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Exactly Why the Homeless Are Always Apologizing

homeless homework

I’m not homeless, but every now and then I take to the streets in some far-flung part of the United States and live in a fashion similar to the one lived by many people experiencing homelessness.  

Like many folks without a home, sometimes I travel alone, but I’m often with others.  Two weeks ago I shoved off on my latest trip with my dear friend, Diane Nilan.   Nilan’s an advocate for homeless kids and the executive director of Hear Us, a charity she started 9 years ago hoping to shed light on our nation’s greatest shame. 

I love Diane Nilan.  She’s selfless and that’s an amazing thing to watch.  She’s held body and soul together – living on the road in an RV all these years – for the same reasons the flight attendant tells you to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you attempt to help somebody else. 

Nilan and I were in Birmingham, Alabama one time.  We were speaking with some folks who hoped to help 19 to 25 year olds find a safe place to stay, get some mentoring, education, food, healthcare and eventually self-sufficiency.  A young man spoke of being in a dank and nasty homeless shelter with a bunch of wizened tough guys.  His story was frightening and heartbreaking.  Nilan got up after this kid spoke and choked out these words, “We must be a very wealthy nation to throw away our children.” 

Those words stick with me all the time.  I do think it’s a testimony to our nation’s excessiveness that we spend a fortune on defense and then throw away the one commodity that we all agree would be worth the fight.

So when I get to travel with Nilan, I’m stoked.  Last week – as we began our journey northward – she brought me to meet the amazing folks at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness(ICPH).  Now these guys and gals have been my heroes for a very long time.  Pretty much since I first heard about them, I’ve used their data to explain the size and scope of our nation’s greatest domestic challenges. 

On my way out their door, I promised ICPH a blog post.  The blog post was going to be very similar to this one, but without the apology.  I never dreamed I’d need to apologize.  But as Nilan and I got further on our journey – as my mom would say – I got turned around.  I’m doubled up in Nilan’s motor home and while she kindly tries to make room for me, I don’t really have any place to keep my things.  My dirty laundry piles up, my toothbrush falls out of my bag and onto the floor just about every time I try to stow my things away, and I often forget to take my medicine. 

We spent our first few nights sleeping in a Wal*Mart parking lot.  It was cold and dark and we didn’t have access to a WiFi signal so at night we’d just go to sleep rather than stay awake and shiver.  From there we moved onto the parking lot in a convent, a friend’s driveway, and a university campus, and managed to get to all our speaking engagements, but we never did write very much. 

Finally, I remembered the blog post.  I asked Diane when it was due and she said that she couldn’t remember and we should write to Linda Bazerjain and ask.  That’s when I learned that my post was 4 days late. 

I felt awful.  It’s so unlikely to miss a deadline.  I’ve written for publication for decades – since 1985 – and really can’t remember missing a deadline before this.  And I have no excuse!  See, I’m not really homeless.   In a few days Nilan’s and my “Frost Bites” tour of the northeast will be over and I’ll go back to my writing table and chair. I’ll have my filing cabinet full of the writing triggers I collect along my journeys and the calendar open so I can see what my commitments are.  My dirty clothes will be in the hamper and my toothbrush in its holder.  My medicine will go back up over the kitchen sink and I’ll see it every morning when I get up to make coffee.  I’ll have my routine, my familiar surroundings back and hopefully Bazerjain and the other wonderful folks at ICPH will have forgiven me.  Perhaps they’ll even give me more chances to write for them. 

I often feel a twinge of guilt about these tours I take to “sample” homelessness because without losing my safety net, I’ll never really get what it’s like to be homeless.  But embarrassing moments like this one, when I realize I just couldn’t pull off what normally would have been a no-brainer, that’s when I get a real peek at what it’s like to share the disoriented, disheveled, demoralizing world of homelessness.  What if this writing commitment had been a job application, a housing assistance form, or – worse still – my homework? 

Nilan’s got a new film coming out soon.   We’ve shown clips of it when we speak to groups like the ones we met at Columbia University and Salem State University this week.  It shows 8 children and their mom living with grandparents in a small trailer that’s leaking water and heaven knows what other liquids onto the ground.  All the kids have rattling coughs and the cupboards are bare.  In one of the scenes, in the corner of the shot, one of the children is doing her homework. 

I’ve always been impressed by homeless kids who get their schoolwork done.   But this week – better than ever – I understand how herculean her efforts are. 

And she’s just one of the millions of children our wealthy nation is throwing away.