Three things, all unrelated: The woman who always walks with her older white lab walked alone today. The two of them were always together. I don’t know her hand without a leash in it. She is homeless but never comes to community meals and has said for the last year I’ve known her that she’s just “taking a little break.” Now her dog is not with her. I feel something between anxiety and sadness to see her alone. I receive a letter from a highly placed person advising me that “We will understand the homeless when they understand us.” Us? Finally, the day ends when I watch the new film about author/playwright James Baldwin. He was a brilliant man who insisted we think, that we see ourselves in every scenario, even the killing racism of the South. He declared that all of America’s cities were really just Birmingham.
And so my mind wraps back to poverty, to the great killer, to the reasons for it. And, I think of her.
In fact, I can’t stop thinking about her–that mother clutching her newborn in a freezing Portland winter, on the streets where her baby died. The baby was the fifth death this past winter in Portland. Two died in Jackson County, Oregon where I live. It’s five hours drive from Portland but no distance when it comes to homelessness and a lack of solutions.
That woman with her newborn walked barefoot in the snow after giving birth, a blanket slung around her. People walked past her and did not see her.
How does it happen? How do we walk past mothers clutching dead babies, freezing people who may die and yet we do nothing or feel nothing? How do we deal with the deadness of our collective soul that normalizes the unthinkable?
If we doubt this then we’re missing the history playing out before us–the millions of Americans who are becoming homeless each year, the fact that 20%, 1 in 5 children literally go to sleep hungry, that throngs of people sleep outside and many die each and every winter.
Do we suspect that they are not us?
The question we need to ask is why we created poor people who die this way? They were not born for this purpose, they did not make themselves poor. We did that, as a society of individuals, as a culture that puts so many things above caring. That young mother did not plan on her baby freezing to death, yet it happened and we did not stop it. We created her and her baby and the situation which caused her baby to die.
How is it that we have let our indifference turn us to monsters? It is not our nature to walk away from a person in need. It is not the way of the mammal, of the Great Ape, of humans. Yet, it has become our way.
Why did we create poverty?
And we did create it. There are enough resources to feed and house people. There are five empty houses for every homeless person. Who benefits from the politics of poverty?
Poverty is political. There are no exceptions to this. For every person who perishes under the weight of poverty there is another person benefitting as a matter of policy and practice.
Desperate and hungry people will work for whatever you pay them. People who need a place to live will pay whatever it costs for a roof and sick people will give their last nickel for medicine. To a starving man God is food. Gandhi said that.
So the people with the jobs, the houses, the medicine and the food trade on that desperation. The more desperate people, the higher the prices, the lower the pay, the greater the profit–until.
Until the desperate people give up or die. Eventually the weight of desperation at the bottom topples the tower. Eventually the poor are so far down that they can no longer afford the food and they starve or they storm the Bastille and steal the food and lop off some heads while they’re at it. But even then there are folks who invested in axes. There is always someone figuring an angle to make a profit from misery.
What I’m wondering is if this cycle ever stops. Do we ever turn around and decide to share our last slice of bread? Do the profiteers decide the ugliness of their fears and eventual self loathing is not worth the misery they inflict?
There is only one answer, the same answer that every saint and tradition has told us–it is connection.
If you knew that mom you would not have let her baby freeze to death. If you knew the child going to bed hungry, you would feed him. It’s a big world but it is not unknowable. You know someone who needs a hand. It does not matter why–it only matters that he needs help and you can provide it.
You can walk by blind and not see the homeless person with the sign or you can get radical and connect. You can assume that all politicians are crooks and your country is broken or you can engage in conversation and see what may come of it.
Nothing stops any of us from turning around. Nothing stops us from refusing to create poverty. We can choose not to shop at stores that don’t pay people, we can give what we have to help someone. Tonight I walked by beautiful young musicians singing and playing their hearts out in front of their gear for surviving homeless. I didn’t have money but I had popcorn. I gave it to the singer and thanked her for making something beautiful. She smiled and sang louder. If it had been snowing they would be playing music in my apartment.
Nothing would stop me.
You see, I can’t stop thinking about that mom holding her frozen baby. I can’t stop asking myself why I created poverty or at least why I let it happen. God nor the cavalry is coming to save us. Our beliefs will not be reality enough to stop this runaway despair of hungry children and young people who have lost all hope.
Our only hope is the hope of connection. Jesus said that. Buddha too.