Today, for Earth Day, we have an insightful guest post by 17 year old Elijah Kent, a multi-talented scholar, athlete, and musician and all-around good guy. If you recognize his last name, it's because he's Tim and Rhonda's eldest son.
Last year, my school took a day in the spring to go out into the city and pick up trash in the downtown area. We cleaned parks, sidewalks, gardens, and parking lots; collected cigarette butts, beer cans, wrappers, old McDonald’s coffee cups, and all other manner of waste (some that one hopes never to encounter)! While we were in one of the downtown parks, I noticed a large, middle-aged woman sitting on a park bench. This woman had clearly experienced devastating loss that had left her in a state of hopelessness. She was, as we say, homeless.
Now, the thing about homelessness is that it is a societal issue that ranks right up there with gender and race inequality and world hunger. Some of the world’s most brilliant minds and compassionate hearts have worked tirelessly to completely eliminate the issue of homelessness but to date, have fallen short. But, I believe that this is because homelessness is not actually the problem, but rather the symptom of a much deeper problem: lack of community.
You and I understand community well. We experience it every day. Community is dinner with your family, a walk in the park with your spouse, and bringing the kids to visit grandma and grandpa. It’s coffee with a co-worker, meeting with your book club, and going to the gym with your best friend. Community is a network of people that you love and that love you. So, what is homelessness, and maybe more importantly, why are the homeless despised and cast out?
Your view of a homeless person may likely be the man with the grey beard, wearing ripped clothes, missing teeth, often smoking, who sleeps in the bush or in the alley or on random front porches. He is in fact homeless, but so is the young man who stands at the busy intersection with the cardboard sign that reads “homeless and hungry”. So is the teenager that dropped out of school and spends his nights going from couch to couch with nowhere to go. Even the single mother who can’t afford to feed her children or pay the rent and faces eviction is homeless. These people have no “safety net”, no community.
You know what happened as we walked through that park on that cold, spring morning? Everybody avoided that poor woman. What she needed most in that time of her life was a friend, and do you know what she got? The cold shoulder, disgusted glances, and snickering teenage boys making fun of her old, oversized clothes. Even the teachers steered clear of her like she was some kind of disease! Why? Why do we do that as a society? I see why everybody avoided her, it wasn’t that long ago when I would have done the same thing.
I think that it is fear. We are constantly playing in our minds all of the negative scenarios, all of the ways that it could go wrong and in the end we make the choice to do nothing, to snicker and laugh with our friends as we walk by. “What if she assaults me” we say. “What if she tells me to buzz off”? “What will my friends think if I go talk to her”? It all goes through our minds in a split second, and we decide it’s not worth it as we walk by. The media, news, movies, television; it all tells us that the homeless are “bad people”. They are perceived as dirty, evil, alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill freaks when really, they may just be someone in need of a friend.
Think about this for just a second: If you were to lose everything you had over night, materially speaking, and you were left with nothing, would you become “homeless”? No, right? This is because you will always have a family member who will offer you a room or help you get a job, and you will always have a friend that will cook meals for you, give you some money to get back on your feet. You have a safety net. You see, homelessness only occurs when there is no safety net, no community. So, we need to constantly be in community with people around us in order to prevent homelessness and provide community to those who are already homeless, and hopeless. When we are connected to people, invested in them, when we truly know them we will care about their wellbeing.
Sandra. Her name was Sandra. As everyone else walked by, I went over and sat with her. We talked, shared stories, laughed, and got to know each other. I bought her a coffee and made her smile, likely for the first time in a very long time. I got to be the light in her day. I got to show her that someone out there actually cares for her and loves her. I got to show her that she matters. And all it took was for me to sit down and talk to her. Sometimes you should sit on the bench.
Erin Hatton is a mom of 4, fiction author, and family support worker at Redwood Park Communities.