Overcast 55° Good Afternoon
Overcast 55° Good Afternoon

Mills: The new face of homelessness

"These days poverty is less and less a remote phenomenon," writes Nicolaus Mills. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

She has picked the perfect spot to be noticed -- right between a subway stop and an upscale deli on New York's Upper West Side. But she seems to crave privacy. Never does she initiate eye contact. Never does she start a conversation. Her preference is to sit quietly on a foot stool reading a book.

Yet more often than not, the aluminum beverage cup that sits in front of her stool has dollar bills in it.

I have given her some of those dollars. "God bless you," she said once. Another time, it was simply "Thank you."

The homeless men who in the past asked for handouts on the same block did not do so well. They rarely got more quarters than nickels. Even holding the door open for the customers of a nearby bagel shop rarely worked for them.

The woman to whom I and others walking along this Upper West Side sidewalk having been giving dollar bills looks different from the homeless men she has replaced. She is tastefully dressed. Her gray hair is clean. She doesn't talk to herself. She is white.

She is the new face of homelessness, and from what I can tell, her presence frightens passersby. They see themselves in her, and they are right to do so. "Homeless, Scared, and Hungry" she wrote one day on a cardboard sign she put next to her stool. It was easy to believe her.

These days poverty is less and less a remote phenomenon. In the last decade, those living under the poverty line in the suburbs grew by 66 percent while the overall suburban population barely changed. Even having a job is no guarantee of staying out of poverty any longer; 7.2 percent of those the government says are employed are living below the poverty line, and 150 million Americans are no more than two paychecks away from falling into poverty. In our high cost-of-living region, the stakes can be even higher.

In the case of the woman on the stool, it is hard to imagine that she became homeless through her own fault. Her neat appearance and visible shyness make it seem more likely that terrible luck, rather than a personal failing or mental illness, is the source of her trouble. She resembles a kindly aunt who has, for the moment, sat down to rest on a hot summer day.

I hope she keeps getting dollars rather than loose change. But I worry that the dollar donations I am talking about say something terrible about the way we have in the past stereotyped homelessness. It should not take a middle-class-appearing woman asking for money to jar us into giving.

During the Great Depression John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" and James Agee and Walker Evans in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" took us inside the heads of the poor, making sure we didn't just see them as anonymous Okies or faceless sharecroppers. We have lost that egalitarian sensibility, and we need to get it back. If it takes a woman who looks as if she has always had a roof over her head to help accelerate that change, so be it.

Anything is better than the quiet racism that let so many passersby pay scant attention to the African-American homeless people who, in the past, dominated this small New York block.