Commentary: Who is my neighbor?

Commentary: Who is my neighbor?

A recent public meeting concerning Fairfax County’s plan to build a temporary shelter for the homeless in Lincolnia brought forth a flood of complaints to the effect of, “yes, we need a shelter, we care about the homeless, but we don’t want a shelter anywhere near us.” Some people likened homeless people to criminals.

But who are the homeless? For many people, “homeless” conjures an image of a single man or woman camping in a park with makeshift materials, begging on a corner, or asleep on the Metro for want of a place to lay their heads. In fact, the average age of a homeless person in America is only nine. Of the 3.5 million homeless people in our nation, 1.35 are children. Forty-two percent of children in homeless families are under the age of six. Similarly, 49 percent of the homeless families with children in the Fairfax-Falls Church community are experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. A homeless person is more likely to be a victim of crime than a perpetrator.

Yet the misconceptions persist. As the Executive Director of Homestretch, a program for homeless families, I see homeless people every day. Homestretch provides housing and comprehensive services designed to propel homeless families out of poverty and crisis. Given the opportunity to develop skills, restore their health, acquire an education, extinguish debts and increase their income, most families flourish. You might be amazed to learn who around you was once homeless. It could be the person cleaning your teeth at the dentists’ office. Or the barista making your skinny latte. It might be your third grader’s beloved teacher, the accountant doing your taxes, or the chef at your favorite lunch spot. It might be your cosmetologist or bus driver. It might be the plumber who just fixed that pesky leak in your kitchen. It could be your phlebotomist, your gardener, or your personal trainer. Graduates of Homestretch have entered each of these fields. One recent Homestretch graduate just earned her pharmacist’s license. She came into Homestretch homeless and in crisis, fleeing domestic violence, with a young daughter. Given an opportunity to start a new life, she seized the chance. From homelessness to a pharmacist in four years – who among us could do that? What homeless people need is what we all need when crisis strikes – compassion, support, love. And a safe place to sleep, certainly.

In a political season when we are closing our hearts to the homeless and to refugees, we might want to remember that Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus were virtually homeless, and certainly refugees, when they fled Judea for Egypt to avoid the violence of Herod. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” Together, as a humane community, let’s welcome even the “least of these our brethren”, the homeless, into our midst. Surely, giving them a shelter in our neighborhood is the least we can do.

Christopher Fay is Executive Director of Homestretch, which has earned many honors including the Governor’s Best Housing Program in Virginia Award, the Blue Diamond Award from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce for Outstanding NonProfit, and awards from Leadership Fairfax and Volunteer Fairfax.