Critical Issue Journal- Power and Homelessness

“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.” Martin Luther King Jr.

 We all deal with issues of power in our everyday lives. We are negotiating power when we are talking with our boss, walking our dog, teaching, learning, and a number of other verbs you can think of. In ours lives when we are negotiating this power sometimes we are the ones in power and other times we are the ones that are controlled by power. Considering ideas of power is very important when interacting with people. One of Merrian Webster’s defintions of power is “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”. Having control over others can be a very powerful thing, especially when it is having control over the way one feels about themselves.

As we have discussed throughout this course, power can play a huge role in literature with multicultural themes. Ching states that “one criterion for determining a work’s authenticity is the author’s use of power”. During our homelessness and socioeconomic status weeks, I could not help but draw a correlation between homelessness and what Ching said about power. . Two books that drove this idea home for me were “A Shelter in our Car” by Monica Gunning and “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting. “A Shelter in Our Car” tells the story of a mother and a daughter who are Jamaican immigrants living in their car. “Fly Away Home” depicts a young boy and his father living in an airport. Both of these books highlighted how powerless these individuals not only were, but felt. When these stories are told from a children’s perspective it can feature more issues of power, control, and helplessness. In the books we read they were unable to assist their parents in helping them break out of homelessness.

Trying to find information about homelessness makes one even more aware of these power disparities. There are many reasons that one can become homeless whether that be economic factors, political factors, or social/medical factors. But essentially when you considering any of these factors it is loss of power. Power over economic factors, political factors, or social factors. Having the power or control to know where your next meal is coming from, or where you can sleep is something that many of us take for granted. Gunning and Bunting highlight these complicated issues of power and homelessness using the characters, the invisibility/silence of characters, the ending. 

The Characters

The main characters in these books are both children. By using children to depict this world of homelessness it shows even more power inequity. Zettie in “A Shelter in Our Car” may not understand why all of this is happening to her, but she does understand that now different things are required of her. The other nameless, shapeless, faceless school children make fun of the car that her mother owns. She exhibits some of the same behaviors that other children her age exhibit; however the choice of car is out of her control. When they continue to berate her, she looks for a teacher and when she can not find one, she runs away from the teasing students.

In “Fly Away Home” we never actually learn the main character’s name. We also only know of his father as “Dad”. I believe this not only speaks to the idea of being invisible, but also the idea that to the passersby in the airport, this child is unrecognizable. The main character is interested in the actions of a bird that is trapped in this airport. In the end the bird is able to fly and leave the airport. He regains power over his destiny and the main character sees himself in this bird. The main character hopes that one day he will gain the power and control over his life that he so desperately craves.

In both of these books, the only characters that are given voice and clear faces are the members of their homeless community. The image of the police officer in “A Shelter in Our Car” does not include a head. Her homeless friend is one of the only other speaking characters. Similarly, in “Fly Away Home” the only people that have names and voice are Denny (a homeless child), Dad, and the main character.

Invisibility/Silence

The first page of “A Shelter in Our Car” highlights this idea of being invisible. They hear a police siren and Zettie’s mom says “ Shhh…lie down…we don’t want to be noticed.” This idea of being invisible can also be seen in “Fly Away Home”. The main character explains that getting yourself noticed is bad. Blending-in is extremely important to being able to stay in the airport. These characters do not feel they have the power to even exist in the spaces they are in. During one page of “A Shelter in Our Car” the main character, Zettie, is literally invisible to her mother who does not see her and drives off.

The illustrations in both of these books have a watercolor style. The characters faces are not completed detailed and for this reason appear to be somber. Their features are invisible. In “Fly Away Home” the characters illustrations are fuzzy, or difficult to make out. The Invisible People campaign believes that part of the continuing cause of homelessness is the treatment of them as invisible. Their campaign works to make the homeless less of a general group by telling their individual stories of struggle.

And yet…

The endings to both of these books highlight the unknown nature of the future. In “A Shelter in Our Car”, Zettie’s mother picks her up from school and takes her to a motel to spend the night where Zettie is able to take a warm shower. Zettie’s mother then tells her that her mother got a job, and they will probably be able to spend the summer in that motel. In “Fly Away Home” the main character wonders why the people in the airport have homes to go to and he doesn’t have a home. The book closes with him remembering the bird that was able to fly. While Zettie’s mother got a job, she is still unsure how long it will last and still does not have stable housing. Both of these stories end with promise for the future and yet the characters are still generally in a powerless position by not having security in their futures.

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