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STORIES OF HOMELESS HAVE 2 SIDES, TOO

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It seems I've known the story of Little Red Riding Hood my entire life. It's perfectly clear: Red is just a little girl out taking goodies to her grandmother. The wolf is clearly the bad guy.

The other day, I heard his side of the story, told by SueEllen Fried, past president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.Here's what he said happened:

The wolf had grown up in the forest and loved it dearly. Caring for the land was something his family had done for generations. And sometimes, he admitted, he got a little testy with all the careless people who littered and burned his home.

Children - like Red - were particularly bad. And when he heard through the animal grapevine that she'd be passing through the forest with a basket of goodies on her way to her grandmother's house, he was worried. Kids, he thought, can do a lot of damage thoughtlessly.

So he decided to talk to an old friend and neighbor, Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother.

Do you think I could talk to her about the ecology of the forest? he wondered.

She thought about it for a minute, then she told the wolf that his big eyes, big nose and sharp teeth would probably scare the little girl. But maybe if he put on her nightgown and night cap, her granddaughter wouldn't be frightened, since the clothing was so familiar to her. If he could get her confidence until he had time to convince her he wasn't scarey, it should be all right.

Well, the little girl didn't give him a chance to explain that he was just trying to keep his neighborhood clean and intact. She took one look at that nose, those eyes and teeth and screamed for help. And the woodsman came and killed the wolf.

Fried tells the story to demonstrate two things: First, there are two sides to every story. Second, empathy is a powerful and important trait to possess.

That story is a good lead-in to a lot of things I hear covering social service issues like poverty, homelessness, mental illness and hunger.

It's particularly true when you talk about the homeless. There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to the general perception. People either sit back and feel complete pity for someone who is homeless, or they rant that there's no excuse for being homeless.

Both are simple views of a complex problem. The first doesn't give the homeless the credit they deserve: Most of them, with training and assistance (which, alas, costs money), could build new and better lives.

To the second view, I can only tell of people I know:

When I wrote a story on transitional housing for the homeless I met a family that could be "Any Family U.S.A." He had worked in the oil fields in New Mexico running an augur truck. She stayed home with their three children. And they had a good income, a nice home and a lot of hope for the future.

Then the field dried up, and he got laid off. And they didn't panic. They just tightened up their spending while he looked for another job. And looked. And looked.

Soon, they had to break into their savings. They traveled to Oklahoma's oil field, but nobody needed someone with his high level of skills. They still didn't panic. He started looking at different professions. But he couldn't find anything that paid enough to meet his monthly bills.

So they started selling things. And the slide that began with a layoff ended in Salt Lake City when they sold a small trailer holding the last of their belongings for $15 so they could get some absolute necessities. They were living in their car before they got here. They couldn't understand how their lives had changed so drastically.

They are in a home again, thanks to hard work, the assistance of shelter staff and a determination to put things back together.

When you lump all the homeless together with one sweeping statement, you are talking about them, too. They were there.

Then there are welfare mothers - "a worthless, parasitic lot," I was told.

I'd have liked to introduce Heidi, a young mother of three small children who does without a lot of things to provide basics. She's scraping by on less than $400 a month plus food stamps.

She's not complaining. She's too busy going to school, caring for her children and picking up little odd jobs along the way to give her children a better life.

These people prove that, if you want to know the truth about someone, you have to ask him for his story. Instead of writing it in your head.