery store and just getting whatever the hell I wanted with no regard to the total. I knew that instead of getting in the car on freezing cold blizzard-like days, JJ and I trudged to the bus stop and I spent the next hour trying to get him to school and me to work. I knew that school “pizza days” rarely happened for JJ, and that my shoe nut status had been downgraded quite considerably. But I wasn’t poor! My child wasn’t starving in Africa, and I sure as hell wasn’t eating out of the garbage can!

Well folks, in the eyes of this Region, I was. I was considered “the working poor”. Catchy little title isn’t it?

This made me really begin to reconsider my ideas of poor and homeless I began to realize just how many people are but a few steps from being considered working poor, or finding themselves standing in line at the local food bank, or even worse…homeless. Sometimes I still struggle with some of the faces I see in our shelter. She’s homeless? Guaranteed not a soul or stranger would know or guess that!

The point is, she is your neighbor, your co-worker, your mother, your daughter. He is the man in line at the Timmies. He is the man shopping for toys for his children at Community Care. She is the woman struggling with addictions, the teenager abandoned by her family, or the child wishing he could save part of his lunch for dinner.

There is no “face” to homelessness and poverty. There is just the need to open our eyes.


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