Driving through Anchorage it’s possible not to see people. Not all people, of course — we’d still see our siblings or our neighbors. But through practice and repetition, we’ve attained a lamentable talent of clouding our vision. It acts as a buffer to our conscience: We see not a person, but a category: “the homeless.”
On Friday, a woman was killed after she was hit by a truck. This tragedy is deeply felt by her loved ones, and they will feel the grief of this tragedy for years to come, just as anyone would mourn the death of a neighbor or a sister. Is her death made any less important by the fact that at the time of her death, she was experiencing homelessness, or that this took place in the parking lot of the Brother Francis Shelter?
Using the category “the homeless” is convenient for conversation, but harmful to the all-important duty to remember that “the homeless” aren’t just a category, they are individual women, men, children, toddlers, and infants. Each of them is a unique and special human soul; a person worthy of our love and respect.
In our conversations about public policy, it’s all too easy to focus exclusively on the categories, statistics and problems: We need ‘this many’ housing units and ‘this much’ money provided by ‘this’ tax and ‘that’ funder. These conversations are necessary, in board rooms and offices. But we have another task, arguably even more important: the task of remembering and nourishing the humanity of each and every person who is experiencing homelessness. The woman killed on Friday at the Brother Francis Shelter and the other clients that have died in the past month due to old age, natural causes or illness are no less human and should be grieved to the same extent as any member of our family.
In terms of seeing and supporting people experiencing homelessness, we all can give more. There are some very practical ways to accomplish this. Some are well known - donating clothes, towels and daily living supplies to the Brother Francis Shelter can go a long way toward bringing some basic human comfort to a very difficult time in life. Donating funds can enable good organizations to do similar work on a broader scale. The website for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has many resources to help you give. And it is essential to support policies and policymakers that support services to people experiencing homelessness.
But even more directly, we can choose to see people. The broader tragedy is that they feel unseen and unconnected, so we should begin by making eye contact. We can learn their names, to show them the basic human dignity and respect that we would show our friends and neighbors. And of course, we can volunteer in person, spending time with and among the people who are currently so desperately in need.
This is how we nourish the humanity of people who may otherwise be hidden from our sight by the convenience of a category. This is how we keep at the center of our view the fact that every life, whether in a home or on the street, has value.
Rev. Elizabeth Schultz served as the Community and Nonprofit Liaison and Policy Analyst for Housing and Homelessness for former Gov. Bill Walker. Rev. Matthew Schultz sits on the Anchorage Homelessness Leadership Council. They are both ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
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