What I Think about When I See a Homeless Person

That could’ve been me

I live in a medium-sized upscale town with no visible homelessness, so I don’t often come across homeless people.

When I write homeless, by the way, I mean people you might see in the streets of big cities like New York, where I go now and again. Unless you’re chauffeured door to door in NYC and refrain from looking out the window, you will inevitably see a good many homeless individuals.

I’m talking about humans sitting or lying on cardboard, who roll carts or schlep big bags around, and look like they haven’t slept well or showered in weeks.

When I pass them, I feel awful, even though I’ve heard a small number “choose” this life. I guess it’s true, yet I’m certain the proportion is minute. I can’t imagine what it would take to give up a reliable daily hot shower or access to a clean bathroom for an extended amount of time.

I also don’t feel at all optimistic about their prospects. How can anyone in such a dire situation possibly get back on their feet unless they get a whole lot of help? I mean, I had a charmed childhood and have faced setbacks and made stupid mistakes in my adult life from the comfort of a safe home and it’s still been mighty hard to course correct.

And so, when I see a homeless person, I also feel a mix of fear and relief.

After all, were it not for the great luck I’ve had in life, this or that homeless woman could’ve been me, and this or that homeless youth could’ve been my child.

What causes homelessness?

“Insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness,” according to the National Homelessness Law Center. Other important causes include mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

Insufficient income? Check. I’ve faced periods of insufficient income. But I’ve had the luxury of an enviable safety net every time. I’m talking about a bit of saving and, above all, inter-generational wealth and support.

My father inherited his parents’ rendering business and was able to grow it. He worked hard (as many other people do!), made sound business decisions, and accumulated enough money to give his seven children not only an excellent education but also a generous financial gift in the form of a house or apartment when each of us left home as adults. Talk about spoiled!

This was in my country of birth, Venezuela, which we chose to leave for a couple of reasons, one of them being the economic and political chaos that took hold. Still, we arrived in the US, (Connecticut specifically) with the huge advantage of a top-notch education and enough money in the bank to pay good immigration lawyers.

Several members of my family, including my parents, also moved to Connecticut, and I’ve relied on them to navigate not only financial setbacks but also difficult health situations. I’m talking about mental illness, which my siblings and I are genetically predisposed to, so much so five of us have essentially “come down” with severe depression at different points in our lives.

I just can’t imagine living indefinitely with depression. At some point, I almost certainly would’ve resorted to self-medicating with alcohol, addictive drugs, or whatnot. At some point, I would’ve had to quit work.

Luckily, I haven’t needed to. I’ve benefitted from my family’s support and experience with this illness. I also have a teaching job that provides good health insurance.

Yep. I am a privileged human. I have faced my share of trials but never lacked emotional or economic support. And so, when I see a homeless person, the thought always crosses my mind:

Were it not for all this good fortune, that could very well have been me.
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Ageism: We’re ALL Ageist

Where does my preoccupation with how young I look turn into ageism?

Women looking in the mirror
Image by Alexis León from Pixabay

Our friends Ana and Pedro came over one night to toast their purchase of a new home. They were really excited about the renovations they were planning, the shrubs they’d plant, the generator they’d install, and so on.

“Well, the little old lady next door -I forgot her name- has a generator, and she said she wouldn’t mind if the contractors park on that space along her driveway,” said Ana. “Yeah, the little old lady’s so excited we’re moving in,” she went on.

“Hold on a minute Ana,” Pedro interrupted. “That little old lady’s the same age you are.”

“But I don’t look her age!” Ana shot back.

Well, I’ve never met the little old lady and can’t really say for sure. What I can say is Ana, who’s 60, looks, dresses, and acts youthful. I must also clarify we were speaking Spanish and “la viejita” doesn’t sound nearly as disrespectful and ageist as “the little old lady” does to me, a non-native speaker of English.

The point is how disconcerting it is when you don’t physically relate to your same-aged peers once you get to a certain age. And when I say “don’t relate” I mean we’re convinced we don’t look as old.

Sure, as a teenager, I recall being in disbelief that this or that person was my age. They looked so much older! But that was because older meant more sophisticated and womanly, not old, old.

The unsettling feeling is very different when you’re 60, like Ana, or 52, like myself. And, sadly, it has a lot to do with how engrained ageism is.

According to the World Health Organization‘s definition,

“Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”

The only aspect of our beings others see, literally, is our physical appearance, and how we look depends on our physical bodies and what we choose to cover and alter them with. Our looks affect our sense of self, which we also shape through our choices in hairstyle, clothes, make-up.

But where does our preoccupation with our looks turn into ageism?

If ageism encompasses how we act toward others and ourselves based on age, where do we draw the line between a healthy sense of self and ageism? Is it when we begin to color our hair? When we get Botox? When we have plastic surgery?

I’ve said things like Ana. In fact, I said one that very night. My husband, Cesar, was talking about a movie actor whose autistic son is served by the same agency as Diego, our autistic adult son.

Our friends didn’t recognize the actor’s name and I described him as being much older than us. Pedro eventually googled the guy to see his picture, only to discover he’s only 52.

“But I don’t look his age,” said I. “No way, I’m way younger! Maybe he’s sick or something.”

“Come to think of it,” Pedro said, “I heard he hasn’t been in any movies lately due to some health condition or other.”

Again, whether or not he’s unwell or whatever is not the point. It’s the experience of aging outwardly that, among other things, shakes up our sense of who we are, especially for women.

Due to ageism, looking old does make a lot of us feel diminished. I don’t like the wrinkles and sunspots on my face, and positively hate the folds beginning to form between my chin and neck, even though none of these physical changes affect how my body feels. I am, luckily, super healthy and have as much energy as I did two decades ago.

There’s no way around it, the reason I so dislike my body’s visible signs of aging is, largely, that I’m ageist.

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