Everyone was seven once

Do we need a child’s humanity to see unhoused people?

5 minute read
Photo of a person completely wrapped in a peach & blue colored blanket, lying on a city sidewalk next to a postal service bin
Homelessness rose in the US in 2022, especially among people who were already vulnerable. (Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.)

When our daughter was growing up, everyone had a family and a home—at least, within the four walls of our skinny Mt. Airy Victorian.

The shampoo and conditioner were sisters and lived in the wire penthouse suspended from the shower faucet. My rain boots cozied up together, life partners on the plastic mat. The fork, Sasha declared, was married to the knife; they slept together in the drawer, cuddling their baby spoon.

As soon as she could reach the bookshelves, our pint-sized urban planner turned them into her own tiny house project, pushing back three or four adjacent books to make an alcove, then spreading Kleenex roofs over the enclosures and moving a multi-generational family of Russian nesting dolls into these new efficiency apartments.

It was an eclectic, ever-changing neighborhood: the implacable Matrushkas co-existing with a pink-haired, barefoot troll, a rubber lad in a yellow slicker and a four-inch girl of rigid plastic named Hibsie for reasons I cannot recall.

There was oddness and diversity and always room—in an empty yogurt tub or the bathtub’s soapy corner—for a newcomer.

A hospitable tradition

I like to think my partner Elissa and I modeled that sort of hospitality, doors flung open to grandparents and godparents, cousins, colleagues, and a string of housemates trailing back to before Sasha could remember. Always, there was someone living on our third floor—a person stinging from a recent break-up or navigating a career change or simply thirsting for an infusion of homemade soup and family life.

There was Cynthia, who bravely moved in the week before Elissa’s due date, cheerfully endured the months of sleep-training (Sasha’s wails wafting upward through the floorboards), and stayed until our daughter learned to talk.

Next was Charlee, whose anxious poodle, Rusty, helped Sasha overcome her fear of dogs. Munish helped Sasha build a shoebox city on the third-floor landing. Victoria shared her morning smoothies. Anthony gave Sasha a telescope to glimpse the stars.

Our housemates stayed for several months or several years; some became forever-kin, like Auntie C, who returned for block parties and anniversaries and invited us, in turn, to her wedding and stepson’s bar mitzvah.

For Elissa and me, this way of rigging home and family felt familiar, a sequel to the ways we both were raised. Elissa’s parents, professors of communication, hosted a series of Japanese exchange students in their Denver home; my parents always found space for a cousin between jobs or fresh from rehab, a friend in need of shelter after selling her apartment.

The ones we welcomed, later, didn’t always stick a happily-ever-after landing. One housemate decamped for substance-abuse recovery in Arizona. An overwhelmed young single mom lost her job at the vegan bakery and boomeranged back to her parents’ basement. But home—our home—was one source of stability, a temporary refuge, a bridge from here to there.

It takes a child

The story grew more complicated when we went outside.

“Ama, why is that lady on the sidewalk?”

“That man’s asking for money. Should we give him some?”

“Is that box where he lives?”

It takes a child—the one who sheltered salt and pepper shakers under napkin tents—to pose the painful query, the one adults stop asking because it feels unanswerable. Unbearable. Because it brings on too much paralyzing shame.

We have to live in this broken world, I tell myself, and that means side-stepping. Literally. I did it just the other day, on a rare venture into Center City. How many unhoused people did I pass? On a single block of Walnut Street, I counted three. A grizzled man with a knit hat and a cup of coins. A woman lying on her back, hair splayed on an unforgiving pillow of chilled sidewalk. One more, nearly hidden by a plastic tarp that quivered just enough to signal that the body underneath it was alive.

787 people

This block was no anomaly. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development says homelessness rose nationwide in 2022, especially for individuals and those with disabilities. And locally? Each year, Philadelphia conducts a one-night count of people experiencing homelessness. Results from 2023 aren’t available yet, but last year’s count found 787 unsheltered adults—a number that does not include those who spent that night couch-surfing or sleeping in their cars.

Seven hundred and eighty-seven people—more than twice the capacity of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Or the entire population of the town of Loyal, Wisconsin. Or how about 33 classes of 2nd-graders, a modest 24 students to a class? Because every one of those unsheltered adults was once a seven-year-old, perhaps assembling their own shoebox town for wayward toys.

And there I was, along with all the other passers-by on our brisk way to work or breakfast dates, five-dollar lattes in our hands, house keys in our pockets, capacious beds waiting at day’s end.

A child’s humanity

I’m not pretending the answer to homelessness is plain as child’s play. I understand how substance abuse, trauma, mental illness, low wages, a shrinking safety net, and lack of affordable housing collide to make an imperfect storm.

But I’m remembering the child’s impulses—to ask, include, provide—that must fuel any humane effort to address the problem: make shelter for those who need it, with whatever materials we’ve got at hand. Don’t step past folks because they’re strange.

And never duck the questions—“Who is that person? Why are they unhoused? What must we do?”—including the one that makes me squirm, the query Sasha piped as we motored from downtown to home sweet home. “If that old woman came to our house and needed somewhere to live, would you let her in?”

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