THE BLOG
02/24/2014 07:02 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

You're Kidding. She's Homeless?

Last Saturday afternoon, I was walking on a crowded sidewalk in downtown Bethesda, Maryland when I spotted a woman I know. She was heading past me, in the opposite direction. She had neatly combed shoulder-length brown hair and wore a navy blue coat and silver-rimmed glasses. She did not pause, but rather raised a hand in greeting, gave me a smile and let the river of people carry her on her way.

The thing is, I know that that woman -- "Karen" -- currently lives in a car.

Before I started working at Bethesda Cares, I had a mental image of what someone "homeless" looks like. Maybe you do, too: I pictured a disheveled old man with scraggly hair and a matted beard, wearing dirty mismatched clothes and probably pushing a shopping cart.

And yes, sure, some people do fit visual bills. That's what stereotypes are about. They let us conveniently categorize people in our heads, reaffirming our own truths, without even noticing what we're doing. Stereotypes offer us a (limited, limiting) shorthand:

"Italian." "WASP." "Soccer Mom." "Homeless Guy."

But thinking you can visually pinpoint who is experiencing homelessness is no more enlightened than, say, assuming a teen who dons a hoodie is a thug.

The great majority of people who come in to our Drop-In Center are currently sleeping unsheltered, but they look like anyone you'd pass on the street. Sure, they may be carrying backpacks, but they may not. Probably, their gloves match. Their pants fit. And their shoes are appropriate for the season.

Although I cringe at the memory, early on in my job I mentioned this to Sue, our Executive Director. "They, just, well, they look okay, most of them," I said.

She nodded, agreed. "No one wants strangers to judge them. For some, even if they are stuck living in a tent, they do their best to keep up their hygiene. And as you well know by now, just because you live on the streets doesn't mean you're a substance abuser or mentally ill."

Yep, point made; busted, working from a stereotype.

"And you know, right, what do you think happens to the perfectly good leather jacket you donate, because you want a new one? The scarves your congregation knits or collects in the cold weather? People wear them!"

Well, that's what I figured would happen wanted when I donated the coat, but hadn't really thought it through before.

I get it now: I have walked past people experiencing homelessness my whole life, without knowing it, because they don't fit stereotypes any more than does any other lumped-together group.

But there's one other piece Sue didn't mention that continues to thrum through my thoughts: Why do so many of our clients look just like you and I?

Because, as I have posted before, and I'll likely say again: there is no us, there is no them.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.