Homeless

16 short pages – usually I can read those articles in, what, 16 minutes? 16 pagers for homework are usually quickies, easy-peasy.

Except, this one had tiny black print and two columns per page. I had to turn my class binder sideways in order to read the photocopied pages. Homelessness, Citizenship, and Identity: The Uncaniness of Late Modernity. 

At first I would read a sentence, and go back and read it again because I hadn’t really read it. To be sure, the fragments of laughter and loud conversation from downstairs kept interrupting my thoughts (having four housemates is a party). I stuck in my blue headphones, which simulate an underwater experience, they’re so good. I got a pop tart. I checked Facebook.

Homelessness is the topic of my city seminar class this week, and I’ve already breezed through the rest of the articles. The novel we’re reading, Myth of the Welfare Queen, sits on my bedside table, next to my lamp and tissues and copy of A Farewell to Arms that I want to read once I finish Welfare Queen. I’m already past page 100.

The problem with this article was that it was too abstract. I was reading terms that provided no picture. Long paragraphs, Latinate words, concepts like “prerogative power” that, try as I might to define them based on the article’s context, I was left clueless and reaching for another pop tart.

As a word, homeless is abstract, like the article. It’s vague – who are we talking about? How long do you have to be “homeless” to be qualified as such? What exactly designates homeless – living on the street, in a shelter, in a tent, in subsidized housing? How can someone be “at-risk” of being homeless?

Vague as the word may be, our society has ideas to help you define it. People will politicize the word; arguments will ensue over “rights” and “welfare” and “individual responsibility.” Like me, you’ve probably been told not to give money to “the homeless.”

We’ve all had experiences that can fill in the colors, the smells, the details. Everyone has walked past the beggar lying on cardboard by the subway with the styrofoam cup. And everyone knows that despite the debate, to be homeless, at the end of the day, you really just have no safe, secure place to rest with people who love you.

It is this idea… rest with people who love you… that strikes me suddenly after wading through the article with the minuscule print.

On Sunday night, on my way home, I passed a homeless woman sitting on City Hall’s steps. It wasn’t too dark to see her sitting behind her wheeled cart full of belongings, but I heard her first.

“I hate you, God! I hate you! Whoever you are, wherever you are, I hate you!”

Over and over and over again. Bone-chilling screams, full of anguish. Every hair on my body stood on end when she yelled. And she wouldn’t stop.

I would like to file away the word homeless as a condition just to read about while I eat pop tarts, an abstract, vague, complicated, political idea. I wish I could.

But not after that. Not after that.

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