A Gang of White Men Chase a Black Child–Then This Happened…

My heart is still pounding. Actually more now than when it happened. It’s been two hours. My hands are shaky and I can’t believe what I witnessed.

To be clear–I don’t have the details.

Here’s what I saw: Three adult, middle aged white men. Big men.

They stopped their cars in the middle of the road in Ashland on a busy street, jumped out and started chasing at top speeds a young, black male wearing a backpack. When I say young, I mean a kid. It turns out a child of 15.

The kid ran past me, so did the men. Yelling at the top of my voice I kept saying, “Stop! Why are you chasing him?” They did not turn, they did not acknowledge my existence. Instead they continued chasing.

Finally, the men stopped when the kid jumped a tall, chain link fence. They kept yelling. They had backups coming from the other direction to trap the young man.

I decided to stand directly next to one of the men who had now stopped. He was yelling in the direction of the young man. I kept standing closer and closer. Finally, the man told the kid to come there and he kept yelling, “Why were in my driveway? Why did you run?” The young man kept saying, “I was afraid I was going to get shot.” Still, he moved closer to the man. He is a kid. He is used to minding adults still, whether they are right or wrong.

These guys acted like that made no sense to them and kept telling the kid never to run. I could take no more.

I told the young man they were giving him bad advice. I told the men, who were not listening at all, that if they were chasing me I would also run. Finally I made my way to the young man by scaling a hill and going over the fence to him. We linked arms. I told him to stay with me no matter what. I said, “Do not let go of me for any reason. I don’t care what happened here but I am walking you out. Remember, stay connected to me.”

The guys brought their voices down. They told the kid they’d call the police if they saw him again. The young man and I said nothing and we walked away. Once we got past these guys the kid kept saying he was sorry. “I’m sorry I was in his driveway. I’m sorry I ran. I’m sorry I am so scared. I am so afraid of getting shot.”

This is the life of one 15 year old black teen in Oregon, a primarily white populated place. One kid. Think of this story and multiply it over and over. A day in the life of a high school kid who has to worry that if he goes into someone’s driveway he will be chased and killed.

Can you imagine? Me either.

But what I could imagine is Trayvon Martin. It’s all I could see as these men chased a skinny, clearly very young kid running for his life. And, I could not stand it. I could not bare the adrenaline, I could not stand the look of his shaky hands, his frightened face. I could not stand the scratches on his arms cut up from jumping a fence nor the school backpack on his shoulders, a sign of youth, of school, of childhood robbed from him. I could not stand how the young man and I were together as outsiders in this world of dominance. And, rightly or wrongly, I had the feeling if there ever was a moment where taking a beating was worth it, this was it.

I have a friend who often says “This is not a hill worth dying on” about various arguments. But something has to be that hill. For me, in that moment, it felt like the right hill.

Now, it did not turn to that. The situation de-escalated rather quickly and no one got a beating on that day and no one was shot. But as I held the kid once we got far enough away and I felt his quickly beating heart, the fragility of his young body, the quick breaths as he said over and over, “I am so afraid someone will shoot me,” I realized this is not a good place for children anymore. I realized it may have never been a good place for young, black children-especially boys.

So, what do I do with all that ignorance and violence and hurt and fear which showed itself so clearly?

I am still uncertain but I feel emboldened by the exhaustion of the status quo which makes a kid run for his life from grown men who should know better. I do not give a damn that he was “in their driveway.” Honestly, I don’t care a bit if he took some tool or said a mean thing to the men or their families. You do not chase a child as an angry mob. You most certainly do not have the stupidity as a gang of white men to chase a black child.

The fact is, it is terrifying for good reason if you’re black in this country. The white gangs’ failure to get it, if that’s even true, does not interest me.

What the hell has come of people? How do they not understand the color dynamic and the number of young, black men who die in this country and have died in the past? I don’t want one more person to tell me it’s not about race or social status or poverty.

That’s a lie.

It absolutely is about those things. The kid had no defense and no power in that situation. Neither did I. Our only possibility was in unity. Our only shot was in the willingness to go down together.

Let me be clear again–this is not a story about me in the situation. This is a story about one kid who worries all the time about being shot because he is black. This story is about a gang of adult men who thought their property mattered more than the terror of this child. And it is about race. I do not think they would have come after a white kid. I don’t think a white kid would have run away thinking he would be shot. Nothing in the dynamic would be the same. I don’t think they would have de-escalated by any words spoken by me. They didn’t care. They only stopped because they figured out there would be a witness.

No one should have to live with the fear this child has every day. Yet he does.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Woman with the Frozen baby

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.

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How not to be raped

Jeannie stood in front of the group assembled at her home town university with her hands trembling and a slightly awkward smile. Her strawberry blonde hair pinned back, she looked tidy and pleasant.

“I have been raped three times since living on the streets. I didn’t want this. I was thrown away by my husband after staying home with our children. He had the money so he got the kids. He got everything.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that more than 90 percent of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. A study sponsored by the National Institute of Drug Abuse showed that 41 percent of a randomly selected sample of 460 women staying in homeless shelters had been sexually abused by an adult before age 18.

There are web sites which promote raping homeless women. There is a man I know of in my town who brags about the sex he has with women 40 years younger in exchange for a roof over their head.

It happens to men as well.

In fact lots of things happen to both men and women who are homeless. Less than 1% of homeless people commit violent crimes yet they are victims of crime frequently. Much of it does not go reported because police contact may result in the arrest of the homeless person. The National Homeless Alliance tells us in 15 years some 1,437 reported violent crimes were committed against homeless people and 375 of those victims died from their injuries.

Yet at nearly any town council where homelessness is on the agenda you will hear housed residents complain that they fear the homeless. For some this is a ploy to avoid a homeless shelter near their property for fear of lowering its value but for many this fear is real.

But why?

Certainly stereotypes about the homeless being mentally ill, drug addicted or convicted felons adds to this fear. But keep in mind less than 1% will commit a violent crime–they are more likely to be a victim of crime. They are out in the open with no protection. The number of people burned to death while sleeping or being beaten by housed people while trying to sleep is far greater than the number of people housed who experience this. In fact, there are a handful of stories about the homeless being killed by strangers in these violent ways every year. The incidence of a stranger coming into your home to beat you to death or set you on fire while you’re sleeping is statistically zero. If that happened it would be a huge story and laws would change. When it happens to homeless people it’s page four in the local section. There are no new laws created.

Yet housed people fear the homeless.

Perhaps it’s this–the housed may see a homeless encampment and feel afraid. These camps do not look like a place most of us would volunteer to frequent because they are dirty, crowded, sometimes have open fire and garbage strewn around. We are taught that these things are “wrong” and “bad.” These camps and individuals do not smell good. There are no free showers or laundromats so how could one avoid stinking? Still, for the sake of argument if this is bad–is it the fault of the homeless or is it a larger question?

I have met few homeless people who are there on vacation or by choice. If a person struggles with a medical condition such as mental illness or physical impairment do they belong sleeping in the dirt? If they have lost a job or cannot earn enough to afford a place to live which is a growing problem in this country–do they need to be punished by trying to raise children in the back of an old car?

This fear brings up a fundamental question; do we get at the root of what causes homelessness or do we blame the victim of those causes?

Let’s get back to where we started-rape. For hundreds of years we have discussed how not to get raped primarily with women. We have only just begun discussing how not to be a rapist.

Women’s movements have been restricted, women have been told what times of day they may be away from their homes, what they should or should not wear and with whom to associate. This discussion pretends that rape is within the control of the victim. This is a foundational argument flaw built on a false premise. It is the fruit of a poison tree which is watered and fed by a failure to question the assumption that rape victims somehow control their victimization.

Rape victims are people who are wrongfully attacked and subjected to torture through no fault of their own. One cannot be blamed for the crimes of another. The criminal must be held accountable for his actions.

Victims of homelessness are people who are wrongfully attacked and subjected to torture through no fault of their own. One cannot be blamed for the crimes of another–or in this case–the crimes of a society which refuses to acknowledge that its system of operation grinds people up from birth who are born poor, remain poor and die poor.

Our society is a rapist. We assault and penetrate the well being of tens of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, are poor. If I’m making you angry–that’s good–but hang in there with me. One cannot control being born poor. In our culture we tend to believe that poor people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps through hard work. There was a time when this was true. That time is not now.

You can work two jobs, 80 hours per week and not make enough for rent, car, insurance, health care and food. Even if you could physically manage that schedule you would be on the poverty line as a single adult. Add children and you go under. Bringing home two thousand dollars per month will not get you by when rent is half that, normally more than half that. Landlords will need a deposit equal to rent and often the last month’s rent in advance. How does one get that money?

The deck is stacked. Poverty is a political problem not a personal problem yet our solutions are almost always personal: get more work, spend less, live five to an apartment, don’t drink wine or smoke. Homeless people often have jobs, spend little and a ten dollar bottle of wine or pack of smokes is not the make it or break it point.

Here’s one of the most basic reasons people are poor:

Minimum wage was established as a benchmark in 1938. It was created to cover the basic cost of living. It was, however, deliberately set up not to rise with inflation. Congress must agree to raise it. Poverty is political.

In terms of real dollars minimum wage has fallen sharply since its highest point in 1968. Most folks who live in deep poverty are paid in minimum wage dollars. The same is true of people on disability and social security. These systems were initially created to keep people from becoming homeless. Now most people in these systems are the homeless.

Congress has not increased minimum wage, disability or social security to keep up with inflation. It has instead invested in other things. Poverty is political.

To those who say we do not have the money one could argue that we clearly do have the money but choose to spend it elsewhere–check out our military spending and spending on building prisons as compared to every other country on earth and get back to me on affording to care for people. Poverty is political.

Telling people how not to be poor is like telling people how not to be raped. It comes at the issue from a false foundation. Rape is a crime committed deliberately by a violent person of bad will. Poverty is a crime committed deliberately by a violent society of bad will. People die in the streets of crimes committed against them, they freeze to death or if they survive they live less than half a life.

If you have never been raped perhaps you may look at a victim and suppose she did something for this to happen. That thinking reassures you that it cannot happen to you because you make no errors—until one day when you forget to lock a door and you are attacked. Then you understand the issue is all about the attacker and that rape can happen to anyone.

If you are not poor you may suppose that if you work hard, keep your job, never get sick, have support systems and do everything right you will not be homeless. Until you get a long term illness, cannot work and your support system is no better off than you. Then you understand homelessness can happen to anyone.

Jeannie tells the assembled group as tears begin to roll down her face that she wants to see her children again, that she would love a warm place to sleep and that she doesn’t know why she was thrown away. She misses her three thousand square foot home. She did not know it could happen until it did. Now she struggles to dig her way out of the institutional systems which she assumed would protect her and did not. She speaks frequently at community meetings to create change.

She has learned. Poverty is political.

Rape is victimization. Poverty is victimization. She suffers at the violence of both.

Is this who we are and what we want?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Girl with the Hoop Earring

I watched her sit in court. Her legs crossed at the ankles, a black and white dress, a cloth coat and her hoop earrings catching light as she waited in an otherwise sterile courtroom where black is still king and sentences which change lives are short and declarative.

The judge looks bored. Social workers shuffle in their chairs and struggle to get names right. Attorneys make quick appearances and are interested in plea deals as they juggle stacks of files.

She wore rubber rain boots. In Oregon this is a must. Yet I got lost in those boots for a minute. I pictured her as a little girl splashing in puddles. “Mom! Look at me.”

I see her with her strong face to the wind and rain pushing through the rural roads and mountains clinging to her children alone in her determination. I see her seeking understanding, wishing for that moment of being seen and whole.

Now all that strength is used to hold her upright as the court prepares to make her life’s work null and void. There is nothing worse than telling a mother she is no longer a mother. There are few blacker days than a strong woman humbled by a court which cannot calculate the nights awake and the flu and the struggle of subsistence carried alone.

Thursday mornings in child custody court is the place for souls to travel alone and to be shuffled through a system more punishing than most. The women wear the best they have, they do not speak or look at each other. Losing a child is a death born by few, but the list grows longer on this day and on this day the courtroom is quiet. They have been told the rules of compliance.

She has not done the things others have. She has no drug use, no history of crime and she is an educated woman who has conquered the history of incarcerated parents, abuse, rape and marginalization to be the mother she had hoped for. Now, however, she is told her rules are too harsh. Her daughter wants nothing to do with her strict determination, her refusal to soften her stance when a boyfriend who would not meet her appeared. She is told that it is over. Her daughter will not be coming home. It is her fault.

She is only thinking of her two smaller children at home. “I must do everything I can to keep them safe and with me. Whatever it takes.”

She is lowering her head now. Tears are flowing down her jaw and into her scarf neatly wrapped around her neck. It’s creamy whiteness compromised by tears. Her long dark hair falls around her face. She has no one but a lawyer she does not know at her side. She is sitting in the chair after the young mother who’s two children are gone. “Lilly and Aiden are doing well in foster care. The mother had no stable home. She has now secured an apartment. If she is able to remain stable we will revisit.”

Poverty of pocket echoes in the chamber.

There are so many. Every seat is full and occupied by a woman alone. Where are the fathers and grandfathers? Where are the ministers and priests who told these women being a mother was their God given job? They are not present as the weeping begins and ends.

Some women have no tears and no expression. They are pale, thin, flat like paper.

She whispers to me, “This courtroom is full like this every Thursday. Without us to prosecute, to take our children, none of these people would have jobs.”

It is hard to take the fight of mothers who have had their children removed. Mothers who fail are no one’s cause. As I sit holding my friends hand, feeling the coldness of her as she keeps blood flowing to her broken heart, I have a new view.

Is this about failure as a mother or failure as a capitalist?

There are no middle and upper class women here with their privately retained attorneys and husbands. There is not a single designer purse in the room on this day. The women’s attorneys talk about their failure to find work and housing and childcare.

Sometimes no matter what you do the math doesn’t add up. If you make ten dollars per hour and have to pay childcare out of that, there is no rent money. If you don’t have the rent then your children’s home isn’t stable and you wind up here. There are not enough programs to deal with this reality as it increases by the thousands month after month in America.

The girl with the hoop earrings grew up in a nice house until her embezzling parents went to prison. Then she was homeless and forged records to stay in high school. In her desperation and loneliness she attended a party where she was raped. A young, single mother she still made it through college. Now she is here. Being told she is wrong. There are court aids to speak for the child. But, I wonder, who speaks for her?

Is there going to come a time when women are heard and helped? Will the day come when this girl might be met by support rather than derision?

I told a Catholic priest one time to stop talking about the sin of birth control until he and his church were willing to support mothers and children from the cradle to the grave. He told me I was right. Yet nothing has changed but one priests homily. It is not enough.

If we want women to use their most powerful force on earth to reproduce then we need to support them with childcare, jobs, food and housing. It is cruel and hypocritical to force women to give birth and then offer no support and one day steal their children from their beds.

I don’t know how the girl in her rubber boots survived what I saw that day. But she did survive because she is strong.

Still, she needs a new day when she can also be seen and heard, when she is housed without juggling the bills and biases and judgments and when her children can be looked after while she works. Her entire life is spent juggling. While I am home sipping wine and listening to music she is on her third shift pushing through despair to keep her two remaining children at home safe.

This is the reality for the fastest growing group of homeless people–mothers and children.

Until we support mothers we cannot support children. Until we support the future we have a grim trajectory.

On this Thursday in a single courtroom lives are ending. The worst day just got worse and no one dare make a scene. Compliance is a basic expectation.

The girl in the hoop earrings adjusts her dress as she sits across from me. “I have to find a way to play the game. I just have never been given any pieces to play it with. How do I do it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“People are too much rushing”

“If you can’t handle a certain situation, find an alternative and that’s a good thing.” Spyder is 50 years old. He says he cannot read and write and has physical pain. Abandoned as a child he was a ward of the state. “Because of my background I can’t read or write. Certain things happened in state custody. I’m injured, severely.”

He won’t say more about that.

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As an adult Spyder worked for a landlord in fixing things and learned to set tile but he could never find a way to get ahead. “I was working real hard but I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making enough to pay rent. Food stamps help but it still wasn’t enough.”

He heard about “Slab City” six years ago and pulled up stakes. He started with a truck and an RV. Now he’s inventing new ways to improve his homestead. He has a huge water tank which he heats with a solar panel and battery.

He recently found half an abandoned manufactured home and with the help of friends hauled it back to his slab. Now he has a half of a house he’s fixing, several trailers he’s bartered for and he is using solar panels and pumps to heat water and run a radio. His is one of the few places where a person can take a hot shower.

His community is an odd place in the exact middle of nowhere. Slab City is an old abandoned military installment. Now all that’s left are concrete slabs and a contingent of people who were homeless outside but find community inside this desert strip a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

“I might just die here. You never know.” says Spyder as he talks of the value of being able to benefit from his own labor. “If I build it here, it’s for me and my family and my friends. I keep the profits of my labor. It’s not like that out there.”

He is giving me a tour of his property.

There is the half of a home he’s walled in and put down flooring. Spyder’s kids each have their own rooms. They have mattresses on the floor, clothes in the closet and little toys and stuffed animals propped on their beds made up with children comforters which match the curtains. They are excited. “It’s the first time they ever had anything like that. They take real good care of their stuff because they know you have to. You can’t just buy things and throw them away out here.” says Spyder as he and his children and partner are now all on our tour chiming in on the work they’re doing on their home and property.

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They have a Swiss Family Robinson feel about them as they rapidly tell about their plans. When I ask if it’s hard they all agree it’s not. The children, both under ten, hold my hands as we walk. “They don’t have fear of strangers. We meet people from all over the world to see what we’re doing here.” Spyder says breezily.

There are some 200 year around residents all living in harsh desert conditions. Sometimes it’s 124 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. There’s no running water, no electricity and no trash pick up. Everything here is resolved by invention.

The kids have a swing and play area just outside the little bathroom trailer where they clean up before school. Soon they’ll have flush toilets because Spyder is building a septic system. He trucks the water in weekly. He’s also making a canopy to cover the area outside the home to keep it cooler. His ambitions are limitless. And he knows how to do it. “I’m a carpenter. I borrow, trade, work. I’m always running to keep this place moving up.”

The children have lost interest in our adult conversation and walk away with their mom to collect trash from an abandoned slab next to them.

“I collect bottles, I cook for people, I do tile work for people in town and sometimes they pay me. I’m inviting people who are different and can do better here than where they are.”

His children attend school in the nearest town which consists of a post office, a coffee shop and a small store where Spyder buys propane and water and food. “Everything is so expensive. It drives me nuts.” If he can figure out a way to make a garden work, he says he will. “Out in the middle of the Imperial Desert?” I ask him. “Just watch me.” He smiles.

“It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone but I own more in here than I ever did out there. It’s not governed by anyone so we figure out how to make it work. I have friends from all over the world who come back and see me and once in a blue moon they write me a check.”

Spyder is a conservationist. He says he believes in being careful with natural resources and he wants to do better with water. Spyder also says people are so busy making money they don’t know its value or the value of things that can’t be bought. He is troubled by the consuming and disposing culture he finds outside of Slab City. “People are too much rushing through the day. Stop and think for a minute.” He stops and looks around. He takes a deep breath like a person who finds themselves in tune with where they are. ” I love this planet.”

When I leave him he is checking the battery attached to his solar panel and pump. His children are laughing and tossing a ball with the dog who looks like any suburban pet with his collar and license. “Every time I’m out there I’m working for someone else. Here I’m doing it for me..and them.”

 

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“That’s Why I Work So Hard” A Homeless Dad’s Story

“I do countertops, laminate and marble. I learned it from my brother.” Christopher is waiting for a free haircut at Mary’s Kitchen in Santa Ana, California where you can get a shower, a meal and wash your clothes.

He’s 38 and striking. He leans into a chair and smiles easily. Dimples pop from his cheeks, his teeth are a straight, white row. The woman also waiting in line behind him can’t help but notice. “Damn, you’re handsome.” Christopher looks down for a second and shrugs.

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He pulls out an old leather wallet and shows me pictures of his children. “That’s why I work so hard.” Christopher is tucking away boxes of food to go which he’ll bring back to his wife and two children who are living indoors so long as he can pick up work. They were in a car but he says it’s looking up. “We’re in a weekly motel right now.”

Born in Los Angeles with six older brothers, Christopher describes growing up in a gang run neighborhood. “We just ran around. It was gang infested. Full of drugs. We just did what everyone else did. I didn’t learn anything about how to live a right life. But I’m learning it now.”

He looks me in the eye and has his work boots on in case he gets a call. Working keeps him going. “Either you want it or not.” His approach is one of hard work and faith. “People lose their homes. They get discouraged and give up.”

For him homelessness was a gradual progression. Academics didn’t come easy with dyslexia which he didn’t know he had until high school. Struggling to keep up and watching his older brothers drop out, and seeing drugs sold regularly outside his door, Christopher says he briefly lost faith in himself. “I got discouraged. I lost my will and got involved with drugs.”

He stopped working and lost his support networks. He found himself on the street. Christopher already had a divorce behind him and a different set of kids to support. He was drowning in debt and drugs and let himself go.

Now he’s clean and believes he can make it back into a home and regular work.

But the statistics make it less than likely.

The Los Angeles area has the highest homeless population on the west coast and it’s growing-up by 5.7% this past year with roughly 47,000 in the last census. Affordable housing has collapsed. Older low income apartments have been torn down and newer units which cost more rise in their place. The city plans on spending 138 million dollars to house the homeless but Christopher wants something more illusive–a job where he makes enough to pay his own way. “Disabled people need help. I just need work.”

He’s been homeless with his family for roughly a year. He has them to care for and sends support to his former wife and their children as well. Housing and Urban Development defines anyone without a stable address as homeless. Christopher says he’s glad there are places where he can get some food to stretch his checks. “We run out sometimes and the kids get hungry. This keeps us going. They remember me here because I come down and help out whenever I can. I worked for weeks here fixing stuff up, cleaning, whatever they needed done- and now it comes back to me.”

He is the band leader for hope. Many here have lost it. A married couple traveling across the country are going back home to Alabama. “There’s no jobs out here nor places you can live neither. Going home doesn’t sound good but we can stay with my mom and at least survive. It’s better than here.” They don’t want a picture or their names released. “Nah, we just waiting for a check and leaving.”

Christopher nods as they walk by. He’s from here-there is no other home. “I grew up here and it’s what I know. My kids were born here. We’re doing a little better day by day. When I see homeless people with two arms and legs I think laziness.”

Many have the same feeling about the homeless, even those among the growing ranks. But many, like Christopher work more than 30 hours per week and are still without a stable home.

In his case, he’s certain it’s temporary. “I’ve just got to prove myself. Once I get a full time job and more work we’ll be alright. But I’ll remember these people.”

It’s time for his haircut. We shake hands. “You do right and right comes back to you.”

 

 

 

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Dear Greedy People-Meet Kryptonite

Dear Property Owners & Managers,

I got your letter in the mail. “No cause termination.” It says I have two months to find shelter in an atmosphere where there are virtually no vacancies, where the prices continue to rise out of reach and where I need to come up with first, last, deposit and prove I make three times as much as rent.

I don’t know if I can do it. I am back fearing, wondering and clearer than ever about this issue I’ve been covering as a journalist.

Homelessness is a greed problem.

I know it is the capitalist mantra and your law given rights to raise rents and property prices to”market standards.” I understand that these standards are made up as a result of scarcity and taken advantage of via greed. What I’m wondering if you understand is that when you kick people out of their residence in the bitter cold with a less than 1 percent vacancy rate–you are potentially killing that person.

People trying to survive outside in 20 degree overnight temperatures when it is wet and the wind is blowing– absolutely, positively die. We lose two to three every winter where I live in Oregon. Multiply this by every community in every region around the world and that is the tip of the peninsula of pain your greed is causing.

Now meet your Kryptonite. It’s called kindness. Understanding. Refusal to believe the lie that victims cause their own pain or that poverty is related to doing something wrong.

I can do everything exactly right and be homeless. If you have a rich daddy and he buys my building, gentrifies it as a hobby and tosses me out for a few hundred bucks he doesn’t need–that’s not because I did something wrong.

You, landlord are not smarter, did not do better on college exams, did not raise kinder children and did not work harder. You got lucky and I didn’t. Now you’ll continue living well and I could die in the cold. I wish that was dramatic but it’s not. This is what happens to people, people we know who look like us, they die due to greed.

So let’s be clear about the problem. It’s not the homeless, it’s not me whom you are making homeless. It’s you. Just you.

That’s true. It doesn’t shelter me or anyone homeless or facing homelessness but I won’t be ashamed or pretend to be the problem. Because while you’ve been flitting about picking new paint for what was my home I’ve been sheltering homeless people–bunches of them some nights without your knowledge and consent because I figure decency doesn’t need permission. I’ve had them stacked in sleeping bags on couches and floors. I’d do it again and feel nothing but goodness.

Goodness is the counter to greed and so is truth. Walking around the reality of what is happening to people is not tact, it’s a fools folly. I’ve been tracking the numbers and stories of homeless people for months now. (www.Understanding-homelessness.com) and let me tell you–those numbers are growing by double digit percentages in city after city, town after town. Tens of thousands of people can’t all be crazy addicts.

Ironic that I’ve been writing about homelessness and now I am without a home. Or is it actually irony? Maybe it’s that this is happening to everyone.

Me. And you.

Your money shelters some realities but it cannot hide you from the consequences of this issue: people have nowhere to go. When you throw them out without cause you force them to throw away their belongings–precious photos and books, things their grandmothers gave them, things they have held for years and now can no longer hold.

Because of your decision I am circling my own things, the chairs I found and fixed and painted so my little grand baby could color at the table I scrounged, the first lamp I bought, the little cabinet my generous friend brought over smiling and also missing as she considered her own future changes and the bed I sleep in tossing and turning where I used to dream.

Because, you see, homelessness is personal. It was personal before it began happening to me and it will be personal after that.

Hurting people is personal.

Hurting people is not business or market conditions or profit margins. It is mothers and children and grandmothers on street corners with signs, it is proud working men reduced to waiting in line for a hot meal that other people with just a slight bit more provide.

Hurting people is not incidental. It is deliberate. What you are doing is causing harm, death and the loss of future generations.

The solution is simple: buck the trend and be kind. Don’t raise the rent when you’re doing okay. Price your rentals based on what is reasonable not what you can get. If the house you want to buy is so expensive it forces you to charge an unreasonable rent–don’t buy it. Let the greedy person selling it sit on it long enough to awaken to a kinder thought.

So dear landlords who are kind and reasonable–we need you! Hang in there with your understanding and goodness. Give me your name and picture so I can throw a parade or a party in your name because you deserve it.

The rest of you-I hope you wake up before you take the whole lot of us down with you.

I’m not counting on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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