In a quest to do my first documentary, I chose to focus on homelessness because during my business travels, I was seeing more and more homeless people, especially women on the streets of large metropolitan cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, San Diego, Chicago, and definitely here in the nation’s capital.
So, as an aspiring photojournalist, I started out making huge mistakes by making assumptions based on my very limited knowledge of what homelessness does and does not look like. And based on those assumptions, I viewed homelessness as someone who’s dirty, disheveled, or even grungy looking.
But damn, who am I to talk? If anyone caught a glimpse of me walking my dogs before 5 o’clock in the morning or after 11 o’clock at night, one could easily jump to the conclusion that I was homeless. After all, I’m out in my severely wrinkled, slept-in PJs for god’s sake! My hair hasn’t been combed and looks like a matted lion’s mane and my teeth hasn’t been brushed. I’m sure I look like a damn mess.So, I need to take a look at the “woman” in the mirror before making assumptions. What’s that saying about assume? So yes, when I assume, I’m making an ass out of me and the woman in the mirror.
So on with the story. While in Charlotte, I decided to tour the city. I came face-to-face with a man in a tattered straw hat walking his bike with a huge — 33 gallons easily — black trash bag anchored to the back of the bike. As the man passed, I said good afternoon, introduced myself, and asked if I could talk to him. He responded, “as long as you don’t ask anything about my bike!” At that very moment, I realized that he was a she so I had to quickly regroup. I agreed with her request to not mention the bike. I informed her that I was doing a documentary on the dismal economy and its related effects on homelessness. Something in the way her eyes penetrated through me told me I had crossed some unconscionable line — that maybe, just maybe she wasn’t homeless! Oh boy was I right because she immediately responded with arrogance, “I don’t know because the economy hasn’t affected me. I’m on Social Security,” she stated adamantly, practically daring me to prove her wrong.
In order to get back on her good side, I abruptly rephrased my question and thanked my lucky stars that I knew something about social security. So I asked, “how has not receiving an increase in social security benefits over the past two years affected her considering that cost-of-living was not keeping pace with inflation.” Phew, I avoided condemnation. I was back on even keel and she opened up, relaxed, and talked about her living situation — a rooming house that we happened to be standing in front of. WOW! I skirted being ostracized for my blatant ignorance — or so I thought.
I quickly stepped into the web of ignorance again.
A couple of weeks later after attending a meeting in downtown DC, I passed an elderly woman on the street pushing what appeared to be her entire life in a wobbly grocery cart. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. I stopped in my tracks and started rummaging through my purse to see if I had any money. Usually I never carry money — my debit card and I are best friends — but I was hoping there was something, anything in the bottom of my purse. And there it was, a $10 bill. I doubled back and offered it to her. She looked at the money in my outstretched hand and then at me with a bewildered look in her eyes.
Right then and there, I realized I had done it again. I made a stupid and erroneous assumption based on someone’s appearance and action.
“No thank you,” she said politely.
I had the audacity to ask, “Are you sure?”
Her eyelids didn’t blink and her voice didn’t quiver. “Yes, I’m sure,” she reiterated ever so politely.
I walked away feeling embarrassed and baffled, and wondered what was this incessant need in me to want to help those whom I assumed less fortunate. I realized it wasn’t about a documentary. It was something else but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
So what if someone has on layers and layers of clothes in 85-degree weather in San Diego and digging through the trash outside of a restaurant for what I assume was something to eat. And, yes, believe it or not, I approached the woman with two $1 bills in my hand. Before I could even announce my intentions, the woman started wailing and shrieking at the top of her lungs, waving her hands in the air. “Get away from me you crack head!” she screamed. Needless to say, I was taken aback. Literally, I took so many steps backward that I bumped into this family who was looking quite startled themselves, probably wondering what in the world had I done to this poor creature. I was scared; she scared the dickens out of me.
After I safely retreated and had a chance to think about the incident — replay it over and over in my mind — I actually had to stop and laugh out loud at the situation. Hmm, I guess I’m not the only one who makes assumptions.
So, did I learn anything? Will these crazy episodes stop me from assuming who’s homeless and who’s not homeless based solely on appearance or action?
The answer is yes because unfortunately, in today’s economy, people who were once ensconced in the middle class are homeless. Next week, you could be homeless. Tomorrow, I could be homeless. It’s happening all around us. Homelessness is no longer a condition reserved for drug addicts or the mentally ill. Homelessness has infiltrated the heart of America. There are so many of us just one payday away from being homeless.
I’ve stopped making assumptions about what homelessness looks like because simply put — homelessness could look like either you or me.
(Cartoon Source: http://www.cartoonstock.com)