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There are souls behind blank stares of homeless

Wednesday, after a hectic and emotional afternoon following the discovery of Elizabeth Smart, I headed out the door of the Deseret News building. When the elevator doors opened in the lobby, I noticed a scruffy looking man staring intently at the large poster of Elizabeth that had hung in our lobby window since she was abducted last June.

I don't know what possessed me but I exited the west door to take a closer look. I never go out that door, but I had to know what he was doing. He was grinning, which struck me a little odd. When I got outside, I noticed that the word KIDNAPPED on the poster had been covered with the word FOUND! I smiled, too, and whispered a prayer to myself, "Thanks be to God."

Then, the man turned to me and asked me for some change. I told him I was sorry but I was tapped out, having just picked up my car from the auto shop.

"OK, thanks anyway," he said, turning away.

He was pleasant enough but not someone I'd go out of my way to befriend. There are any number of people on the streets like him. They're people most of us try to ignore, lest they attempt to panhandle us or otherwise seek our attention.

As I think about how it was that Elizabeth Smart could have been right under our noses these many months, it's shocking and yet not so surprising all at the same time.

We're aware of the people around us who are apparently homeless, possibly mentally ill and struggling with substance abuse. But most of us elect not to see them. We don't acknowledge them as human beings. We allow them to blend into the background.

"People avert their eyes from them," says homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson. "It makes my homeless friends feel like they don't exist or that the issue of homelessness doesn't exist. It's very degrading."

As word of Elizabeth Smart's safe return spread and reports of various sightings of the girl in recent months surfaced on news reports, I couldn't help but wonder if Elizabeth Smart might have been been recovered sooner if society weren't so quick to marginalize people who eat at soup kitchens, sleep in homeless shelters and otherwise live an underground existence.

Atkinson said she believes the homeless population could have been instrumental in tracking down accused captors Brian David Mitchell, 49, and his wife, Wanda Ilene Barzee, 56. She recalled several occasions this past summer when she saw posters of Elizabeth tacked to trees in homeless camps. "Homeless people really do watch out for children. Most are very protective of children," Atkinson said.

It wasn't until much later, of course, that Mitchell surfaced as a person wanted for questioning.

Atkinson fears there will be a backlash against other homeless people as a result of Mitchell's and Barzee's alleged crimes. She cautions against painting with a broad brush, reminding me that many homeless people she knows are law-abiding and have jobs but can't put together sufficient cash to rent apartments. She sees them out in the cold at 6 a.m. lining up for work. "Most people don't know the homeless from this point of view."

Even after the remarkable events of this past week, my sense is that most of us will continue to avert our eyes from the homeless and destitute people we pass on the streets. Because we have, a teenage girl who had achieved near-legend status over the past nine months wasn't recognized by anyone until her alleged captors wandered into a busy suburban business area Wednesday afternoon. Two couples called the police after recognizing Mitchell's face, which had been featured in recent media reports.

Knowing what we now know of the whereabouts of Elizabeth Smart these past months, I'm rather haunted by the idea that she may have been in our peripheral vision much of the time. For whatever reason, we didn't see her. And this causes me to wonder: Who else and what else have we missed?


Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com.