I have stopped by my old hairdressers to buy the shampoo I love. They recently moved and this is my first time at their new Beltline area location.
As I am about to pay, I ask the young woman at the desk how she likes the new location.
“We love it,” she replies enthusiastically. “Except for all the hobos and street people everywhere. They’re awful.” And she goes on to talk about how annoyed she is by ‘their’ presence.
I take a breath. For a moment I consider not buying my products. Or, buying and leaving without saying anything.
Silence in the face of ignorance is not my strong suit.
“Just as a piece of information,” I say to her as calmly and kindly as I can. “Hobo is a really derogatory term. The individuals you are referencing are human beings, like you and me, who have fallen on really hard times. You may want to consider using the phrase ‘individuals experiencing homelessness’. It’s less offensive.”
She looks at me. Squirms a little and pastes on a smile. “Oh well, you know, it’s just a word,” she said.
“Yes. And words have power. Did you know there’s an apartment building across the street that provides housing…”
And before I can finish my sentence she chimes in. “Oh yes. It’s a halfway house.”
I take another breath. “Actually, it’s not. It’s Permanent Supportive Housing for individuals exiting homelessness. In this case, the building supports veterans who were experiencing homelessness before moving into the building. That building is their permanent home. They live there as residents of this community. Halfway houses are generally for individuals existing the justice system in preparation of their moving on to their own housing.”
“Oh. Well there’s always lots of activity over there.” She says it in a way that makes me grit my teeth as though I’ve just heard nails scraping along a blackboard.
I breathe deeply and remind myself that ignorance is not a crime. It comes from a lack of understanding.
“I’m sure there is. It can be a struggle to leave the homeless identity behind. After years of service to your country, and then years of struggling on the street it’s hard to believe people care or that you’ve actually got a home of your own.” I take another breath and ask, “Have you gone over to meet the staff and residents?”
She looks at me with wide eyes. “Of course not!”
I smile at her and say, “It’s one way to get a better understanding of what’s going on,” I tell her. I know I probably sound a little condescending. I don’t mean to but I can feel my blood coursing through my veins. I am vibrating at a little too high a frequency.
I work on calming my racing mind. On changing my tone and position.
“I worked in the homeless sector for a lot of years,” I tell her. “Connecting and getting to know your neighbours is a great way to build a community.”
She packs up my products into a paper bag and hands it to me. “Well you have a nice day,” she says.
“I will,” I reply. “I hope you do too.”
And I leave.
And inside I feel sad and angry. Upset and dissatisfied.
For fifteen years I worked to shift perceptions of homelessness in our city. And here was a young woman, probably early 20s, who still carried the bias and misconceptions that existed when I first started working in the homeless serving sector.
We cannot know the answers unless we’re willing to ask the questions.
And we cannot ask the questions unless we hear the truth of where our judgements mislead us.
For that young woman, she may never ask another question about homelessness. Hopefully, if nothing else, she will stop spreading misinformation.
Then again, the story she shares may be about the nasty old lady who walked in and was all uppity and judgemental about her use of the word ‘hobo’ who then had to give her a lecture on homelessness..
And I breathe.
We are all just struggling to make sense of our world.
We are all on this human journey together, sharing life on this round ball circling the sun. Sometimes, we walk in darkness. Sometimes, we travel in the light. Wherever we walk on this planet earth, may we step lightly, treating one another with loving kindness, dignity and respect. May we seek first to understand before casting judgement on our companions who like us, sometimes struggle on this journey called life.
And in my heart I say a prayer for both of us.