I attended an Open House earlier this week at a place not far from the church. I have been invited to Bright Beginnings before, and I am not sure why I waited so long to visit.
Bright Beginnings is a beautiful childcare center that serves 92 children in the District of Columbia. The children range in age from infants to pre-K, and I am told that there are some 30 -50 infants on the waiting list for their services. The space Bright Beginnings occupies is covered in bright colors. The smell of orange juice and peanut butter sandwiches filters through the air. Tiny toilets can be found in each bathroom. Bright Beginnings appears to be like every other childcare center in the city. However, Bright Beginnings is different.
The children at Bright Beginnings are all homeless. None of them have a permanent place to call home. They are residents of shelters in the city. They sleep on a relative's couch at night. They stay in transitional shelters. And, seeing these little faces smiling back at me elicited a myriad of thoughts in my mind.
I think of the great care many of my peers undertake when expecting a child. Many of them paint the color of the baby's room yellow, blue or pink. We buy special furniture. We purchase special laundry detergent to get all of the baby's little things clean before we bring the baby home from the hospital. We go on Consumer Reports time and again to see who manufactures the best car seat or stroller. We purchase five different kinds of diapers until we find the one that works best for us. We get the baby everything she or he might need. (It is interesting that I have even thought about how Craig and I cannot have a child until we can afford a larger house since babies need their own rooms.)
But what would it be like to have a child and not have a place to call your own, let alone a separate room for the child? What would it be like to depend upon the city or a distant cousin for a bed at night for you and your child or children?
Too often we think that the only people who are homeless are men with substance abuse problems. We look at the people on the streets who shake a can in our faces and assume that every homeless person is the same, and we conclude that it is their fault that they are homeless. "Can't they just get a job?" we ask ourselves.
Last weekend, the people at Mount Vernon Place raised money for Rachael's Women's Center by participating in a mini-walk for the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walkathon. Two staff members of Rachael's shared information with us prior to our walk. Their statistics are startling. They told us about the homeless population many of us do not always see - women and their children. And, they helped us to see how hard it is to make ends meet in a city like Washington when the cost of housing is so high. An individual making minimum wage who has a child cannot possibly afford to live in this city. There is a huge difference between a minimum wage and a livable wage.
The conversations with the people at Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings have recalled to mind a time in my life when I, too, was forced to leave the place I called home. My parents had recently divorced, and my mother was doing everything within her power to keep life as close to normal for my sister and me. She was teaching at a college, adding an extra course each semester to her already full load, and working at a women's clothing store at night. She wanted desperately for my sister and me to have the opportunities that we had always had. Still, it was tough to stay afloat. The bills were larger than the income and dollars coming in. Not enough changes had been made. It was like treading water, and the water became too deep.
An eviction notice was served, and we must have thought that it would go away. We pleaded with the landlord to help us one more month, but it did not work. Individuals dressed in orange from the county jail arrived one day and moved all of our belongings to the sidewalk. My furniture. My clothing. My prized possessions. My pictures. Everything was at the top of the driveway.
Fortunately, it did not stay there for long. We had people who we could call, and they immediately came to our need. We were able to move into another duplex that day with the help of a friend who owned a moving company.
I have never written about this time in my life before. It still haunts me.
I see evictions happening in the neighborhood where I live all of the time. It is not unusual to come home and see a pile of stuff on the side of the street. Each time I see this, I say a prayer for the one whose stuff my eyes can see.
But we must do more than pray. We must continue to educate ourselves on why people are homeless. We must continue to ask ourselves why some people have so much why others have so little. We must look with compassion upon every person we see - the man at the edge of the lawn whose body and belongings are covered in plastic, the people who sleep on the grates outside of the city-owned building where we have worship services, the coworker who has recently gone through a divorce and seems to be having a hard time juggling everything.
If you live in a city, then you have plenty of opportunities to confront individuals who are struggling through life. It is an enormous responsibility to see so many people with significant needs and then read the scriptures where we are told that we will be judged - held accountable - for how we treat the hungry and the homeless.
I am grateful for what my eyes have seen this week. I am grateful for Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings. May the visions not escape my mind nor the words my ears. May I allow what my heart has experienced to penetrate into actions that will make a difference.
I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
I was homeless, and you gave me a place to lay my head.