The Violence of Cowardice – another reflection on the causes of homelessness

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There are many I will never see because they long ago gave up on organizations like mine. They wearied of trusting staff and volunteers who make bold or contradictory statements and promises without checking their facts. And they’re tired of being lied to.

That happens at my agency just like it does anywhere else. I hope we’re better about that than most. But even if we are, confusion and frustration still afflict those whose poverty or ignorance or mental processes or wounds or treatment from the caring caste prove poor filters for what we tell them.

Still, there are far too many times when the face that this organization and others presents to those who come through the door is one of timorous staff and volunteers who fear they will become targets for tears and anger and frustration if they tell the truth. If they admit, for example, that they don’t have an answer for that woman who, for the third time in a week and a half, dusts snow off her faded thrift store boots onto a muddy lobby floor. An emaciated, shivering woman, just another one among the 80% of homeless women who are beaten or kicked or choked or burned or sexually assaulted by their husbands, boyfriends, partners, tormentors.

Just another mother who, because she finally found it within herself to flee, now has no place to live. An untethered mother who three weeks ago lost three young children to Child Services because she failed to protect them from a man she didn’t know was a predator. Her hard-earned intuition, her gut feeling whispered to her that something wasn’t right about the clean-cut, well-dressed man in the shiny Escalade. But the mother decided in an instant to wrap duct tape around her concerns. Temps that night had already dropped below zero. And every shelter in town was already busting at the seams and refused to make an exception for her family. So again, in this town and in a lot of others, a mother who has nothing and no one is forced to choose between her children’s certain death from the cold and the certain death of their innocence.

So here she is again. Begging for help. But these self-confessed caring ones are so afraid this wounded mother will yell at them or make a scene that they don’t stop to think about the violence they’re about to inflict on one of the most vulnerable among us. They don’t stop to
consider what will happen when this woman with the hemorrhaging soul, her children placed with people she knows nothing about, and her transit pass stolen again, completes her hike across ten miles of dark-sooted ice and choking snow, fearfully evading indifferent taxi cabs and buses and drivers who don’t see her in the first place.

Those representatives of this organization or that, those men and woman who believe that it is enough to care, will long have forgotten the woman’s face by the time she finally bangs loose the snow and mud from her boots at the very place that we told her to go. And when she
makes it through another line and after she waits in another surplus plastic chair next to a mother whose children dart around like Thing 1 and Thing 2, it is then that she will be called. It is only then that this mother will learn that the place that we told her could help her lost funding for that housing program two years ago.

And when that happens, that scarred, scared mother, the one whom Child Services promised would get her daughters back if she just found a safe place where her family could live, will crumple into a trembling, inconsolable mass. And she will, with more passion and more anguish than she knew she had, beg any god who will listen to her to promise her that the caring but gutless staffer or timid volunteer who lied to her will burn for eternity in a literal hell.