Below is an excerpt from Ms. Alexander's article. For the full article, you can purchase back issues of The Contributor for just $1 by visiting The Contributor web site.
Here at The Contributor we have recently received a few emails and phone calls inquiring why vendors sometimes spend their money on tobacco, cell phones, clean clothes, polished finger nails, and the occasional decent meal. My initial reaction is to simply respond, "How dare you think you can question every cent a person spends simply because they are poor?" But alas, even if such a response is justified, it would likely bear ill fruit. Accordingly, with a deep breath on my part, please allow me to respond to some of your recent inquiries.
Every single day in our city, men and women who are homeless face real discrimination because of the way they look. Their appearances cause them to carry an unjust burden to shame. The homeless men and women I know and love want to look presentable; they want to be clean, but sometimes it is impossible for them to look anything less than, well, homeless. As a result of the ongoing stigma and embarrassment caused by their appearance, many homeless individuals become fastidious with their appearance as soon as they gain any sort of stability and access to housing or showers. There are also a number of excellent clothing closets, predominately at churches, where our homeless friends are able to obtain not just clean clothing, but sometimes very nice clothing. So often, people who are homeless are avoided simply because of their appearance, and yet when they try to ensure that they do not look homeless, there are those waiting to criticize them because they "look too good to be homeless-it must be a scam." Sometimes it seems they just can't win.
The issue of personal appearance is especially difficult for homeless women who often find themselves in situations that they have never been in before. These women go from being "normal" women like you and me who have the ability to stay clean and look nice, to going sometimes days, if not weeks, on end in the same dirty clothing and without a shower. Their hands are often an immediate indication of their homelessness as their hands are often dirty and their nails broken. As a consequence of living like this it is not unusual for homeless women, or formerly homeless women, to indulge in the little luxury of keeping their hands and nails clean and polished as soon as they are able.
Take my friend Stacy for instance. Stacy lived in Tent City before it was destroyed, and while she was living there she was trying to improve her situation by attending cosmetology school. It soon became a personal mission for Stacy to ensure that the women who lived in Tent City had beautiful nails, and that the men all had good haircuts and a nice clean shave if they wanted it. You see, Stacy knew that appearance matters, especially for a population like the homeless about whom exists numerous unfair and largely unfounded presumptions such as their wanting to be homeless, and not caring about things like hygiene. And so she tried hard to make her own little community more "presentable" so that perhaps the ostracizing would be not quite so bad, and so that someone may stand a better chance of getting a job...
...What you, the reader, must know is that it is dangerous to ever be so presumptuous in thinking that you know something about someone, and the choices they should or should not make with their own money, until you've walked a mile in their shoes, or worked a day with their hands. Our vendors don't work their tails off all day long and put their hearts, souls, and pride in this paper just so that you will "feel sorry" for them. They stand out there day after day working a legitimate job so that you can see that they aren't so very different from you. They are trying to meet you so that you can get to know them. They are trying to contribute something positive to our community. It is a shame if the vendor you bought your paper from should ever be penalized because they were able to show that they are not so different from you.Thank you Jeannie for opening readers' eyes to the daily struggles our homeless face and their hopes and dreams. God bless you!