The word homeless conjures images of old men with straggly hair, dirt-encrusted fingernails, and dirty clothes, wandering the sidewalks amid downtown high-rises. Bums. Hobos. Street people.
But many times, the faces of the homeless are unrecognizable.
I was at the Salvation Army services center yesterday, picking up a friend. I sat in the simple vinyl-padded chair in the lobby, waiting. Steady streams of groups of men and women walked past, going to and from services, and lunch – they looked like they were army units, traveling together and on a schedule. I watched two women speaking with the receptionist. They were normal, everyday women, wearing normal clothes – T-shirts and capris. They could have been shoppers at the mall, or the moms of your kids’ friends. They weren’t dirty; they had no bags. I assumed they were there to pick someone up, or visit, just like me. They came and sat a few rows behind me, waiting. Just like I was.
The director of the shelter which housed the women and children came to the waiting area, and we said our hello’s. I’d met her twice before during a child neglect case I was working on. But she hadn’t come to see me. She sat beside the two women behind me, and listened to their story.
The older woman, who seemed about my age, did all of the talking. This is what I overheard:
My husband was in jail for a year. Again. He doesn’t have a job. I’m sick of this – I can’t live like this anymore. The rent hasn’t been paid and I have no money. I’ve tried to get a job, but I only found one – a waitress. They wanted me to wear a short skirt, and I told them I couldn’t do that. I’m fifty years old, and I can’t dress like that. My daughter is twenty (pointing to the girl) and she’s looking for a job as well. My mom lives up north, and I have no one here to go to. They’ve kicked us out of our home.
She began to cry, burdened by the shame and fear of her situation.
We are homeless; we have nowhere to go. Can we stay here?
The director proceeded to tell her that the beds were full, but they could sleep on floor mats until a room became available. And she proceeded to explain the rules of the Center, which were many.
These are not new “faces of the homeless”, but they are faces that you might not associate with a shelter. So, the next time you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or the post office, the homeless may just be among you. Tragedy happens to regular people too.
Shelters aren’t just for hobos.