I was with my toddler last week at Longfellow Elementary School park when a young girl, around 9 or 10, approached me.

A Portland police officer stands within a homeless encampment at the Fore River Parkway Trail on Sept 6. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I’m glad there’s an adult here,” she said. “Because … look at that guy.”

There was an older man who appeared to be homeless sitting next to his bike on the periphery of the park. I told her it was OK, he was not dangerous, and I was there in case anything were to happen. But she was not to be comforted. As my daughter toddled from slide to swings, the girl followed us, keeping tabs on the man and alerting me to his every move.

“Now he’s over here,” she said, nodding to the spot on the concrete where the man had sat down next to his bike. I repeated that she was safe and told her not to worry as her friend called her to come play in the sandbox. Over the next half hour, she would join her friend to build a sandcastle or swing on the monkey bars, but every few minutes she came back to me with a new concern.

“He stole that bike,” she told me. I glanced over and saw a bike of the kind I’d seen nearly every day during the decade I lived in New York City: clothes and plastic bags tied to the handlebars and frame, a heavy-looking chain lock resting along the crossbar, worn tires in need of pumping.

“I think it’s his,” I said.


“No, he didn’t have it before. I saw him.”

Eventually her father came to pick the girls up. As I watched them drive off in their enormous truck, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Children, especially pre-adolescents, tend to have significantly fewer biases than adults. The world hasn’t yet taught them to be cruel.

They’re often beacons of hope for the future – open to all, seeing merely a person where adults might see an Asian person, a disabled person, an elderly person.

I remembered a recent outing to the mall with my twin nieces. On the way back to the car, my mother had asked them if the cashier was a man or a woman. They were confused by her question. All they had noticed was a person with pink hair and an intricate manicure who had helpfully checked them out.

Where my nieces had given me a sense of optimism for our future, this beautiful child at the park had left me feeling depressed.

Our community – parents, city officials, police officers – had taught her that homeless people were dangerous, often thieves, who couldn’t do something as simple as enjoy the autumn sunshine in a public place without a sinister motive. As a woman and a mother, I was glad she was wary of men she didn’t know – she had learned an important survival skill that is sadly necessary for all girls in our world.

But as a human being, I was distressed. I thought of the Maine Department of Transportation’s plans to sweep the homeless encampment on Marginal Way on Nov. 1, displacing dozens of people who have found shelter there. How will we ever change the way our society deals with homelessness if we don’t model for our children empathy and respect for those who are suffering?

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