“Ivy! I saw your picture on this website about homelessness!”
“...Say what now?”
“You’re a homeless person! You look good, though.”
“...Oh dear mother of god...”
Last October, I was pulled out of a meeting by a coworker and forced to take the pigtails out of my hair. An affiliate organization, hoping to raise awareness and money to combat homelessness across Canada, was asking our members to pose for pictures representing their potential clientele - but one of their key demographics was young women, who are few and far between at my drop-in centre (our membership averages in its mid fifties, and almost 90% of the people in our centre are male).
So, I - the youngest and femalest of our employees - along with a female practicum student, Leigh, were asked to pose in front of a white screen and out on our garden balcony, and then sign off wavers. They directed me to zip up my hoodie and take out my pigtails, lest I make a mockery of all they were trying to achieve. In retrospect, I suppose I could have said no to any or all of this, but it was work, so I was being paid, and I like the homeless, and prospect of appearing on the side of a bus or billboard, I guess, so what the hey.
Months passed, and though I was sent a thank-you card, along with a small framed picture of myself, I slowly forgot about my very short stint as a Homelessness Model. I’m one of the least photogenic people I know, so the prospect of becoming the poster child for Homeless Single Mothers, or some such thing, seemed pretty far fetched and ridiculous.
...Until the other day.
I phoned my mother, who was giddy with pride. My sister informed me that she had printed out my picture, and phoned by grandmother and aunt to tell them the good news.
“But...” I asked, my voice wavering with unease, “do I look homeless?”
The website was filled with a dozen-or-so alternating, floating portraits of men and women, some of whom I knew well from work, and some of whom I didn’t. All of the selected images are relatable and humane, but don’t shield the viewers from the harsh realities of homelessness, either. A man in a long scruffy beard has warm eyes, a fifty-something woman who looks like she could be someone’s mom is wearing a large scarf and bag which hints that she might be a bag-lady, or mentally ill. The street-looking thirty-something woman has windblown hair and hard eyes. My sister says, “she’s pretty, but she totally looks like she could kick my ass.”
“Aw, I know that girl, she’s awesome. And she totally could kick your ass.”
And then there’s me.
“You look...sad? And small.”
And now I imagine a future where I appear, not only on websites, but on bus ads, and billboards, and television commercials. I will become a famous homeless person, and be recognized on the streets...people will approach me and hug me, and give me random things, like scarves, and bags of MacDonald’s takeout.
I will be on a first date in a fancy restaurant. Someone will come up to me and shake my hand, kindly, saying something about how they're so proud of me for finally getting off the crack and smelling so clean. I will smile, awkwardly. After they're gone, my date will give me a wilting look and make some sort of excuse about his mother having a heart attack. I will sit, sadly, alone.
These are the sort of moments that they never warn you about when they force you to pose as a professional homelessness model for a national campaign.
Professional Homelessness Model does have a nice ring to it, though. It’s definitely going on my resume.