That Doesn’t Happen in My Town

I’ve been reading a very interesting book about the homeless, which I shall review here once I finish it.  The author talks extensively about some of the homeless people he’s met, and how they’ve enriched his life.  I spent four years working with low income and often homeless populations, and many of them enriched my life in much the same way.

Growing up, I lived in a decently large and affluent city.  Oh sure, there was that part of town, but we never really had reason to go there.  When I was in fifth grade, my teacher signed us up for a service project, working in a soup kitchen.  Some of the students did dishes, but I was assigned to hand out food.  Doughnuts, specifically.  I stood with my hand in a plastic bag, setting doughnuts on trays of men, women and small children who thanked me profusely and smiled with broken teeth.  Most of all, I remember a little girl with huge brown eyes and woven hat pulled down over her ears.  It was winter, and her fingers were red when she pointed to a doughnut and asked shyly if she could have a pink one.  I watched her take the doughnut, lick the frosting off, and cry, “It’s PINK!” with the delight of any little child.  Her fingers were red and chapped as she held it, and I wondered how long she’d been outside.  Many days, the lines wrapped around the door.  I thought of all the other children I knew, and how none of them had chapped hands like this one, or duct tape holding their shoes together.

As an adult, I got my first teaching job, down in the heart of that part of town.  A place with tiny houses that sunk into the ground.  Across the street from my school, there was a house with a metal drum set up for fires in the yard.  A place torn by drugs and gangs.  A place with no transit system, no nearby grocery store, medical facility or shopping district.  Within walking distance, there was a 7-11 and a series of thrift shops.  My students often arrived at school carrying jerky and giant sodas, the cheapest breakfast accessible.

Many teachers who work in areas like these have an extra supply cupboard of food, juice boxes, socks, underwear, and such for the kids.  Our school was lucky to have an amazing community organizer, who solicited donations of warm clothes, food, toys and books for our students and their families.  We provided families with clothes of all sizes, housewares, holiday meals, toys, and connections to job trainings and shelters.  She also worked with teenage mothers, so she supplied baby goods as well.  She had a portable trailer outside the school that was jammed with donations, and all of the teachers helped gather them, too.   I helped teach parenting courses and sometimes sat with my students’ families after school, trying to help them understand their bills.  During my first week working, i hadn’t been paid yet and was running low on funds, and found a basket on my chair filled with food, toiletries and a $20 to help me get through.

My students reminded me of that little girl.  In the winter, their hands were chapped; one morning was so cold I spent the better part of it running their fingers under water to bring the feeling back.  Several of them also used my classroom sink as an opportunity to bathe.  They were often tired from sleeping in loud, overcrowded shelters or shivering in a car or dumpster.  Many of them ate only at school, so they dreaded weekends and vacations.  Though we lived in a city with many famous outdoor attractions, the children had never seen them.  They had never walked beyond the 3 block square that composed their neighborhood.  The mountains might as well have been across the world.

I told others about my classes, and the response was overwhelmingly the same: That doesn’t happen here.  Some of them thought I was exaggerating.  Poverty, homelessness, drugs and gangs happened in Chicago, Detroit and LA, not picturesque Colorado towns.  How could a town like this have…things like that? 

My parents, husband and friends all volunteered in my room and met my students.  They backed up my stories, helped find donations, and my family overall was very generous; many of my students received Christmas gifts from those donations.  I t was my experience that once people were made aware of the issue, they were eager to help.  It was simply that they were not aware.

It is a fact: poverty occurs everywhere, no matter how small or lovely the town is.  It occurs in the places were don’t always allow ourselves to see.  It occurs in people you know.  It’s a systemic problem that eats at the core of every society.  The first step to solving it is to make people understand that it happens, yes, even in my town.

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