Sunday, October 17, 2021

Do the Homeless Have Family Trees?


Yeah, I know: strange question.

I've just returned from visiting family back east—a week, incidentally, in which I completed very little genealogical research, despite best intentions. Now that I'm back in my modestly-sized home city of a mere three hundred thousand people, I can't help but compare the differences between, say, California and Connecticut.

One detail that stood out: the complete absence of homeless encampments seen where I was visiting, compared to an entirely different scene near home. Perhaps it is the sunny California weather which makes such differences likely.

No matter the cause, the differences prompted me to wonder what the real stories were that brought such people to their current desperate plight—but more than that, where were their families? After all, at some point, you'd presume someone from the family would intervene by offering that gesture which could prevent stepping over the brink into the downward spiral of homelessness.

Do homeless people have family trees?

Of course they do. Somewhere there has to be a relative. People do not simply spontaneously generate. We are all connected somehow—if by nothing more than our genes, as we've learned from DNA testing. A family tree equals a symbol of our connectedness with specific others.

That is not to say that helping a starving person build a pedigree chart will make life better for him. Of course not. There are far greater needs to be met much sooner. I can't help but wonder, though, whether re-connection might offer a healing balm for those who seem the least connected in our culture.

I have, from time to time, stumbled across a tale of a family member who seemed to disappear—and then, after diligent searching, I've discovered the rest of the story. In some cases, those stories are quite sad, such as the one I shared about a Riley descendant who, dying destitute, was buried on New York City's Hart Island. Why was she no longer connected with family?

Granted, building a family tree which includes each generation's collateral lines leads me to far more chances to stumble upon such stories. After all, I now have 26,556 individuals in the same tree as that lone Riley cousin—growing by ninety five more names in the past two weeks—so that means a lot of connections to be made, at least on paper. Disappearing people have also been a puzzle on my in-laws' tree—no surprise after compiling data on 23,638 family members there, with forty nine in the past two weeks.

It took a lot of looking to piece together those stories. People who disconnect from life as we know it can be very difficult to trace. It sometimes makes me wonder: does no one want to find relatives like that? If they could be found—before it was too late—would it have helped rebuild lost connections?

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