Monday, June 27, 2011

Homelessness and an Eight-Year Old

For the last few weeks on the way to drop my eight-year old son at his summer camp facility, I've noticed a huge increase in the number of out-of-work folks standing at intersections selling newspapers or holding hand-made signs.  A year ago, I'd see a few.  Now I see a dozen over the same distance.

Today, my kid was looking out the window at a grubby, bearded man dressed in camo and holding up a sign which said "And Cigarrets" (we were at the intersection long enough for him to flip the sign and reveal "Will work for Beer").  So I tried to explain why the man was standing on the side of the road.

"That man is asking people for money so he can buy food", I explained.  Some people aren't able to work or find a job, and what happens if you can't work?  He can't pay for a house, or a car, and he has to beg for money just to eat.  Where do you think he sleeps?  Maybe behind a building.  Maybe right on the sidewalk.  He may have to eat out of a trash can.  Isn't that terrible?" 

My son agreed that the man's situation was terrible.

"He was also asking people for beer money."  At which point I talked about why drinking is bad and why drugs are bad, which my son told me he already knew, not from school, but because he thought about it.  We didn't get into mental illness.  It felt like it was already a pretty heavy conversation to be having with a child.

My son promised me he'd never do drugs.  I said "good".  He told me I'd never do drugs.  I told him the truth, which is that years ago, I smoked marijuana, but that now I didn't drink, smoke or do drugs.  He said "good".  Because I wanted to stay alive to see you grow up, and to run with you, I didn't say, but I will one day.   

So driving in my air-conditioned car on the way back from dropping him at his summer camp, which I'm paying $128 a week for just so I don't feel guilty that he's bored while I work, I tried to explain to my 40-year-old self where I've come to in my position on homelessness.  I've never been homeless, but I've been close.  And close was close enough.  I can't pretend to know what it's like to be completely out of options.

 I've always leaned Liberal.  I can't look at people suffering and not think that we as a society, with our great resources, should provide for our poor and destitute, help them get on their feet, and give them a hand up.  I understand the more Conservative position that people are responsible for their own choices and should pull themselves up, I just don't think it's so simple: Culture and Competition are always going to stick their feet in your face to keep you down.  Context matters so much.  It's easy to say "work hard and pull yourself up" when your friends and family have solid middle-class lives and contacts and friends and opportunities, and you grew up with an education, and expectations.  But try to do for yourself when no one will talk to or look at or acknowledge you. 

That said... "Will work for beer?"  As I've gotten older, I've gotten... it's not that I have less sympathy, it's just that I see the hopelessness of trying to help someone who can't or won't help themselves.  I can't judge someone who's life is to wander on a sidewalk -- living like that would probably make me crazy, and I'd probably want to drink or do drugs, just to numb myself.  But the first step in getting off the street has to be to get cleaned up, right?  So when I see an alcoholic who just wants to continue being an alcoholic, it takes some of the air out of my Liberal tires.  It's hard to want to help someone who doesn't seem to be trying. 

But then, it's easy for you and I to look at a grizzled, hobbled person on the side of the road and pronounce what we think that person needs to do to get his life together.  Hey, just get cleaned up, shave, put on some nice clothes, and go get a job!  But we don't take him home and give him a place to bathe, and buy him clothes, and introduce him to our employer.  It's someone else's problem, or maybe we've been burned before, trying to help someone and having them use us or steal from us.  So we give some change, or don't, and leave it to the churches, and to government programs.  It's easy to dictate solutions from behind a steering wheel, then drive on.

I think no matter what you do, there will always be poor and homeless.  Some people just do not have it in them to function within society, for whatever reason.  But at the end of the day, I believe there need to be strong, well-funded institutions ready to help anyone who wants to try to pull themselves together.  I think that's a nobler way to spend my tax dime than rebuilding a Middle-East which only needs rebuilding because we destroyed it.  Keep our Money at Home, Bums not Bombs, Health Care for Everybody, etc.

Now, I am imagining scenarios in which my son grows up to become homeless.  If you have kids, try it.  They're not hard to come up with.  A teenage drug habit spun out of control, or the onset of schizophrenia, or running away from home... we work to teach our kids to make good decisions, but we aren't there for them forever.  Sooner or later, they go or we do.  Every homeless person on every street of the world was once someone's child, whose parents had dreams for, whose parents probably never imagined would be standing on a corner breathing in carbon monoxide from tailpipes and begging strangers for enough change to buy bread with.

I can't look at my eight-year-old son and tell him "Look, if despite my best efforts you make mistakes or choose poorly and screw up your life or if you just have dumb bad luck, I won't still care about you.  And I don't think the rest of the world should either."  I'll do my best to raise him to try to feel compassion for people, even those who fail to thrive in American-style Capitalism.  
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