Our failure as a nation


The six year-old girl, I will call Anita, watched a Leggo tower collapse: she then twirled around perfectly so she landed in my arms as I sat on the floor of Kids Korner at Homeless Connect day at the Convention Center. Again and again she built up the blue, red, yellow and white blocks above her height, pushed them over and did her spiral dance to each time arrive on my lap. For almost a half an hour she came back to me, staying just a moment as I hugged her before she jumped up to re-construct the tower.  A newly arrived little girl picked up a book and without saying any words aloud pointed to it, and to me. I smiled and we began to read about Oscar the Grouch. Anita still aimed herself toward my arms so that I was trying to read and catch her at the same time. One of the young women volunteers in the room nodded to me and then turned Anita to twirl in her direction.

All morning I had escorted various adults to haircuts, ID services, dental appointment arrangements and other services. As he sat down to get his long white hair trimmed, one man looked at the barber and told her “Just cut it the way you would want your boyfriend to look,” and laughed. Another young man told me about his efforts to stay away from cocaine and heroin and that he was on his eighth month being clean.

Single men with their daughters arrived, grandmothers with infants walked into Kids Korner to leave them off while they went to find out about possible housing. Young men and women, came on their own. It was a day to be inside, getting mammograms, glasses, dental work, a hot meal and a variety of counseling sessions.  People and agencies providing Spiritual guidance, information on free clothing, employment and more were lined up in rooms along three floors.            

What struck me during this day was my temptation to generalize, to feel I had learned about homelessness. In my next encounter or during lunch conversation, I began to understand how little I knew about the situation of each of the complicated men, women and children who came for help.  Even Anita, bouncing back into my arms, had me surmising that she wanted consistency, a repetition of being caught, because she had so little of it on the streets or in different shelters. I attached almost symbolic meaning to her play. Yet my son played the same kind of repetitive games when he was her age, loving repetition of stories, hugs, hide and seek. 

When confronted with human beings who experience homelessness, there is something in us that wants to abstract what we are seeing to make it bearable. Just having a theory or an explanation based in numbers, principles or politics gives us a category to put this experience into, a frame that makes it manageable for us to go on with our privileged lives.  Everything I write about this day feels pale, lacking in the enormity of being with young and old, men and women and babies, who, after one of the biggest snowfalls in two years, would be leaving to go back out in search of a place to stay the night.

The volunteers who were there for the day as guides, as dentists, as barbers, as employment specialists, and as veteran’s workers each had their own story. Some were back for the fourteenth time, some, like me, were there for the first time. Some were senior citizens, some college students, others in between. One woman had brought her class from St. Katherine’s University for the day as part of her public health class. All around me were those who may have been feeling as I do, the utter insanity of having over three hundred souls on the streets each evening in Hennepin county. Volunteers may be there out of guilt, helplessness, despair or love. And those we served that day had as many situations and motivations behind them as these volunteers. We did not know, in any depth, the story, the childhood or the struggle that led them in the doors of the Convention Center that day. Some of us first timers were confused about where services were located as we hustled to guide those who had come for help. In a reversal of roles, those who had come for help ended up showing us how to navigate the maps and signs. This place was all business, all getting it done, finding the right service, the right agency. I did not feel one bit of condescension, condemnation, blame or judgment on the part of those who volunteered that day. What was clear was the absolute worth and dignity of each of us.

I am not naïve. I know there are those who feel that if people who are homeless just tried they could get their life together. I know there are those who have no sympathy for men struggling to stay off drugs, or women who cannot find affordable childcare and are trying raise families alone. I know there has been an avoidance of mentioning homelessness itself, or even poverty, on the part of national and local politicians. On this day, at this place, none of that was in evidence. Given the multiplicity of race, culture, languages and situations; given veterans from four different wars, families who had two minimum wage jobs, teenagers kicked out of their homes and combinations of all of the above, simplistic solutions or theories would have appeared absurd here.

Anita, the twirling dervish in the Kids Korner, back and back for repeated embraces, was simply Anita, slim and dressed in a purple sweatshirt, laughing as she tumbled, as her tower tumbled around us.

 In addition to admiration for the group committed to ending homelessness that organized this remarkable event, and with deep respect for all who work toward this goal, there is one overall reaction I am left with days after participating as a volunteer. I believe we are a nation guided by a willful ignorance and avoidance of those without shelter. We are a nation that is heartless and cruel at some elementary level when the infant in my arms at the end of the day at Kids Korner, is left in the cold at night, huddled against his mother. These twin feelings, admiration and anger, have been with me for most of my adult years. The hard part– a national movement to end the situation of those living without homes– is not happening. Until we meet the needs for food and shelter, for all those who live in our community and our country, how can we expect to have a clear conscience as a people?