I read the numbers. They are in the paper in abundance. x number of homeless families, x number of black boys being kicked out of schools compared to white, the school-to-prison pipeline, x number of families with no health insurance. You have read them too.
After meeting a group of children ages six to fourteen that has completed a photography project on homelessness, I am convinced that images and stories, and not statistics ultimately move us to compassion. Even with good deeds I am not sure how we will address our country’s downward spiral in services, empathy and justice that dizzies in its speed and cruelty.
Madison, Juni, Edwin, X-Man, Darryle, Sundae, Jaidah, Freeman, Joey, Adaunus, Breanna, Ena, Daijah, Cheyenne and Justin tried to capture what homelessness meant to them in a photography exhibit at the Minneapolis Photography Center. They had been working on this theme all summer with a group called EDIT, the same group that had given young people cameras after the tornado to record their thoughts and pictures. Many of these young people had experienced being without a home in their lives at one point or another.
One six year-old boy took a picture of a bird that had died. He filtered it in blue. He wanted a line in our group poem to be, simply, “Homelessness is like when a bird is being dead.” Of all the images– bare light-bulbs, tired faces, men sleeping on park benches—the one of the bird startled me. It seemed to capture the fragility of each life lived without a consistent room, a sanctified space away from heat or rain or lightning. Somehow, it also captured the fragility of children themselves, of how some of them live lives of utter insecurity and anxiety.
How often we comment how shameful it is that over twenty-five per cent of children in the United States go hungry at night, have no adequate living space. How often we shake our heads at the statistics that tell us about the effects of poverty on young people, not to mention what it causes in adults. Yet when a child tells about sleeping in his car or a girl describes searching in dumpsters with her mother, we are moved beyond what a recitation of facts and figures leaves with us.
I am not saying we don’t need those who do research, those who apply for grants to provide food or shelter. I am just struck by how energized we become when we know that a human being in front of us slept under a bridge the night before, or that a father works night and day shifts when he can to put food on his table. It is out of this story telling, or the picture in the paper, or the documentary or news story that all the facts and numbers and statistics come to life.
More and more, those I know and love, who have always cared about these basic needs have decided to focus on the local, on the tangible. They work in shelters, or soup kitchens or create arts spaces, homeless shelters for youth, or bring a food shelf into their school for students and parents. While they will pay attention to the national news, canvas for voters for their candidate, many of them, including me, have lost faith that the big system will change any time soon. We have settled for what is right before us, what is needed on our street, in our neighborhood.
It is difficult to realize that, as we go about our meager efforts, individual actions are not enough. We know that national policy has to change on a grand scale to truly address the insanity of babies going unfed, children going hungry and homeless, adults waiting for hours for medical care that arrives once a year to a stadium near them.
We also know that it is our own sanity we are guarding when we become active locally. We do this because we would arrive in a place of utter despair if we did not. Always lurking in the back of our minds is the shadow of even further breakdowns in benevolence and care for each citizen. Lurking there is the thought that it could be even worse than it is now. The fragility of that tiny boned bird, the stopping of that small, madly fluttering heart, may symbolize more and more of our children as the years go along.
The kids know all of this. Some of them have lived it. They have recorded it. In our city, in our neighborhoods, they are there watching and hoping we can help them now, and in some grand way, by creating an astounding swerve from our present course, in the future too.