On Friday night we had the honor of celebrating our book at Little Shop of Stories during our book release party. My family parked in the parking garage which is a short walk from the bookstore. I walked ahead with the kids while my husband loaded up a cart with supplies for the event. I was wearing a dress, which is a rare occurrence, and regretting it as the wind hit my bare legs. Our one-year-old, who hates anything on her, kept her hood up so you know it was cold.
“It’s cold,” commented my 7 year-old. “Imagine if you were homeless tonight.”
He said it in a factual tone without sympathy, anger, questioning, or humor. My 7 year-old is all logic. It was simply a statement that it sucks to be homeless when it’s cold.
“Yeah,” my 4 year-old agreed sadly. He is my feeler and looked visibly sad by the idea.
We walked silently for a few steps and then my boys were on to a new topic. They didn’t have any new questions for the moment. We’ve talked a lot about homelessness over the years and they have lots of questions: Why is someone homeless? Why don’t they just buy a house? How much does it cost to buy a house? Do you have to have a job to have a house? Can you have a job if you are homeless?
These sound like typical kid questions except I’ve started to wonder if adults know the answers. Do you know what you have to make to afford a studio apartment in your city? (I had to look it up.) Do you know how many rental units are available to someone making minimum wage? It turns out not enough for the number of people making minimum wage in any U.S city. Which begs the question, where are they living? And if you aren’t working, but live on social security, your entire check doesn’t make average rent in most cities. (I also had to look up that one.)
Some of their questions I can’t solve with Google. I can’t come up with an answer that sounds reasonable to their question: Why can’t we just fix all the houses no one lives in and give them to people without homes? It turns out we actually have more that enough vacant houses. I tried telling them it costs too much to fix them but couldn’t because that would actually be cheaper than the cost of leaving people homeless.
Even though I clearly don’t have the answers, they keep asking. And as their mom, I sometimes feel like that is enough. Maybe if we all thought, “Man, it would suck to be homeless tonight,” when we walk on a cold evening, things would change. Maybe we would start asking new questions when we see vacant homes or choose where to donate our money, or vote on legislation.
Today, the book is officially out and people will read it through their own lenses and experiences. People will have different reactions and I think we are ready for that. My hope is that it will change people in the way writing it has changed me. I hope people will start asking questions. As they walk through their daily lives and make millions of decisions, I hope they ask, “What will make my neighbors healthy?” I hope they will not settle for answers like, “it’s too hard to change that. The problem is too complex.” My kids don’t so why should we?
We hope you’ll read How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick and join us here for ongoing conversation.