The Homeless Have a Home: It’s Philadelphia

And it would be perverse to evict them from it — particularly when the pope who so cares for them visits.

A homeless camp at 16th and Vine. Photo by Liz Spikol, 2014.

A homeless camp at 16th and Vine. Photo by Liz Spikol, 2014.

I know she didn’t mean it to be cruel, when she said it. She was just a sheltered kid from Roxborough doing a park cleanup to satisfy a school requirement on a pretty weekend morning. She told me she hardly ever went into “the city.” Her exposure to people in adverse circumstances, I’m guessing, was limited.

We’d paired off to pluck Philly’s flotsam and jetsam out of a woodsy area near a highway. It wasn’t necessary to pair off, but she seemed to feel safer with an adult. I thought about how funny it was that she saw me that way, as the grownup — was I going to feel like one too, at some point?

She was chatty, in a good mood, but at one point she caught a whiff of something foul, wrinkled her nose and said, “Ugh, it smells like the homeless.”

“The homeless.”

I was stunned. I’d smelled it too — a fetid odor of urine and feces and mildew. But to characterize it that way — as though there was an eau de parfum called The Homeless, as though “the homeless” was a collective noun to describe a group of inhuman creatures — was so cold.

Suddenly, I had the opportunity to be an actual adult, to educate this ignorant girl who didn’t know any better. I thought of what I could say to explain:

“That smell you call ‘The Homeless’? That is actually the smell of individuals who are struggling in their lives, who are living in poverty despite being citizens of the richest nation in the world. They’re individuals who are not fortunate enough, like we are, to have access to running water every day, let alone body wash and deodorant and a razor. They don’t have a change of clothes. You know how sometimes you’re out somewhere and you have to pee and you can’t find a bathroom? Some people live like that all the time. Do you think any person wants to pee on themselves? Or shit in their pants, god forbid? The shame of that is awful. But life does not go the way you think. No one imagines they will grow up to be homeless. It happens against their best efforts. So what you smell here, if it smells like ‘the homeless’ to you, is the odor of social injustice and the failure of the city you live in to address the problems of its citizens. They deserve your sympathy, not your disgust.”

What did I actually say? Nothing. Because just thinking about it all exhausted me, and by the time I got the whole speech together, she was on to something else, and I’d become thoroughly depressed. (Making the point once again: I’m not really a grownup.)

But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. She’s so young, and already she’s using that ignominious moniker — “the homeless” — as derogatory shorthand, like so many adults do. This dehumanizing practice allows those who are not in such tenuous circumstances to lump everyone together, and then to make policy decisions that are inhumane. Like planning to move those who live on the Parkway when the Pope visits and suspend the daily free meals they depend on.

A bible at a homeless camp. Photo by Liz Spikol, 2014.

A bible at a homeless camp. Photo by Liz Spikol, 2014.

Another quick story: Several years ago I was managing a social services program and I hired a man, I’ll call him Jack, to be a counselor to people with drug abuse and mental health issues. He was terrific: kind, smart, hard-working, self-revealing in a way that helped people. He was clean-cut and dressed well for work every day, probably better than he had to. He always came across as a professional and I was grateful to have him as an employee.

One day we were walking in Center City and Jack said to me, “That was my grate, right there.” For years, he’d been homeless, and spent cold days and nights on a steam grate downtown, watching people walk by in their business casual on the way to work, just as he did now. I stopped and stared at it. I certainly passed by him innumerable times. If I’d known it was Jack, would I have stopped and done something? It makes no sense to think about it now, because everyone is Jack — which is to say, everyone is a someone, and yet we imagine they’re all just The Homeless, a monolith, a bothersome collective that mars the loveliness of our city landscape. Especially when a high-profile public figure is in town.

The Homeless may not be people paying mortgages (though they might have been quite recently, that’s part of the picture). They may not be renters. But they do have a home, and that home is Philadelphia. This is their city as much as it’s my city, only they live outside and I live inside — at least for now. People’s fates shift and change. If, for whatever reason, I were to lose my healthcare coverage and was no longer able to take medication for bipolar disorder, I could become a person without shelter and personal assets, while someone who’s homeless right now — someone like Jack — could get lucky in the other direction. It’s all just a roll of the dice.

The irony here is that there is no global figure who advocates for the plight of the poor more tenaciously than Pope Francis. His emphasis on the meek has defined his papacy. It has changed the perception and the direction of the Catholic Church. It has brought lapsed Catholics — and others — into the fold. He will probably address the question of poverty when he is here to speak on the Parkway, a location that is the home of many of this city’s poor — the only home they have. Will the city evict its poorest citizens from their home precisely when the person who cares most about their plight is coming to visit? If so, that would be absolutely perverse.

The people who make the Parkway their home do so because of a complex tangle of social problems that will not be resolved overnight — or even in the few months before the Pope’s visit. But it is their home, whether the city administration likes it or not. Evicting these people for the Pope’s visit would be an action not suited to an internationally lauded mayor but to an uneducated high school student wrinkling her nose at inconvenient people.

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