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Sean Ghio, Policy Director, Partnership for Strong Communities
My family and I spent a few days sightseeing in New York City last week. My six year old son had never been to the city and my ten year old daughter had visited only briefly. We were there to see a show, explore Central Park, be overwhelmed by the spectacle of Times Square, and enjoy the view from on top of the Empire State Building. The view from that symbol of American ambition always makes me sense the greatness of the city. A nation that can build this great city can do most anything.
My kids were exhilarated by the energy and diversity of the city - so different from our quiet suburban lives. Walking through the busy streets of midtown Manhattan, they witnessed the diversity of American life - office workers walking briskly to work, street vendors selling varieties of quick food, large black SUVs with drivers perhaps chauffeuring executives to their office suites, and homeless people begging for money with their ubiquitous cardboard signs.
My daughter was really affected as we passed people slumped on the sidewalk, some seemingly too ashamed to look up from their signs. There were many people sitting quietly asking for money. We were near Times Square at the time, an area filled with tourists and so maybe an effective place to ask for money. My daughter asked me to give money to each person we passed. I don’t usually give money to people on the street. Isn’t that what many of us are taught? But I couldn’t refuse her this time. She was too distressed. She had a lot of questions as we continued to walk. Why can’t we give money to every person? That lady is pregnant. Does she really have to sleep on the street tonight? Where do they go when it rains?
My daughter’s feelings eventually faded amongst the distractions and entertainments of a world-class city and a privileged life. This is expected and understandable in a ten year old. Why is it acceptable for the rest of us?
Weren’t her questions reasonable? What makes us dismiss them as we leave childhood? Perhaps we explain away these questions as the naiveté of youth. Kids don’t understand that we all have to work for what we want in life. Maybe we absorb the stereotype that some people are just lazy and would rather beg, and that if they tried harder to find a job they could have a home. Maybe we get too busy with our own pressures and challenges, and seeing people experiencing homelessness is uncomfortable and we don’t know what we should do to help.
My son was mostly quiet as we walked. Then we passed an older man crouched on the sidewalk with a blanket over him and a small dog sleeping by his side. My son asked, “Why can’t we just build homes for people if they need them?” I couldn’t answer that question. Is it truly that simple? The solution for homelessness is building more homes. Why DON’T we build them?
I joined the Partnership for Strong Communities to be part of the statewide efforts to determine policy solutions for homelessness and for expanding affordable housing so that we can prevent people from having to experience homelessness in the first place. You can be part of the solution too. Come to our free IForum series or buy a ticket to attend the Reaching Home Dinner and learn about housing issues, or subscribe to our newsletters or read materials on our website. And yes, give to people on the street if you like, or donate to a local non-profit working to end homelessness. Donations to the Partnership are always appreciated, and will help in our work to make sure everyone in our state has a safe, affordable home.
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