From where I sit, Nina, I wasn’t at all surprised by the new homeless American girl doll . For the last few years, “homeless” has been the catch-all term for the less fortunate in American schools. Since preschool, my kids have been asked by various teachers about how they can “help the homeless.” Many of them live in neighborhoods where street people are nonexistent, so they understand the term only in its most literal sense, of “in between real estate deals.” I saved the answers my son’s preschool class gave to the question of how to help the homeless:
1. Give them a key.
2. They can sleep in my sister’s room!
3. My mom has a friend who sells houses. Maybe they can buy one!
Nothing wrong with a little budding compassion, of course. But the whole thing has the effect of making homelessness seem rather anodyne and confusing. Once, a homeless advocacy group gave a presentation about stereotypes. They had an African-American man in tattered clothes lie down on the stage, and a white woman in a suit walk past him. They then asked the assembly which one was homeless. Why, the white woman in the suit, of course! It’s only a tiny step from that to Gwen, the new homeless doll.
This philosophy of homelessness is a throwback to the Reagan years, when the left tried to sell the idea that homelessness can affect anyone, there but for the grace of God. Since then we have learned a lot more about chronic homelessness and the particular conditions that lead to it, beyond just economic hard times. Of course it’s difficult to talk to kids about schizophrenia, and the collapse of institutional care, and alcoholism. But there must be some better way than transmitting that homelessness looks like a cool thrift store shopper.