Monday, October 18, 2010

The View From My Soapbox: Homelessness

Posts sometime kick around in my head (and my heart) for a long time before they see the light of day. This one has been percolating for several weeks and finally rose to the surface courtesy of my friend WP, who blogs at iamtheworkingpoor.

WP recently wrote about homelessness hitting her in the face at her job at a grocery store. She wrote: A young girl approached the counter and asked if she could borrow my phone to call her daddy. As soon as she got that first sentence out she burst into tears. She said she was fourteen years old and her mother had just kicked her out and she was scared. WP went on to remind us to keep our compassion "well exercised."

I commented to WP that often we don't see homelessness for what it is - the breaking of the safety net, or, as I am coming to believe more fervently every day, the breaking of the social contract between We the People and I the Individual.

We think homelessness doesn't happen "here" - "here" being where we happen to live. We think (and hope) that homelessness only happens in big cities, and then mostly to folks who are alcoholics or drug addicts or just plain irresponsible.

But it does happen here. Homelessness means bunking on your sister's couch because you have nowhere else to go, and then praying that she and her husband don't start arguing about "how long is your brother going to be here?" It is swallowing your pride and moving into your old bedroom back home, even if you are in your 40s or 50s, and being treated like a kid again by your folks. It is that young girl calling her dad, telling him "mom kicked me out" and desperately hoping that dad doesn't say "tough luck."

Homeless is all around us. Many of us are not even a few paychecks away, but one paycheck, or one last chance with the spouse, or one more reduction of hours at work, or one more night hoping your friends don't get tired of you couch surfing at their apartment.

Eight years ago this month, when I lived in our downtown, I had a brief encounter with local homelessness when my landlords discovered some food, clothes, and a lightweight sleeping bag tucked into a corner of a low parapet on the roof of the building next door. I connected the dots and realized the squatter was probably the young man - a kid really, maybe 19, maybe 20 - who I started seeing around the area constantly. He would say "hi" in a shy voice if we passed one another, but mostly he would give me these wide-eyed stares that I couldn't quite fathom.

My landlords notified the police, not to arrest the kid, but to talk to him and to find a different solution. If I remember, the kid moved on before that happened, obviously aware that his "home" had been discovered.

I kept thinking about the kid. He was very young, very thin, and somewhat haunted looking, but not desperate looking, not dangerous looking. Maybe he was just a kid without many options, or without any options at all, so he was living on cold stew and pop and hoping something broke his way.

I talked about what happened with a number of friends. We dissected the situation with great concern. One friend said the squatter should have been "more responsible" and planned his life better.(Silly me. Here I was worried about the kid sleeping out on the rooftop as winter approached.) Most were appalled and concerned. All of us did nothing more than talk.

Four years after my brush with the rooftop dweller, I had a second and closer encounter with homelessness. Sam's then high school girlfriend showed up at our back door one evening, soaked to the skin, having ran over a mile to our house in a driving icy rain from her dad's house, which she fled at the height of an argument that got physical. I never hesitated when she asked if she could come in and get warm. Within 30 minutes, she had a hot shower, dry clothes, and a warm meal. Amy ended up staying with us for the next ten days, and has stayed in our hearts and lives ever since.

By the time Amy showed up on my doorstep, I was not the same person who intellectualized but did not act when I encountered the rooftop dweller. Echoing Wilma Mankiller, I am the woman who lived before and the woman who lives afterwards. If the young man were camped out today on a nearby roof, I'd like to think I would take action and at least try to help and link him to services rather than speculate in a vacuum why he is in dire straits.

As I sit inside today typing, I reflect that I am blessed to have a roof over my head, sharing Warren's home with him. My boys, far flung though they be, also have shelter. At low points, though, when I am stressing over tighter dollars and the Great Recession, I lie awake and rearrange the rooms in this house as I puzzle over scenarios of "what if this or that child of his/mine moved back?" (During my illness, I did much the same thing with regard to my own housing, which at that time included a teenage Sam. I was grateful then (and still am) I had alternative housing resources, and grateful then (and still am) I never had to use them.)

I recently ranted to a colleague, in response to his query about a minor point: There are people homeless (or almost) and hungry (definitely, not almost) and without hope in Delaware. We see them monthly at our legal clinic and Delaware's food pantry; we see them weekly at our community free store and free medical clinic. At a national level, we have millions (millions!) who live below the poverty level (1 in 5 children, by the way, lives in poverty), are without health care, are without work, are losing their homes to foreclosure (well, until Bank of America took the generous step of suspending foreclosures upon the disclosure that the paperwork was WRONG). And we have to worry about [this minor point]? (I admit it: my colleague had caught me at the end of a long, discouraging day.)

My rant to my colleague aside, these are hard times and more and more of us are doing without. To borrow from WP, keep your compassion well exercised because you will need it. Sometimes you have to act. Time is precious and all the discussions in the world will not help the rooftop dweller or the crying teenager. To quote my favorite minister, it's very simple. Share. If you have, give.


Sharon said...

Thanks for the reminder. We know it to be true, but sometimes the minutia of the every day gets in our way of our compassion.

I am the working poor. said...

This was compassionate and well done. Thank you for the link. Your thoughts on this topic mean a lot to me, as I too have tasted homelessness.

I was young, naive and in a relationship I should never have been in. I spent two weeks in a car. That was two weeks in a car with a baby! We left the state we were in and traveled four states away to move in with relatives. In the second state we were driving through he went off the road and plowed through some trees. We banged the dents out on the side of the road and kept driving. The rims were bent and the tires wobbled as a result. When we crossed the state line of the last state we ran out of gas and baby milk and money. I had to call a relative to rescue us and wait. It was a frightening time, and not a lifestyle I will ever want to revisit.

I know that many of the mistakes we have made are meant to teach us valuable lessons, I just wonder sometimes why I needed to learn such BIG lessons? Also, I never thought I would tell anyone that story and here I am blah blah blah... :)

April said...

Stories are good things to share. The therapist/author Mary Pipher writes wonderfully about the power of sharing stories about real people, real life--stories that united and connect us as families and as communities. Sharing our stories is one of the reasons I love the blogging community: we are quilting a community together online.

Ellen said...

April, thanks for reminding us of our greatest human gift: compassion. Not enough of it in this world, and it's too easy to let that fact be a reason not to contribute.