The Strength I See (from The Crumbling Mansions)

I don’t know why, but homeless kids hit close to home for me. Children in general hit close home to me, but I think I have a really soft spot for homeless kids, which includes teenagers, but also younger kids as well.

This explains why I used “the street kid” as a metaphor for my autofiction, wherein I become Phoenix, Phoenix who is a homeless kid who lives on the streets.

But even with that analysis out of the way, that understanding, I still don’t know why homeless children resonate with me, why understanding them is important to me. Maybe because they exemplify what I consider to be the cliché of the innocent trapped amidst adversity and corruption, but who shine through such terrible situations with their goodness and their light, thus making up for all of the filth and grime that this world tries to smear over everything.

Yesterday, on my fourth homeless outreach (this one called Burritos and Heroes, where we dressed up as superheroes and gave out burritos and other necessary supplies to the homeless), I finally got to interact with children. I will preface by pointing out how nervous I was during all of this. In the past, when I’ve tried to interact with children, in any context, it never works, and I’m left with fear and anxiety. Something always goes wrong, something out of my control. Not only do I have that fear, as I have been conditioned to fear being around children, but I am afraid of being around the homeless as well, especially by a shelter downtown: I’m afraid because we’ve had trouble in the past, with officers of the law and authority, and how destructive it has been for my goals and ambitions, and most importantly, my desire to connect.

As part of The Legacy Initiative, I get to take part in a concept called cosplay, which basically just means, costume play. So two friends of mine who I love dearly dressed up as Batman and Spiderman. They went to the shelter, went towards the kids, and interacted.

And I have to say: It changed my life. It changed my perception. It changed who I am today.

It opened my eyes to an extent and degree that I didn’t know could be realizable or possible. I realized why it is so destructive, not to mention cruel, for organizations to deny access to the homeless population, such as children. People who know me know I’ve literally been thwarted by many organizations to help the homeless population, and this includes helping children. It wasn’t until Legacy that this changed.

I used to think that this lack of access to the homeless was because of the reasons that were both implicit and explicit, touted obnoxiously and simultaneously left for me to just figure out without any substantial clues. This includes the desire for agencies to protect the privacy of the homeless people, to keep things confidential, as well as to protect the safety of the individuals (operating under the assumption that anyone who wants to help the homeless must want to take advantage of them, and nothing more).

And yet, while I believe this is true to an extent (I think it’s good to have these laws in place, as the homeless do get exploited, over and over again), they infringe on such an intense degree that it becomes a huge ethical problem when confronted head on. When an organization can decide if people in the public can interact with the homeless, and when that organization can decide if the homeless can interact with the public, well … I think you can probably see where I’m headed. If not, I’ll formulate it like this: Why does an organization, an institution, which is not a person, get to decide who gets to interact with who? This kind of policing causes harm because it prevents meaningful relationships from developing. It isolates the public from the homeless population. And it’s destructive, because those meaningful bonds that are so necessary for growth cannot be formed.

I don’t want to go into the ethics of this too much, because I want to detail my experience with these homeless kids (which was the first time, ever), but it infuriates me on a level I can barely describe (and contain). People should decide who they interact with, and this includes the homeless themselves: They should have a choice. Organizations do not exist to put up barriers between communities, communities of all kinds. I’m going to hope the reasons for why it is destructive putting up walls is apparent.

Now, to talk about my experience: It was amazing. It was touching. Batman was wonderful with the kids, as was Spiderman. I was just myself (or Phoenix, The Street Kid), in my slightly baggy and ragged clothes and unkempt hair, holding an early copy of my book The Street Kid that details why I became Phoenix, but I was also a volunteer, and I got to give out toys to homeless kids.

One of the first kids I met, I let him choose what toy he wanted. I just let him choose. And I watched him interact with Spiderman. And I saw the kid confused that Spiderman couldn’t sling webs. He kept asking over and over again, could Spiderman sling webs, and of course he couldn’t, but it tells me, this kid needed to see just a little bit of magic in his life, and yet, was willing to suspend the belief being a child willing to believe in the impossible.

And yet, at the same time, the kid was also so happy to see Spiderman. One way I knew this was when Spiderman left, and the kid asked for Spiderman to return. So I called for Spiderman to come back, and the two interacted, and it was beautiful, and it broke my heart.

It is the bittersweetness of this kind of work: How a child can be put through so much that they have to think tougher than their age (such as by seeing through the disguise that is Spiderman, evidenced by when the kid asked for Spiderman’s real name), but also so completely in awe at what Spiderman the hero represents.

Fast-forward a little bit, and I got to see Batman and Spiderman and other superheroes on this outreach interact with the kids. I watched kids hide behind Batman’s cape. I watched Spiderman secretly slink away from the group of kids spidey style because he was being accosted, only to be chased once the kids realized he’d slipped away.

Watching these homeless kids, entrenched deep in adversity, was bittersweet, and it broke my heart. It broke my heart because I know that they must see things they are not ready for. My heart aches because I fear for their safety, I fear for their happiness, I fear for their security, their well-being. But when I see them also act like kids (imagine that, right? kids acting like kids …), excited and enthusiastic to see Spiderman and Batman, I get touched. I don’t even know if I can put the excitement into words, except that it’s so beautiful. So incredibly beautiful.

They were indeed excited. Walls were falling down. I was afraid the police would yell at us any minute, or some kind of fight would break out, or the kids would be exposed to crime … but it went smoothly. When I think of all I’ve heard about what homeless kids go through, though, I know that it’s probably only a brief respite from all of it. That’s crushing, debilitating to be aware of. And that’s why we need more intervention.

To come full circle, why was this event so touching? It’s kind of just something you’d have to just see, see for yourself, but it was the goodness of the children, so apparent and so incredibly beautiful. Homeless children actually exist, if you didn’t already know that. Yeah, homeless children living in oppressive situations, and constantly exposed to danger and crime, and sucked into the vortex that is debilitating poverty. But I saw the goodness of the kids shine through nonetheless. Their curiosity, their excitement, mobbing the superheroes to really tug at their essence, figure out what it means to be a hero. And it was touching for those reasons, and more. It was touching because I couldn’t believe I was around that goodness, even if with a confused and fearful mindset, even if only so shortly. I was jaded, or had been jaded, but that restored my faith. It reminded me that everything could be okay again. Everything could be okay for these kids. If they could find such joy in such a simple pleasure as hanging out with Spiderman and Batman for an hour or so … do you not see that beauty, and what that beauty represents, what that beauty means?

It hurts to see, because I’m aware that they struggle, but I can see their strength, and see their brilliance and intelligence, and see what they have to offer. I say this a lot, when it could be wrong, but I say it because I think it has to be true, based off all I have seen and all that I feel: Street kids (or homeless kids) are probably the last testament to innocence and beauty that we have in this increasingly degraded and hateful world. I don’t know how it couldn’t resonate with a person that when a kid faces dire situations and still finds something to smile about (even if ever so slyly and shyly, like one of the kids I talked to, which I’ll explain in a moment) … I could break down right there.

To close, I’ll describe an instance that I remember because it was especially poignant for me. A kid who seemed to be the leader of the other little kids was wearing a Spiderman shirt. I told him it was a nice Spiderman shirt, and he didn’t do anything for a moment, until what I said clicked, and then he smiled slyly and shyly, and went away, only to be hurried back by the other kids, who said enthusiastically, “Hey, he’s Spiderman!”

And yes: He was Spiderman. He was Spiderman because he has experienced a world that I can only ever begin to comprehend. He’s Spiderman because he doesn’t lie, and can let his beauty shine through. What is particularly symbolic about this is that the kid wasn’t even aware that he was Spiderman; he’d conveniently forgotten he was wearing a Spiderman shirt, even among superheroes. No one had noticed the little detail, of him wearing a shirt. Such can be the way in which we are blinded by our contexts. We look for superheroes where we expect to find them, that sometimes, we forget to look for them where they are: right in front of us, or within.

I’m touched by that because it’s the power of strength. You find something that means something to you, and you hold onto it with all your might, and nothing can deter you. And I hope these kids find what they are looking for, what they need. I have hope for them. Society chooses to turn a blind eye to these children, in the worst of conditions, and the institutionalization of organizations ruins the meaningful connections that could, and should, be forged. And I, being so afraid of the worst, can only recall the beauty of this moment in hindsight, conditioned otherwise to expect the worst.

But I’ll be honest: The feeling, the memory, will last a lifetime, and to see such beauty has permanently altered my life.

It is remarkable, the strength one can see in the innocence of the world.


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