Scott Woods: A Poetic Challenge to See the Unsheltered People in Our Midst

In a poem written for the Community Shelter Board’s recent fundraiser, the author describes the ways homelessness manifests itself in Columbus.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Residents of Camp Shameless pack up supplies and structures in September 2022 as they prepare to disband the homeless camp on the Near East Side.

I was commissioned to write a poem for the Under One Roof event last night, which is Community Shelter Board’s main fundraiser, but also presents content in various disciplines to inspire and rally folks and organizations around the issue of unhoused populations. I here present the poem I composed for the occasion because everything in it that reads like a metaphor isn’t. These are all examples or allusions to ways I have seen homelessness manifest in Columbus. (The only thing I didn’t throw in was the golden-voiced Ted Williams, but only because I wrote a poem about him years ago.)

If you are a Columbus business, institution or organization and you see yourself in this poem, do better, because some of us can see you.

A Symphony of Caring

All of the things we have planted to keep you away:

Park benches with the rude middle arm of sit-upright

Concrete daggers set in stone where you might seek our help.

If we keep you standing you may move on 

to more restful pastures.

A symphony plays outside a hotel to keep you from under its arches

as if there is no way you could possibly love Mozart too,

no way the strings hum sweetly in your ears.


Every poem about you talks like the seasons are wallpaper,

the pillow of autumn leaves, the blanket of winter.

I only ever want to see you in a room like this,

sitting at a table set for you while you can smell 

The centerpieces for yourself.


Is it ghosting if you can see them?

If you avert your eyes in the face of the cupped hand? 

Is it ghosting if you ignore the asking, 

if you suddenly go blind at the sight of a sign?

Who then haunts who, at that bridge between

where you’re headed and where they’ve been?


Projection is a powerful drug, and everyone

on this sidewalk is on it.

The song goes, a house is not a home,

and I guess technically that’s true.


If they loved Mozart they wouldn’t play that.

You don’t use something you love as an engine for inhumanity.

I hope they play your jam by accident.


All of the things we say to keep from helping you:

We know how you’ll spend it,

like everything we buy is so precious and affirming.

Anything you spend it on I have bought a hundred times over.


Is it ghosting if you can hear them?

The story they must tell for your largesse?

The tale that makes the giving tree loosen its fruit?

Is it ghosting if you look like me,

And I turn away because but for the grace of God go I?


Is it giving if I feel absolved? If I cry?

Is it giving if I mean it? Is it giving if you thank me?

Is it giving if I make conditions? If I wash my hand quick?

Is it giving if someone sees me do it? 


Can I learn to give? Can you teach me to give?

Can I give and not keep score? Can you teach me care?

Can I give when I’m off the clock? Can you teach me shelter?

Can I give and ask you to come back tomorrow, 

as you are, ready for more truth between us?

Can I give and look forward to it?

Can I give of myself?

Can I see the symphony of your existence,

which is to say, can I see the symphony of our existence? 

How your cello sits by my violin?

How we both laugh at the piccolo player?

How the conductor of all of this is love?

Can I ask you what you want for once?

Can you teach me the right notes to this gospel we sing

of giving?

Scott Woods

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.