Our introduction to the clinic comprised an orientation to Hesed House by Ryan Dowd, Executive Director of Hesed House, and a walk-through of the Resource Center, including the space where the clinic for Aunt Martha’s Health Center and our legal clinic will be housed.
Ryan began the orientation with an introduction to the issue of homelessness, which was eye-opening for me. I was surprised to learn that only 8% of the homeless population is chronically homeless and essentially unemployable. My image of a homeless person is that of an unwashed, poorly-dressed person walking around urban streets, pushing a shopping cart, picking through garbage cans and dumpsters, and mumbling to himself. While I recognize this as a stereotype, I have not equipped myself with any tools to change my perceptions, perhaps because the problem of homelessness does not animate me in the way that other issues move me. I saw homelessness as a problem that exists within our system of institutionalized inequality and the silence surrounding mental illness; I found it baffling that some people “choose” to be homeless; and I could not understand how people with families can be homeless. But I have picked my battles, and homelessness has not been one of them, other than fitting into the general scheme of troubles that plague contemporary human society.
Discovering that my stereotype was wrong was reality-changing. I learned that 50% of the homeless are homeless for two weeks or less and are working or seeking employment, and that 42% are homeless for two weeks to a year and face one major challenge, typically mental illness or substance abuse. I had not known that the vast majority of the homeless population is recently homeless and is attempting to move up and out of homelessness. These are often people with families, confronted by the crisis of homelessness and seeking a return to stability. Hesed House provides that stability and sense of identity for many through its transitional housing, as case managers identify problems and help for those problems. As I listened to Ryan, I was thinking of what I would do if I suddenly found myself homeless with two young boys, and the feelings of fear and anxiety, the stigma, the sense of hopelessness and shame that I had failed my children, that would envelop me. I realized how easy it was for struggling families to slip into homelessness, and how many such people exist in a wealthy country like the United States. What if a young homeless mother with an infant and a toddler did not know about Hesed House? Where would she go? Would her children be taken away from her and lost in the foster system? What if she was poorly educated, did not have much work experience, and could only find a minimum-wage job? Where would she stay? How would she get back on her feet? How would she get her children back?
I was also deeply troubled at learning how many children are homeless, and the lack of an institutional safety net for such situations. I have never seen a homeless child in the United States. In my head, there are no homeless children in this country. All the homeless look like my stereotype. At the same time, I was startled, and relieved, to know that homeless children continue to go to school and that under the law the school district must make the appropriate arrangements to get them to their school. Another stereotype shattered – not only are there homeless children, they still attend school. Coming from India, I am used to seeing children begging on the streets and living with their families under tarpaulins on the sidewalks. These children do not go to school. They are truly the face of the deep, entrenched poverty that overwhelms a country like India. To learn that there are American children who are homeless reminded me of how my background marks my difference from the average American, which I forget sometimes after spending 25 of my 44 years here. And yet, my 25 years in the United States have made me similar to some Americans in some ways, such as how I view certain issues as not my problem and how I sometimes feel that writing a check is doing my part. It was a strange sense of dissonance that I have not experienced in a while, and it took me back to my early years in the United States.
I was impressed at how well Hesed House was organized and humbled to see everyone who was working there, truly connected to service and unafraid of their task. It jarred my sense of comfort to see so many shelter residents in the cafeteria as we walked through it. I felt self-conscious and privileged. I was happy to see the little boy running around shirtless, but I was reminded with somewhat of a shock that he was homeless and had been for some time when Ryan casually said that he had not seen the boy wear a shirt in a month.
I am amazed at Ryan’s absolute dedication, calm, resolve and energy. If I can have a fraction of his spirit as I begin my work of helping those in need, I will consider myself fortunate. He is a leader and an inspiration, in every sense of those words.