I am still reading today, but when I look up now it is to glare at the gargantuan American flag that hovers over an abandoned Humvee and hundreds of homeless people lying on rows of thin foam mats. A scoff escapes amidst this star spangled hypocrisy. I didn’t recall all this poverty being in the Baby Boomer brochure, and I wanted a refund.
My job at “The Armory” is to help the families. Night after night I witness fresh families walking through the doors with a different version of the same unspoken thought: how did I get here? Their expressions are tapestries of human emotion, weaving every facial fiber into silk-screens of denial to puffy curtains of despair to elegant robes of optimism. I have wiped away tears while playing mom, dad, sister, brother, son, daughter, and grandparent to one if not all who’ve sat before me. Their stories defy fiction and deserve cinematic and literary contribution, but instead I will send them off to a motel where they and their families will at least have a roof and a chance to climb out of what is anything but a fictional situation.
Where did they all come from? Everywhere. I’ve met families who have never been homeless a day in their lives; some have literally been forced to abandon everything the night they walk in to see me, their belongings stuffed into their cars for an uncertain journey and an even more uncertain future. Others have lived this type of transient existence since childhood: roaming from one motel, friend’s house, family member’s apartment, jail cell, hospital, church program, shelter, and street corner to another. They’ve known nothing else and have either never had the opportunities to improve or had no desire to do so. A few are obviously homeless, while others seem more stable than you. It is certain, however, that as the economy worsens, those that you call neighbors, friends, and family might enter through these doors.
The kids are the hardest. Babies in broken strollers, toddlers in rags, and teenagers dawning third-hand donations are the truest travesties. Some are aware of their predicament while others innocently play and laugh in blissful ignorance. It doesn’t take much to make them smile, but it can make all the difference. Oddly enough, many have cell phones, but when life can pack up and move within an afternoon, a phone will help insure the lambs are not left behind. I’ve met the sharpest little girls and boys destined for greatness should they be given the chance, and I’ve attempted to understand the unique struggles of their youth but realistically can only barely comprehend a glimpse. Their lives are a test of unconventional savvy and smarts, an obstacle that can shackle them to the system or liberate their potential to unknown heights.
My job is to help them help themselves; my goal is to make them laugh. A human being can suffer unspeakable hardships but rise again and conquer a new day as long as there is laughter close behind. I sense a glimmer of hope and happiness despite the inevitable sorrows. It can be found beneath the footsteps of a man dancing a clumsy jig for a crowd of gap-toothed spectators; in the music of the slow but persistent slides of canes and cripples; the high-five of a five year old; the warmth of circles where street stories are traded with smiles and plastic bags are bartered among friends; and in the aroma of a hot meal steaming with gratitude. The high-flying flag is false, but its authentic spirit soars beyond its duplicity. The American people have historically defined themselves by their houses, so who are we when those four walls disappear? America has uprooted for unknown frontiers in search of a new shelter to store its dreams. Let us build it together.
Chris Ponzi is a Case Manager helping homeless families for Mercy House, a non-profit organization devoted to preventing and ending the growing homelessness in Orange County that receives many families on exodus. He is also a recent Literature Graduate from UCLA and a freelance journalist.