It’s the morning of Christmas Eve and I am walking down a crowded and celebratory Fifth Avenue. About to cross 52nd street, I notice a woman running into the street in front of me. She is waving a children’s light green fleece sweater in the air above her head. She approaches an older, emaciated man, limping across the street while attempting to guide the direction of a plastic barrel on wheels that holds his belongings. He is shirtless, wearing a ragged piece of cloth that serves as a pair of shorts. Torn, open-toed, black sneakers cover his feet. Thirty-seven degrees outside and his body shivers. The woman approaches him and offers him the sweater to cover his back. He mumbles, doesn’t seem to understand what she has asked and then nods his head “yes”. She places the sweater on his back and ties the arms around his chest. She accomplishes this task by walking alongside him, surrounded by people pushing forward, lots of shoppers hurrying towards decorated doorways, drinking cappuccinos, eating roasted chestnuts and soft, salty pretzels.
As I watch this scene, I am reminded that the United States Department of Agriculture will no longer use the word “hunger” alone to describe those without food or those “who do not have enough to eat”. “Food insecurity without hunger” and “food insecurity with hunger” constitutes the newly developed terminology for hunger.
Although this language may represent a more precise measurement of the distance between today and the next meal, it also distances those with plenty from the true realities of living precariously day to day and disguises a reality that shames us.
I wonder if in 2007 we will erase the word “homeless” and instead describe those with limited or uncertain access to shelter as “structure insecurity with housing” or “structure insecurity without housing”?
I believe that giving homelessness or hunger another name will not erase the need to respond. I cherish the wisdom of those religious traditions that say we are God’s hands on earth. I honor those who believe in an ethic of stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants. Perhaps the woman with the green sweater was acting from such a tradition or ethic.
I must challenge my heart and eyes to uncover the reality that words often conceal: that my neighbors go hungry and without shelter. I believe that I must act on that reality.
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