Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intern Insight: Homelessness - A Loss for Words

by Brittany Aubin

A professor once started his creative memoir class by admonishing students to write the story they thought they would never tell anyone. Five years later, this is the column I thought I would never write.

I joined Street Sense six months ago. I passed through the church door as a second–semester senior, hoping to gain valuable clips and salve a guilty conscience. I was still reeling from the disconnect between my own American University privilege and the lives of the city’s 6,000 homeless residents. I could write about that now, about how Street Sense bridges the divide of dignity between classes, placing faces, personalities and stories to the oft–avoided homeless population.

I could write about conversations with Jeff McNeil, with Moyo Onibuje, with Cliff Carle. Or moments of girl talk with Patricia Jefferson, Patty Smith and Alicia Jones. Or the kindness Orin Andrus shows for his cat, Cuddles. Or the smooth sales talk of Conrad Cheek Jr.

That column would be easy to write. It would also be easy to read. Because you’ve read it before. It’s the homelessness paradigm we feel most comfortable in.

Yet, nothing about being without a home is comfortable. Not the park benches or shelters. Not dehumanization or degradation. And the paradigms shouldn’t be, either.

Homeless, homelessness, homeless residents, homeless person – these words litter my articles at Street Sense. Nothing could be more literal. A coded adjective or noun that strips its article of identity and hope, wrapping gray woolen blankets across an objective black and white typeface. It is a panhandling addition to the lexicon, asking readers to throw out sympathy like spare coins into a cup.

I have come to hate this meaning that lurks behind the word ‘homeless.’ Yet, these two simple syllables have infiltrated my conversations and my paragraphs, a semantic necessity that causes me to reduce 6,000 unique individuals to a collective unsheltered entity.

‘Homeless’ when breathed into conversation among polite company often elicits a similar response, most like the one people reserve for babies and puppies. Creatures devoid of highly individual personalities and entirely dependent on the kindness of wiser, sophisticated humans for sustenance and protection.

At a recent Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting, activist Cheryl Barnes bristled at the term “chronically homeless.” Noting her own history of homelessness, Barnes resented the label as too clinical, too hopeless. This term may power policy and aid advocacy, but it does little to alter the anonymity and powerlessness of the individuals to whom it applies.

This hate for ‘homeless’ with its gray–blanketed innuendos complicated my editorial internship. I have probed my articles and actions for pity like a doctor pressing for tumors beneath the flesh. I know there were moments when I pitied and moments when I lost hope. Moments when I wanted to ban these people and the narrow jail of a word they were pushed into from my otherwise uncomplicated existence.

Still, for now, a continued dependence on ‘homeless’ is necessary, if only because no other term exists. It is not within a journalist’s power to redefine. That task lies in the community itself, both those who are domiciled and those who are not.

For me, the word will remain deep and dark; full of a shame and a tinge of guilt and a quiet desperation and a bitter slap across the face of society. My parting wish for Street Sense readers is that my reporting has brought a fuller understanding of ‘homeless’ and a challenge to the dominant framework in which this issue is enclosed.

I didn’t want to write this column. I didn’t want to acknowledge my own shortcomings or, worse, the shortcomings of words. As an activist and a journalist, I see a world whose justice is shaped and secured by words. Our language is powerful, rich, and wide. Its failure here scares me. In this, there is perhaps the only nuance where ‘homeless’ succeeds – it makes me uncomfortable.

1 comment:

Fritz said...

A wonderful column! Thank God for you and all of the staff and vendors of Street Sense that bring the news and the ideas of our fellow citizens who happen to be homeless!!

In the last few years, I have been involved with Washington Interfaith Network in their fight for affordable housing, and particularly supportive housing for the homeless. This fight has allowed me the dubious privilege of talking to Councilmembers and their staffs and to the mayor's staff. I have been stunned by their willful ignorance. Even those who are sympathetic and diligent, such as the council member who slept for a night in a shelter, and a committee staff member who spends nights on the streets talking to people come away with stereotypic conceptions. The council member explained the need for a downtown shelter by remarking that people need to be downtown to panhandle! The staff member still believes that chronic homelessness is a result of substance abuse and mental health problems.

We have an extremely badly organized society, in which unscrupulous people have free rein to cheat people out of their money, their livelihoods and their homes. I have met so many bright, articulate people who are homeless that I wonder how anyone thinks that we can waste these people the way we do! (I suggested to Eric Sheptock that he should run for Council, and perhaps he will! How about for Ward 2?)