In the last few weeks we have heard poor and homeless people in our community referred to (in public meetings) as “undesirable” and “unsavory.” They have been called “trolls” who live under the bridge and, in this space, they have been referred to as “raccoons.”
The terms, whatever their intent, have the effect of dehumanizing real people, with real lives. I traveled to Rwanda in 2004—10 years after the massacre of an estimated 500,000 people. It was a sad and troubling trip. In the years leading up to the massacre the Tutsis—the main victim group—were systematically dehumanized, called “cockroaches” and worse.
Am I suggesting that by dehumanizing poor and homeless individuals in this community that we are headed for genocide? No, I am not. I am merely saying that words have consequences. The dehumanization of the “other” ultimately dehumanizes us. Dismissing people as “the homeless” or, as is common in our newspapers, as “transients” ultimately makes them entities—things for which we have no responsibility, things with which we cannot engage in any meaningful relationship.
We cannot afford to do this. As a community we must recognize the basic humanity in the other and afford them the respect of treating them as people, with intrinsic value because of their humanity.
And so, to “rehumanize” these people I offer the following vignettes. These are snapshots of the lives of real people who live in our community (or who have passed through in recent years). They are our neighbors. I offer them not to try to achieve some “politically correct” way to refer to them. I offer them to remind us that the stories of poverty and exclusion and abuse and addiction are complex.
I am not an apologist for their behavior… I am an apologist for their humanity.
Please read their stories with a view to discovering their humanity and, in doing so, to reaffirm your own…
Lisa was working part time and a part time student. Involved in a steady relationship with her partner, she became pregnant but, soon after had a falling out with him and found herself alone. She decided to continue her education after her son was born but could do so only because she received food stamps, health insurance for her son (but not her) and a small stipend from the college she attended. Later she reestablished the relationship with her partner and became pregnant again. They decided to move in order to save money but when her daughter was born the new county in which she lived would not provide her with the paper work to obtain health insurance for her newborn. They moved again, due to violence in their community and to seek new opportunities in a new town. She dreamed of going back to school while her partner earned minimum wage on two jobs that kept him working about 75 hours per week. Neither adult–nor the baby–had health insurance when they moved and, this time, instead of transferring her health insurance (for her son) and food stamps to the new county (as is required) the old county merely deleted her records. Forced to reapply for insurance and food stamps in the new county she routinely received mailed notification of appointments days after they were to occur, others that stated she was missing unnamed paperwork that must be submitted by a date that had passed by days or weeks. Two emergency health needs led to thousands of dollars in bills. Her partner continued to work two jobs at minimum wage even as her daughter’s vaccinations lagged (she finally paid for them out of pocket for nearly $1000–while health workers chastised her for waiting so long). She finally obtained food stamps and health insurance after an intervention by an elected official and she looks forward to starting school soon.
Steve is an outgoing and much loved homeless individual who has battled meth addiction for over half of his nearly 50 years. He has learned to “get by,” relying on the services of local homeless organizations, the help of friends (of which he has many) and by taking odd jobs that often come his way because he is a consistent and hard worker (when not on meth). Steve was on a downward spiral and the staff of one agency finally convinced him that if he continued on that path he would come to an early end (as had several people Steve knows well in recent years). He moved into a transitional housing shelter that was strictly a “clean and sober” environment. And Steve did VERY well there. He followed his case worker’s advice, stayed on his plan, went to his meetings and after doing some volunteer work landed a solid job at a supermarket. It included health care and paid a decent wage. Steve was able to move out of the transitional housing shelter into a place of his own and was a valued colleague at work. And then he disappeared. A month later he showed up at the shelter, downcast. “One night,” he said. “It took only one night for everything to fall apart.” Steve has gone downhill since. He panhandles to earn enough for the thing he craves and is back to couch surfing and scrounging food where he can.
Ed had a steady job as a bouncer at a local club. He loves the music and camaraderie of that scene but when the recession hit, Ed lost his job overnight and found himself with no immediate prospects. Some time earlier he had divorced his wife and was required to provide child support for their teenage daughter. Most of his wages–beyond his basic needs–went to child support (he later learned that erroneous calculations made by the court meant he had been overpaying but he could do nothing to recuperate the money). He had no savings as a result and lacked basic budgeting skills. He lost the room he was sharing with a “friend” when that friend failed to pay his share. He ended up sleeping in his car but when the weather turned cold and his car died he showed up at a shelter. He had no income for food and had no experience applying for food stamps–was not even sure where to start. He received help to get food at the shelter and was required to seek work as a condition of staying there. He applied for dozens and dozens of jobs but without a car his options were limited. Buses did not go near many of the places where he might find a job and though he had a bike, the combination of bus and bike did not always work because bus bike racks were full. After 9 months he was able to find a decent job paying minimum wage (no health insurance) near a bus line and in a short while was able to seek housing closer to his work. The “eviction” however continues to haunt him and at best he can get a single room thanks to an understanding (and needy) landlord–elderly and desperately in need of someone to live with her to provide some security. But that is another story…
Nick has done time. His charges are all drug related–mostly possession–but he bears the modern “scarlet letter”–not A, but C for Criminal. He was released on parole because his offenses were non-violent but was required to stay within the state. But… family problems led him to decide to break his parole and go home. But home held no work prospects and so he returned and was arrested on a “technical” violation. He had failed to complete a drug rehab program and went to jail for leaving the state. While in jail he received health care and had a regular diet and did well. Upon his release (still under supervision) he obtained indigent health care support in his county and used various shelters and food pantries and free meal programs to survive. In good weather he camped with friends often staying a step ahead of the police who would roll through and toss the camps. He fell ill with pneumonia and ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital. They confirmed the diagnosis and, because he had indigent health care support, his ER visit was covered and they prescribed an antibiotic. Strangely, they gave him the first 2 days of a 6 day course in the ER but he had to go to a pharmacy to obtain the other four days. The only problem was, the closest pharmacy was in the next town over (no pharmacy in this town would accept indigent care prescriptions) and so he was forced to take a bus and transfer 3 times in the pouring rain, with active pneumonia, to get his prescription. Since then Nick has had another technical violation due to his inability to pay back fines and charges (he has no source of income). He is on the street and using in a form of self-medication to make it through the day.
I don’t know her name… but she showed up in mid-winter at the shelter. She was, young, well dressed and articulate. Some people assumed she was a volunteer at the shelter. When dinnertime rolled around she approached staff and asked “Who made this food?” When told it was volunteers she said she could not eat it because someone was trying to poison her–actually had been for some time. It took quite a bit of conversation to convince her it was okay but other issues came forward–fear, paranoia of a debilitating nature. She had come under circumstances that were not clear from somewhere in the Midwest. A call to the emergency number she provided yielded a conversation with a psychiatrist who, for reasons of patient/doctor confidentiality, would tell nothing about her. She was without money, with a small backpack containing some clothes, no direction, no plans, just looking for a dry warm place to sleep. As a young woman on the streets she was vulnerable. She stayed in the shelter for a few weeks and accessed other services but refused counseling, revealed little about herself and then disappeared as quickly as she had come.