Thinking differently about homelessness

Carla Axtman

I grew up in a household where money was tight. Really tight. Sometimes it was tough for food to get on the table. My folks always somehow made food happen, tho.

But we never, ever homeless.

And I'd never really thought about it this way, either:

My children and I were living in someone else's home, sleeping in living rooms and on couches and I was sharing a room with my teenage daughter while my son was sleeping in the family room. All the while, I had a job. I went from full time work, to part-time work and back to full time work, while going to school online, all in that year.

My oldest daughter, Samantha, attending college in Washington state, also had no place to call home. She was sleeping on friends' couches from night to night and several times even slept in her car. It was her last year and we were selling anything we could to pay for her to eat and get to the schools where she was student teaching.

I think it's easy to buy into the stereotype that homelessness is sleeping on the sidewalk or under a bridge, often handicapped by serious mental illness. At least it has been for me.

This thought-provoking and well-written piece is by Wendy Alexander of Hillsboro and is a must read. She has a job. She's a student. And she and her kids have been homeless even though she's employed. Her story is staggering to me not so much because it breaks the stereotype, but because it's so obvious that homelessness could actually happen to most anyone. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. One or two paychecks lost due to illness or some other trauma could have them out of their home.

But there's more here to ponder:

While teaching in Washington, my daughter's school had a "œDress Like a Hobo Day." Obviously, this is meant to be a fun dress-up day for the staff and kids. But what was supposed to be a spirited entertainment turned into a public mockery of abject poverty. The interpretation of "œhobo" was kids dressing filthy and straggly. My daughter Samantha overheard some kids poking fun at others and making jokes about how one girl was not dressed up for hobo day because she dressed like that all the? time.

One student asked my daughter, her teacher, why she did not dress up like a homeless person. My daughter replied that she just didn'™t want to participate that day, as another staff member looked on quizzically. After the student left, Samantha confided to the other staff member, "œThis IS how I dressed when I was homeless."

Ugh.

At the risk of being labeled too "politically correct", we're better than this.

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