It is funny how much of our perception as a child is that of our parents. I don’t remember a whole lot about when I was homeless because I was so young. If you would’ve asked me what homelessness was back then my answer would’ve been completely different than now. I would’ve painted you a picture of what I saw and felt through the love of my mother. However, at that time homelessness had a completely different appearance. Homelessness was a huge, new building filled with people who gave you free candy and toys, a free public playground, a room where I never had to pretend I wasn’t afraid of the dark because me and my family all huddled up and slept together.
Back then my mother would say, “Prayer is important and we’re sticking together, because we’re getting closer to where we need to be.”
Years later my mother uncovered the veil of bliss that clouded my perception when we lived in the Life Haven Mother and Children Shelter by saying: “I never thought my situation was bad enough for me to be in a shelter, but I was homeless. Having been there, it’s really truly not good to judge people based on what you see. We were all there. We were all moms, but we were all there for different reasons. We were all in the same predicament, just got there in different ways.”
My family ended up in a shelter after my little brother got lead poisoning when he was two. We were in an apartment that wouldn’t pass the city inspection. The landlord didn’t want to spend the money to get the apartment up to code. After years of dealing with this, my mother finally admitted that she just didn’t have the money to move suddenly. She had three kids and felt it would be a hassle to overcrowd her mom’s 2 bedroom townhouse.
My young mind couldn’t comprehend transitional housing, shelters, lead poisoning, RAP, Section 8 and legal suits. At that time, my situation seemed simpler, we lived in a house. Then my baby brother got sick. That is when my mom packed us up and moved away. There weren’t any tears shed, at least not that I remember. There wasn’t any walking around for days in dirty clothes, at least not that I remember smelling. There wasn’t any begging behind a sign, at least not that I remember. There weren’t any skipped meals. I also don’t remember feeling my stomach growling.
No, homelessness wasn’t heartbreaking. It looked like mommy smiling; it smelled like cafeteria food, right before we all broke bread together. It sounded like laughing on a playground full of plenty of little girls, that I could make my new friends. Homelessness tasted like that hot peach cobbler, Mama Luz made in the big kitchen that closed at 8pm sharp. Even though I had to share one bowl with my sister and brother, it was still the best treat to look forward to every Friday.
Yet, now that I’m older, I no longer adopt my mother’s perception of life. Homelessness has a whole new face, sound, smell, feel, and taste. Homelessness is that man on MARTA, with the dirty face and the dilapidated clothing. When I think of homelessness, I picture a mother and her kids, someone like my mother; minus the laughter, food and shelter. I picture a mother pushing a carriage full of her belongings, while she holds a crying, hungry infant in her arms and a toddler clinging onto her side. These are examples of the most common cases of homelessness that most people witness.
In the course of 15 years I’ve had the chance to see homelessness from so many vantage points. According to the National Coalition for The Homeless, there are three types of homelessness:
Chronic: those who inhabit shelters for long periods of time
Transitional: those who don’t have a place to stay temporarily
Episodic: those who can’t maintain a stable living situation typically due to addiction.
Most people have a very narrow-minded perception of homelessness, usually what they’ve seen in the most extreme cases. Yet, by definition any person lacking a stable place of shelter is homeless whether that be for a month or whether that be for years. If people broadened their perception of homelessness, they’d see a point of relatability between themselves and people in different stages of homelessness. There are homeless people who are in the situation that I was in. There is the homeless man on MARTA, or maybe the classmate from college, who always seemed to have everything he owns in his car
The truth is, homelessness doesn’t have one distinct look, smell, sound, or feel; all of these factors vary depending on the person, place, and situation. It could happen to anyone. It is so important to have a loving, open heart, because you might cross paths with someone who seems to be doing fine and not even know their homeless.