We Left a Homeless Toddler in the Middle of LOVE Park

When a child throws a fit in the grocery store, that’s the parents’ problem. When a child is sleeping in a box, that’s everyone’s problem.

Photo courtesy @BillFish215 on Twitter

Photo courtesy @BillFish215 on Twitter

“Young Boy Found Wandering in LOVE Park.” It was easy to judge the story’s first headline, and judge I easily did. Why was a 2-year-old outside alone, barefoot, on a cold autumn night? What’s wrong with his parents?

But the second headline, well, that one was a little more difficult: “Homeless Toddler Inspires Fundraising Campaign.”

“Homeless toddler.”

It’s confusing to read and it’s confusing to type. It was ugly yesterday and it’s uglier today. I’ve lived in this city my whole life, and I like to think I’ve done so with my eyes open. I worked two blocks from LOVE Park for five years, and when I got on the El to return to my warm home every night, I didn’t take it for granted.

But I still find myself stumbling over “homeless toddler,” these two words that can’t possibly go together. Not in Philadelphia, not in 2015, not on the doorstep of 12-course prix-fixe menus. Not a few miles from where my niece sleeps safely and soundly, night after night, like every child should.

Why was a 2-year-old outside alone, barefoot, on a cold autumn night? As it turns out, the answer is simple: His family had nowhere else to go, and cardboard doesn’t make for a very secure crib. What’s wrong with these parents? Again, pretty simple: They weren’t awake.

At this point I have to ask, what’s wrong with us? Because when a toddler throws a fit in the grocery store, that’s the parents’ problem. But when a toddler is sleeping in a goddamn box in the middle of the goddamn city, that’s everyone’s problem.

Clearly, many of us are uncomfortable with the fact that Michael Jones spent Friday night gathering trash to shelter his fiancée, 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. After the story made headlines, the Navy Yard Marriott offered temporary housing, and a fundraiser organized by CHOSEN 300 quickly raised $12,000 to provide an apartment for a year. Job offers have reportedly been pouring in.

So I suppose the good news is that we find this family’s situation unacceptable, that we’re shocked. But the bad news is worse: We’re shocked.

Homelessness is, quite literally, a problem that’s out in the open. It shouldn’t require an awareness campaign, and it shouldn’t be surprising to read about. How many times did I pass this family and choose not to see them? How many times did I ignore homelessness when it didn’t fit my tidy definition, when it required more than spare change?

As I write this, I have zero answers. Unlike the organizers of CHOSEN 300 and Sister Mary Scullion and others who have spent their lives working to end housing insecurity in Philadelphia, I’ve been looking the other way. I don’t know how to help this family, and I don’t know how to prevent the next headline. I want to, but embarrassingly, I’m starting from scratch over here after three decades in this city. That’s the problem with ignorance — it’s only blissful until you start to ask questions. Then, it’s simply ignorant.

Here’s what I do know, though. The next time I read about a homeless toddler — and yes, there will be a next time — I want to be outraged, but I don’t want to be surprised. I want to be able to say that I understand the city he fell asleep in, and that I’m doing something to make sure he wakes up in a better one.

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