When I think of homelessness, I frequently think of the 7-Eleven on Dartmouth Street in the Back Bay of Boston. As a child and young adult growing up in that neighborhood, I shopped at this 7-Eleven for drinks, batteries, ice, and other convenience store items. I walked by it on the way to Copley Place or Prudential Center. I passed by it on the way to Copley Station where I took the T to school every morning when I was younger and to work every day when I came home from college. It was on the way to the library, to nice restaurants, and to the supermarket. It is safe to say that I passed by this location almost every day for two decades.
This 7-Eleven was (and still is) a prime location for men and women experiencing homelessness to gather and ask pedestrians for spare change. When I look back at this location, I see it as a prime example of class differences in this city. This 7-Eleven was located in a rich neighborhood, a block away from Newbury Street, and featured the wealthy residents of Back Bay walking past the poorest members of society on the way to their private schools, fancy restaurants, and expensive shopping malls. As an adult, I feel bad for the people who have to beg for money to survive and feel even worse that I lived in such a nice house that was a several blocks away from people who were struggling. Unfortunately, I had a very different attitude when I was younger.
When I was younger, I viewed the people outside this 7-Eleven as a nuisance. The situation made me very uncomfortable. I remember crossing to the other side of the street to avoid being asked for money. I remember putting my keys next to my wallet or in a backpack so they wouldn’t jingle and sound as though I had coins in my pocket. And, as someone who dislikes contact, I really hated how some of them would want to shake my hand. I never wondered what their story was. I just wished they would leave me alone.
I didn’t really start to empathize until I went through my own mental health problems several years ago. I was unable to work and earn a living and, if I did not have loving and supporting parents, could have easily wound up on the street, struggling, and without the proper care I needed. I had missed years of social development and was unable to live independently without support from my family and caregivers. Without these support structures in my life, I highly doubt I would have been able to maintain stable housing. I now realize that it was only after something happened to me personally that I started asking questions about why these people were living on the street. I could recognize that, for some people, it was not simply a matter of “finding a job” or “working harder” and that there are real problems that cause people to lead lives on the streets.
I want to start a discussion about how to raise awareness and compassion in people who cannot relate to homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction. It is easy for someone with lived experience (or with a family member with lived experience) to become an advocate and “fight the good fight.” It is much harder to reach people who lack lived experiences. How do we educate the privileged child about a problem that had little to do with his life and his experiences? Do we really have to wait for that child to grow up and experience his own trauma and recovery, before that individual actually starts to care? In short, I think that the “it hasn’t happened to me yet” mentality is a major problem affecting social services and care in this country.