One recent night my eldest son came in from a late-night pizza run with his teenage friends. It had been raining and he was wearing a wool shirt and knit cap. "You look cozy," I commented as he breezed by.
"One of my friends said, 'You look like a homeless person' ... the rest of them just laughed," he said. This is the son who has volunteered for a homeless shelter and helped pack boxes of emergency food for needy families countless times. Before I could respond, he stopped me with, "I know, Mom, they don't have clue." And I knew that a sad irony had not been lost on him, either.
These were the same kids who just the week before were featured in the local paper because they'd "toughed out" a night in the cold in an effort to learn what it was like to be homeless. Of course, even before this pizza run, my kid had shaken his head over his classmates, who thought they knew what it was like to be homeless after spending one night on the manicured lawn in front of their many-thousand-square-foot home or because they had brought some unwanted cans from their family pantry to dump into a collection box at school.
Don't get me wrong; I was deeply grateful to all the schools in our county that sponsored special events and projects during the recent Homelessness Awareness Week. It's just that I realized we'd missed the mark on some fundamental level.
These kids still don't realize who the homeless are -- or what they "look like." What does a homeless person look like?
Pull out your most beloved's baby photo and set it alongside the one I saw of a newborn girl brought "home" from the hospital to a local emergency shelter for families. Those pictures will be identical images of perfection, innocence, unspoiled hope.
What does a homeless person look like? Imagine the gap-toothed grin of an impish 6-year-old excitedly awaiting her first visit from the Tooth Fairy. That's another image of a homeless person in our neighborhood.
What does a homeless person look like? Heck, my kid's friends aren't entirely wrong. Another picture of a homeless person is a 16-year-old boy in a wool shirt and knit cap. It's just that this boy would die if his friends ever found out that he really does live in a shelter with his mom and little brother since his dad was laid off three months ago and hasn't found work since.
The better question might be what did a homeless person look like, because, right now, some of them do look dirty, sick, crazy even. But what did they look like before?
And the answers would be the same. He was a beautiful baby. She was a gap-toothed, trusting 6-year-old girl. He was a teenager hoping against hope in the face of unimaginable despair.
My kid's friends aren't bad kids. They're just ignorant. Even the well-intentioned ones, the ones who tried to take seriously the assignments intended to help them empathize with "those homeless people." As I said, we really missed the mark on that one, and we'll keep on missing the mark until we all realize that "those homeless people" could be any one of us.
That face on the solicitation letter asking for your hard-earned $20 could be any one of ours, if we hadn't had the fortune to be born into a sound and loving family, or graced with some inner strength to make it through life's disasters without falling to mental illness or addiction.
You look just like a homeless person.