The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My 4-year-old’s first encounter with homelessness left me struggling for answers

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The white feathers floated everywhere. It took me a moment to discern their source. A woman, 30-something, slim and tired-looking, was trying to stuff a ratty down sleeping bag into a small plastic sack.

My 4-year-old daughter, Dora Lee, was understandably intrigued — how often does she find a grown-up sitting on a dirty sidewalk surrounded by a cloud of feathers? She marched over, fixed her blue eyes on the woman and struck up a conversation. Why, she wanted to know, why so many feathers?

It was a blustery summer afternoon in San Francisco, and my husband and I had trekked across the Bay Bridge with our two little ones to meet some friends at the Ferry Building. We had walked outside to look at the ferries cruising across the choppy dark-blue water in an effort to distract Dora Lee from a brewing tantrum: “I. Want. ICE CREAM!”

The boat trick didn’t work on Dora Lee, but the feathers did. I watched her from a few yards away, wanting to afford her a degree of independence (and also distracted by my toddler son, who was cheerfully dodging through the crowd, chasing pigeons).

From where I stood, I studied the woman, seeking clues to her story in the available details: clean clothes, reasonably nice shoes, the sidewalk, the sleeping bag. Dora Lee was wearing a rainbow-striped fleece sweatshirt with clashing flower-printed pants. Each was giving the other her full attention. I had no idea what they were discussing, but Dora Lee appeared intently interested. I idly wondered whether I was practicing good parenting (giving enough space) or bad parenting (giving too much space).

Dora Lee has not yet learned to fear strangers. There are other concepts she has also not yet grasped: race, class, nutrition, the controversial nature of public nudity. But the stranger thing is particularly intriguing to me. I am proud of her openhearted and egalitarian attitude toward all types of people, though I sometimes wonder if I should curtail it for her safety.

On our morning walk to her preschool, she often strikes up conversations with passersby. These conversations generally start mid-thought, sans preamble: “We’re going to see Iris and Olivia at the food trucks after school today,” she’ll tell some surprised pedestrian who has stopped for a moment to collect his or her dog’s poop. That person will appear startled, furrowing a brow in confusion, then smiling at Dora Lee and nodding at me. We grown-ups know social mores can be impediments to human connection. And it can be awfully hard to unlearn them.

After she’d spoken with the woman with the feathers for several minutes, Dora Lee walked over to stand next to me. We watched the ferries and the sailboats while her younger brother continued tormenting the pigeons. We eventually convinced her to use the bathroom. Then we headed home.

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We pulled our Prius into the driveway of our house in Oakland. My husband and son climbed up the front stairs to get ready for bath time. Dora Lee and I paused for a moment on the sidewalk out front. I looked at my daughter and asked her, finally, what she had been talking about with the woman.

“She said she doesn’t have a house, so she lives everywhere,” she told me. I nodded, taken aback by the simplicity of this description. I hadn’t been sure of the woman’s homelessness until then.

Dora Lee gazed down our street lined with overpriced Craftsman homes — although money and real estate are two more concepts she doesn’t yet understand. Then she looked up at me.

“Why can’t we share houses?” she asked.

I searched my brain for a good response, a reasonable and honest explanation for homelessness that might be comprehensible to someone who had her first haircut only three weeks earlier. I found nothing. So I simply agreed.

“We should share houses,” I said. “You’re right.”

“Well, where is she?” Dora Lee asked, looking up and down the street for the woman with the feathers. “Can she come stay with us?”

I told my daughter I didn’t know where the woman was, that she was probably near where we’d left her. The convenience of this fact — that there was no real decision about whether to unfold the sofa bed for a stranger that night — flooded me with relief and heartsickness.

I remember struggling with these types of questions as a child. The first time I saw people curled up on the sidewalks was on a rare trip into the city with my parents when I was in third grade. Snuggled into my bed later that night, I replaced my pillow with a hardcover book and slept that way for months. In fifth grade, I summoned the courage to offer a valentine with a $5 bill in it to an old man I’d seen picking through the trash in the park near my house. He’d looked surprised. My junior year in high school, a year-long project for my English class focused on solving homelessness. I couldn’t understand why no one had yet done so.

Even as a young journalist writing about poverty for the Sacramento Bee, I’d sink into a paralyzing despair when I saw a stranger hunched over in a doorway on a rainy night. Whatever my now-husband and I were talking about at the time would fade away and I’d stare numbly into the darkness.

But by the time I became Dora Lee’s mother, it no longer surprised me that a woman could spend her nights in a ratty sleeping bag on a cold, dirty sidewalk. The sight had become so familiar over the years, I’d unconsciously learned to steel myself against grief and outrage. Perhaps the lack of answers made me stop asking the questions.

As I snuggled next to Dora Lee at bedtime that night, I asked if she wanted to talk about the woman.

“Can she stay with us?” Dora Lee asked again, whispering so as not to wake her baby brother.

“I don’t think so,” I said. Perhaps we can volunteer somewhere, I added. We could help people that way.

Dora Lee agreed. I could see she wasn’t satisfied. Neither was I.

“Can we stop talking about it?” she asked.

So, just like every night, I sang “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Piano Man” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” And, just like every night, my little girl rolled onto her side and fell asleep.

As I lay there in the dark, listening to my two children breathe, I wondered where the woman with the feathers was sleeping that night. Unencumbered by grown-up excuses, children sometimes ask the best questions of all.

Jocelyn Wiener is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about health, mental health, poverty and social issues. 

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