You lie down on that dirty park bench, or sit against the chain-link fence next to the sidewalk. Your state of homelessness is exposed for all to see.
You are faceless. We walk by you very quickly, darting our glance away from you, intentionally not making eye contact. We don’t want to know what you look like. You might be sick, or dirty, or your appearance just might make us feel guilty.
You are also nameless. Many of us don’t want to know your name because if you have a name, then you become a real person. It is better that you are just a neighborhood nuisance, or a reason for complaining to the city.
You have no roots. To passersby you are a mound of blankets on the sidewalk. You are that being, with empty eyes, standing on the freeway off-ramp begging for a few coins. We don’t want to know that you might have family in a city far from here, or that you could have attended the nearby elementary school with one of our relatives.
In many people’s eyes, you are anonymous. No face, no name, no roots.
To some extent, I know how that feels.
Several years ago, I returned to the country of my birth in search of my original birth certificate. When I was just a couple of years old, I was adopted into a loving American family who saved me from an impoverished, family-less existence.
But I wanted to know more about my roots, starting with the data on that piece of paper that certified my birth.
After submitting an application and paying a fee, I waited a week in hopes that this sterile government office might reveal to me personal information that I had only dreamed of knowing for decades.
Days later, when I stood at that small glass government window, I heard the expressionless clerk tell me with her monotone voice, “We could not find your certificate. There is no record of you being born.”
I was speechless.
Despite the fact that my adoptive family gave me identity, and my career of housing vulnerable people gave me validity, at that very moment I felt empty. There was no piece of paper that proved I entered this world.
I felt anonymous. No face, no name, no roots.
Such a strange, unfamiliar state of being. I could be like that person under the blanket on the sidewalk, with no identity, no name. I could be like that man perched against the chain-link fence with no roots.
Without that piece of paper, I had no original name, no original place of existence, no connection to others. I felt anonymous.
Last month, a friend of mine returned to that government office in search of that piece of paper for me. With some diligence, she was able to convince a government worker to find my birth certificate.
I waited four years for it. There was only a first and middle name. Written on the paper was an estimate of what day I was born. I was abandoned after two months, and placed in a babies home where I stayed for two years until my American family rescued me.
But despite the somber facts of my original existence, the paper gave me identity. It was proof of my existence. I did not feel anonymous anymore.
When I drive off of one of L.A.’s freeways, or when I walk down one of Southern California’s streets, and I encounter you – the person who is homeless – I see a real person. A person with roots. With a name. With a face that reveals the pain of living on the streets.
That person is not anonymous to me.