Green Doors Blog > A Visit with the Roma: The Little Boy With High Heeled Shoes

A Visit with the Roma: The Little Boy With High Heeled Shoes

Roma SettlementHe wore high-heeled shoes.

Muddy and ill-fitting, the high heeled shoes propelled the Roma boy after his friends like a sprinter across to the finish line.

At first, I didn’t understand why it unnerved me so much. There were dozens of other boys and girls in the settlement like him – each dirty, disheveled, deprived. Each fated to a hard life, poor in opportunity. I think the absurdity of his situation – a boy running around in high healed shoes and doing it well – is what struck me. How can this be?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a Roma settlement – a community of minorities displaced from their homes and forced to reside elsewhere. Think “refugee” and the image is similar. There are many Roma settlements, and they’ve been getting a bit of coverage in the news, especially in Europe. The settlement I visited is in Belgrade, Serbia.

For me, it was a jarring experience. The abject poverty assaulted my senses. The smell of burning tires, highway car fumes, and exposed feces and urine coated the shelters in a film of despair. The despair kicked me in the gut.  It made me feel almost personally responsible for these horrific conditions.

Men and women, boys and girls, should not have to live like this.

The inexcusability of these living conditions is further heightened by the cruel juxtaposition of Belgrade’s luxury government hotel, located across the highway – a stone’s throw from the settlement. The government has made the conscious choice to ignore the type of human deprivation that exists in this and dozens of other Roma settlements throughout the city. An old Spanish proverb comes to mind – what does it matter if the eyes can see, if the heart is blind?

I think we blind our hearts daily to prevent ourselves from having to confront the awfulness that life brings some of us. Those high-heeled shoes unnerved me because they compelled me to see this boy with my eyes and heart, to see and feel what life has brought him. Their peculiarity and authenticity scrubbed away the veneer of societal indifference and rationalization, scrubbed away the filters that enabled me to depersonalize his very personal situation. The plight of this Roma boy, and others like him struggling with homelessness and poverty, whether in Belgrade or Austin, is real. He is not just a picture in a newsletter or a sad statistic. He is an individual struggling mightily to make his way in the world – a boy with aspirations, potential, and ideas.

Unfortunately, this is not just a situation that exists outside our borders. While I may have traveled to Serbia to witness this kind of poverty, I could have just as easily wandered through my own city.
Green Doors is grounded on the proposition that no one – whether a child or adult, disabled or not, man or woman – should be allowed to live like this. Many in our community struggle with homelessness and poverty, like that of the Roma. Our vision is that one day all Central Texas families and individuals will have the opportunity to live in affordable, safe, quality housing.  Translating that vision into a reality is no small feat. It will require much more than what we have and even what we may be willing to give.  It is, however, our choice to make.

As another proverb – a Haitian one – tells us, God gives, but does not share. That is for us to do.

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Frank Fernandez

Frank joined Green Doors as Executive Director in March 2006. He oversees all core functions and is focused on growing the organization to meet the community's acute need for affordable housing. Prior to joining Green Doors, Frank served as Deputy Director for PeopleFund, a community development financial institution. Frank is very active in advocating for affordable housing and folks who have struggled with homelessness. Co-founder of the housing advocacy organization, HousingWorks, he served as Chair of the affordable housing bond campaign that successfully advocated for the passage of the $55 million City of Austin affordable housing bonds in November 2006. He co-chaired the City of Austin's Affordable Housing Incentives Taskforce from Summer 2006 through Spring 2007. Currently, Frank serves as the Chair of the Texas Supportive Housing Coalition, a statewide coalition of supportive housing providers, and Chair of the Austin CHDO Roundtable, the local non-profit housing coalition. He also serves on the Executive Committees of ECHO, Austin's local homeless coalition, and HousingWorks. Prior to moving to Austin, Frank worked on Wall Street for several years as a financial analyst for Salomon Smith Barney providing technical and quantitative support to municipalities and states across the nation, including the State of Connecticut and the City of Detroit. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Harvard University and an M.P.A. from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

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