Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Program in Public Health

My Mother the Homeless

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”- lamentations

A few days after the now infamous polar vortex, walking down Michigan Avenue I was horrified at the site in front of me. Being a skinny African from latitude 4 degrees (right below the equator), anything below 45 degrees for me is cold. Still the cold on this day was a different story. My fingers were numb and I could barely feel my toes. This was possibly the coldest I had ever been in my life. In the midst of this freezing cold I looked up in front of me and there was a woman huddled up on the floor – in a corner with a simple sign, “Am hungry”.

Photo by humbletree

photo by humbletree

My heart broke in a thousand little pieces as my eyes refused to believe what it was seeing. I had never stopped to consider for one second- what happens to the homeless in the winter?

As a 17-year-old boy coming to study in the U.S, I never expected to see a homeless person in America. Like most immigrants I had a picture in my head: America was too beautiful, sophisticated, successful and progressive to tolerate homelessness – I was wrong.

I still remember the very first time I saw a homeless person in the U.S, in Houston to be precise, it struck me as extremely disorienting. How could anyone survive on the street? How could there be homeless people in a country with so much means? and why does no one seem to care?

Slowly however, this disorientation was quickly replaced by a combination of apathy, acceptance, and absentmindedness. Seeing the homelessness became a norm. Maybe this is what city life is really all about – becoming numb to the injustice around us as we focus on our individual dreams? But is this really normal or is it a disgrace to all of us who walk by indifferent and absent-minded, numbed by the pressures and demands of our own lives?

Photo by Ai Gie

photo by Ai Gie

In January 2012, 633,782 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S (1). The latest report on homelessness nationally reports that “a majority of persons identified as homeless were staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing, but 38% were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation.”(1)

Clearly homelessness is an extremely complicated issue that no single individual or agency can address alone. Still we must ask ourselves at least two questions. First, what can we do personally as individuals and as communities to address the issue of homelessness? Second, and perhaps most importantly, what would you do if the homeless woman huddled on the street corner in the freezing cold was your mother?

Call to action:  For those interested in working with the homeless population in the city please visit  and volunteer at the Chicago Alliance to end homelessness at: http://thechicagoalliance.org/whatyoucando.aspx or donate to the alliance at https://npo.justgive.org/nonprofits/donate.jsp?ein=36-4272272.

Alternative you can volunteer or contribute at a neighborhood soup kitchen by: visiting a just harvest at http://www.ajustharvest.org/volunteer/ or the greater Chicago food depository at http://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/site/PageServer?pagename=diff_volunteer_volatagency

Reference:

1) National alliance to end homelessness: the state of homelessness in America 2013 report. http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2013

About the Author

Osefame Ewaleifoh
Osefame Ewaleifoh is a PhD/MPH student studying herpes simplex virus neuroinvasion and transport in Greg Smith’s lab. His public health interest focuses primarily on disparities in mental health access.