In the shadow of the glitz and glamour of The Magnificent Mile, there sat three homeless children and their grandmother. Michelle (4), Sam (7), Tyler (9) and their grandmother, whose wheelchair bound, panhandle for $32 a day to get a hotel room and afford basic food items. I pulled the bus aside their spot and for the next ninety minutes let them shop for new items. One thing that I’ve learned doing homeless outreach is that choice is at times synonymous with dignity. The choice to have full tummies, the choice to be warm, the choice to have clean clothes, and the choice to laugh is for some a precious commodity. And it’s especially confronting when children are absent these basic dignities, it feels cruel. It’s as though poverty is a punishment for crimes they did not commit.
As you may see in the picture of these siblings, they’re for the moment happy. They were able to choose new coats; they tried them on, modeled their look and giggled between themselves. They also choose their own food and took as much as their cart would carry. Michelle choose four bags of Frozen themed cereal; Sam was dancing around when he found some chef Boyardee and Tyler was beside himself with not one, but three boxes of pop tarts (cherry, chocolate and blueberry). And all three took a dozen trips back and forth from the bus picking out their favorite tooth brushes. They also took new blankets that were yet to be ridden with bed bugs.
After about 45 minutes, I had developed some trust with the grandmother and I asked how everyone was doing medically. To my horror, several of them had been bitten by rodents while sleeping and all had lice. It took another thirty minutes to clean their wounds, put on antibiotic creams and apply some Disney band aids which made each of them smile and giggle again. I tried to navigate these interactions with some normalcy as to not upset the children; but I was ashamed that I couldn’t contain my emotions. I had to step into the bus many times to wipe away tears and catch my breath.
We think sometimes that poverty is being hungry, bare and homeless. But the poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. Irrespective of the larger injustice, they were a bit happier, warmer and optimistic about their night. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”