Homeless children are hard to see. They tug at our parenting instincts. Something physiological happens in us and we want to take them under our wings. When I prepared food one wintry day at the Homeless Youth Resource Center, one young woman who came in for food had a young child with her. Where would they spend the night? It is strange to be doing something that is so obviously helpful—providing a delicious meal (our South Valley cooks are chefs who put lots of time and care and love into what they prepare) and even fix a box of carry out food for later and provide her and her child with scarves knitted by our Prayer Shawl Circle—and yet being there and providing something made me feel so helpless to solve the larger problems that the woman and her child were facing. Did they have a place indoors to spend the night? How was it for the child to experience life as an outsider? I remember how hard it was for me when my father did crazy things that called attention to us—like saying in a loud voice in buffet restaurants, “You’d better eat up kids. This is the last food that you will get for a week.” We were still dressed as if we had a home. We didn’t live in our car. We were able to bathe.
Living without a home is hard on children. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 45 children experience homelessness in America each year. That’s over 1.6 million children. According to the Center:
• The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experience has profound effects on their development and ability to learn.
• Among industrialized nations, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children.
• Children experiencing homelessness are sick four times more than other children and go hungry at twice the rate of other children.
When children are homeless, we are faced with living out our first Unitarian Unversalist principle that affirms the worth and dignity of all human beings. One way that we do that in our community is by fixing meals. There are other opportunities as well such as reading to children or helping them with their homework at the Road Home in Midvale.
Like preparing meals, I know that these experiences would be eye and heart opening. This year, the Interfaith Roundtable had a winter glove drive. It felt good to see all those heavy duty gloves destined for hands that were spending the bulk of their time in the freezing cold.
Like the work on our borderlands of bringing people water or bandaging blistered feet, we are providing relief, that can be life-changing and is extremely important and the roots of poverty that are beyond our reach will provide an endless and growing stream of people in need. Out of our view is one of those epic monsters that is creating a greater and greater disparity between the rich and the poor. A World Bank study has shown that the U.S. has a higher level of income inequality than Europe, Canada, Australia and South Korea. UNICEF ranked the US 34th out of 35 economically advanced countries in our childhood poverty rates? Only Romania had a higher relative childhood poverty rate.
The UNICEF report explained the underpinning rationale for doing the study:
“…Because children have only one opportunity to develop normally in mind and body, the commitment to protection from poverty must be upheld in good times and in bad. A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead.”
And when we as humans encounter intractable problems—we can become easily discouraged. And it is our courage that we need an energy to keep doing what we can to have a world for our children and their children that will be livable.
This is where we need a drum roll and the appearance on the horizon of someone who knows just what to do. We need a superhero!
Let’s think about what we’d want that superhero to do. I would want that all-powerful person (and because all the superheroes of my youth were men—I’d like that hero to be a woman) to reach out her hands and adjust our society, and level out our economic structure. We have learned that most people in that one percent if presented with more money will not want it to trickle down to the rest of the economy—their wealth will become greater. So this superhero would need great technological skills to even out bank accounts (off shore ones too) and wages. When we are trying to pass a raise in minimum wage to make it closer to a living wage, we need the kind of crowd that showed up yesterday in the Capitol. Last year, a proposal to raise Utah’s minimum wage to $12 an hour and the restaurant wage to $5 was quickly jettisoned in the Utah Legislature for at least the third year in a row.
HB195 couldn’t clear the first hurdle ¬in getting out of the House Business and Labor Committee on Thursday, and was tabled on an 8-3 vote.
The first year that such a bill was introduced, I attended the committee meeting with an Episcopal priest. He spoke before the committee of a woman in his community with three children to support. She had a full time job but was homeless because she could not pay for an apartment out of her salary and feed her children too. The people of that committee need to be volunteering to read to children at the Road Home or prepare meals at the Youth Resource Center. Our Superhero would figure out a way—she would have them switch places with one of the parents living at the Road Home trying to figure out how they can provide for their family.
When our minimum wage is not a living wage we will have children without permanent shelter. The article in the Salt Lake Tribune about the tabling of that bill in the legislature last year showed one of the buildings up at the State Capitol. Looking at that photograph, I realized that the real hero that we needed was what I saw yesterday. We needed a crowd of people around that building with signs calling for a minimum wage. Can I dub us all today as Superheroes?
Another time we will need to show up in great numbers to help ameliorate the growing number of children without homes is around affordable housing. And, the march yesterday to welcome immigrants is extending our reach to people seeking refuge in this country. Yesterday, I loved seeing the crowds of people and the welcoming signs, and meeting Imam Mehtar and friends of other faiths from the Interfaith Roundtable. And, what struck me yesterday more than anything were the drummers from Burundi. What energy and life. And, what a loss to this country not to welcome the possibilities of great music, dance and culture that our country receives through immigration. Then, yesterday evening, Lou and I watched a PBS documentary about a young man, Frederick Davis, who spent his early childhood homeless “From the Streets to the Stage”. His mother struggled with addiction (that is another area where we need superheroes!). After some very difficult times, his grandmother Evie took him into her home. “She was the glue,” he said. And he was able to start over again. She gave love and support. He just grew! His grandmother Evie loved him with a fierceness. She encouraged him with “Believe in yourself. Whether you fail or not, you always know when to get back on your feet again.” She also said: You have to see the hard things as blessings. Do you want to be against society or do you want to inspire others?
Frederick Davis is a gifted dancer, who after many, many years of hard work is dancing with the Harlem Dance Theater. The footage of his dance was so beautiful. That is another perspective as those drummers from Burundi. What wonders are waiting for us in opening the gates of this country and in ameliorating this huge gap between the rich and the poor.
When Frederick spoke of his early life, he said, “It was unfair and it was a blessing in disguise. No matter how hard times are, don’t let anything get in the way.” Now he is working to encourage young dancers.
One of my superheroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, was skilled at doing what I’m asking you to do as superheroes: she could see the big picture through her encounters with individuals.
In the reading, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “My interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause,” she explained at the age of seventy-five, “but by the plight of a single person whom I have seen with my own eyes.” When she encountered a homeless man on the streets of New York. She didn’t know why he was lying there. She wondered if he was sleeping or drunk and seeing the larger picture of this man’s human rights. This man gave her a window into her work on the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And her encounter with him gave her energy to continue that struggle to forge a document that continues to guide us.
The last weeks have been disappointing, discouraging and hard and yet in many ways I feel that the anti-hero has finally been flushed out of the woods (and I’m not just meaning our new president). This trend in our country to quietly ignore the suffering stemming from our growing levels of poverty is now out in the open. And, we must remember that these are growing trends that were not stopped by prior presidents. Looking out yesterday from the Capitol and seeing the crowds stretching in all directions, I thought, “This is what democracy looks like.” This is what a superhero looks like. It looks like showing up, being one of many. And sometimes, we stand on our own. Whatever your theology, in times of distress, if you are listening, you will hear a call to do what only you can do. And, sometimes that will simply be caring for your own children! A marvelous array of superheroes is waiting to move into action. May we inspire each other with our courage.
When we don’t take care of children, we can damage generations. And, we have a chance of spreading kindness. Foster care.
May it be so. Amen.