Yesterday morning was the coldest so far this fall, but the homeless man at the park was in his usual spot.
He sits at a table in a picnic shelter every morning until the temperatures become too bitter for even him to bear. And then, he disappears, and I won’t see him for a while.
But most of the year, I see him every day, and we’ve come to treat each other in a manner that neighbors often do.
From a distance, we wave greetings. He always makes a point of waving.
When we are closer, we say “hello” and “how are you?” Sometimes, he smiles and pats my dog’s head, despite my dog’s efforts to jump on him.
But we’ve never had a real conversation. Maybe that’s because we both seem quite satisfied with maintaining our casual relationship. Or maybe it’s because I’ve heard him scream obscenities at other people and, despite my best intentions, I fear he will do the same to me.
But he’s never screamed at me. He’s just offered me a smile, appropriate words and an occasional knowing look when my dog gets a little too excited.
I don’t know his story. I do know that he appears to carry his life in his backpack and that every morning he eats his breakfast while reading a newspaper or a book. I know he grooms himself in the bathroom at the park until it is closed for the winter. And I know he wears flip-flops on his feet no matter the weather.
I also know that he is the face of homelessness for me, even when I also know there is no typical face of homelessness.
The face of homelessness is the face of a young mother holding her child in the doctor’s office. She is escaping a violent relationship.
The face of homelessness is the face of a student in your child’s classroom. His family is “couch surfing,” or staying with various friends and families since Dad lost his job and the family lost its home to foreclosure.
The face of homelessness is the face of your neighbor’s son, who has struggled with mental illness for years. His family doesn’t want to talk about his situation.
As a country, we tend to paint a picture of homelessness as a “bum” sleeping on a park bench or on a stoop in a city. In reality, the face of homelessness is as diverse as our population, and every homeless person has a story and a family.
Next week, November 16 – 24, is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. This isn’t just an opportunity for groups and organizations to highlight the work they do to fight hunger, homelessness and poverty (although the work they do is extremely important.)
The week is really about recognizing that there is no vaccine against homelessness, that very few of us are immune to it and that almost all of us interact with homeless and hungry people every day. We often just don’t realize it, especially because homelessness can be easily hidden from those who don’t want to see it.
It’s time we all start looking.