Six Proven Ways to Help the Homeless

 

We sat over waffles and coffee and she asked me to share what I could about homeless people. She had helped and been frustrated at times that it didn’t seem to “work.” That got me thinking.

There are many success stories when befriending homeless people. I can think of half a dozen without trying. But all of them begin and end with two words and thoughts–patience and understanding.

People who had the wisdom and strength to seek help and the patience with themselves and me to request on going assistance are no longer homeless.

So how does one really “help” the homeless?

Here’s what I’ve seen which works:

  • Don’t assume anything. You have no idea how that person became homeless. It’s not usually one thing but a series of events. Listen and learn and ask questions–a lot of questions–until you can sort out how they are in the position they’re in and offer help from there.
  • Help in the way they want. Homeless or not, all people have preferences. It’s important to honor that if you’re going to be helpful.  Ask what they need and then offer what you can that fits their request, not your preference. I’ve seen people give cans of food to homeless folks who have nowhere to cook and can’t carry heavy stuff in a backpack. I’ve seen hard candy go to people without many teeth. “Helping” in a way that’s not what the person needs only leaves them less empowered.
  • Homeless people are people first. They are not their circumstance nor are they a project. Find common ground and discover things about them that attracts you as you would anyone you are thinking of becoming friends with. Offering help to a friend is a very different feeling than being a project for someone. If you don’t vibe, if you don’t see friend potential, then offer a warm smile and the ones in your pocket and move on. They may not be for you.
  • Patience is key. It took time to become homeless and it takes time to dig out. Popping for a hotel or letting someone crash on your couch for a week is not going to get them back on their feet. If you have long term accommodations and the resources to be a friend and allow them to process what’s happened, that’s truly helpful and may, over time, make a difference. If you just want to help very short term, that’s fine. But if you still see the person panhandling don’t be discouraged or angry. Your one act of kindness doesn’t wash away the years they’ve been down.
  • Do not assume there are “services” for that person they aren’t accessing. Nearly every person on the homeless spectrum is aware of the alleged services which exist and have accessed them at some point. The Trail card for food assistance offers around 100 bucks per month for a single person who has no place to cook and it doesn’t cover hot food. So they’re looking at a catch 22. They still don’t have enough to eat.  OHP is truly helpful but it does not cover everything fully and what it does cover is not always easy to get at such as mental health services. Many providers don’t take it. Those who do have a long waiting list. It goes on and on like this. Transitional housing is not available for everyone–in fact it covers only a rare group. It’s a broken system and it’s important to know it going in.
  • Finally, normalcy is king. Homeless people are traumatized people. They have been attacked, many seriously, they have not had a good night’s sleep in a very long time, whatever self esteem they once had is pummeled. They are often suffering from chronic pain of one sort or another and cannot imagine feeling good. They offer stories as payment and may talk your ear off as a result. They may also need deeply to be heard and honored in that way. Be patient with them and with you. Establish normalcy and routine.  Take them to lunch inside at a restaurant on Tuesday, pop for a movie ticket and see a film on Friday. Set patterns so they have something to hold on to.  No one wants to stay in the bottom of the well and you can help them lighten up.

The reason we still have homelessness is due to certain assumptions. As a society we assume homeless people have made unforgivable mistakes, are dangerous or refuse to seek services we provide in our society. We assume they have addictions and are generally unsafe to be around. These assumptions vilify poor people.

Fact: there is no proven data to say that homeless people commit more crimes than housed people–the fact is, according to a Stanford study and checking police records, they are more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one. 

That said, you don’t know the person so be careful the way you would with any stranger.

The vast majority of people who are homeless are unhoused due to basic math-math which has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. A ten dollar per hour job cannot pay for a $1,000 dollar per month apartment even if you work full time. Most jobs only work people 30 hours per week. That puts you at about $900 take home.

The original minimum wage was established and indexed based on the cost of living–but that was in 1938! A living wage in Jackson County Oregon where I live is $16.43 per hour. Most people do not earn that.

Low vacancy rates at less than 2% and supply and demand economics make housing costs high while wages are low. This adds up to homelessness.

Add to that the safety nets we once had have not existed since 1995 when “welfare” was officially scrapped. Homelessness is up by up to 25% in West Coast cities. Most folks who are homeless did not travel to those cities. They are natives. Three people out of four who are homeless grew up there.

Who is homeless? You- if you miss a few weeks of work. Me- if I get sick and cannot produce work daily. All of us if the economy does not change.

If you want to help a homeless person understand these facts. Telling them to get a job or access services doesn’t help but discourages. Over time, with care, patience and understanding, it eventually gets better. What that looks like is different for everyone. Never doubt that your care makes a difference even if you can’t see it.

Life is hard but we can choose to make it easier. We can do this long term in our systemic  approaches and you can do it short term for the guy next to you on the park bench–but remember this one thing first:

It all starts with a conversation. It is helped through understanding and deep patience.

You ready? Me too.

 

 

 

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The Sad Story of Christopher Toughill

I walked into my apartment and immediately locked the door. I did it before turning on the light, before slipping off my shoes, before looking around.

Locking the door is not something I’ve ever much bothered with. I’ve been scolded for years by friends and family but I didn’t want to be the person who locks my shit up and then decides I’m safe because my possessions are tucked tightly behind a lock. I didn’t want to let that paranoia creep in–not even a little.

But then today I heard in depth the story of Christopher Toughill exactly as he told me. He stopped often to cry. Sometimes he would dip his head and begin going through the photos on his phone of rainbows. “I just took a lot of rainbow pictures. I suppose it was a crime of opportunity,” he quipped.

Before October 18, 2016- Christopher describes himself as a person who believed in “…rainbows and Unicorns, I believed in the very best in people and I thought that’s what they gave me. If I was ever disappointed it was worth the price of believing in the good in people.”

He grew up in DC to a journalist mom and a speech writing dad. His father, also a union organizer, taught him every labor song and chant and he still recounts them without a prompt breaking into song across the lunch table. In those moments, he’s someone else.

After October 18, 2016- Christopher has nowhere to live, owns nothing but one change of clothes and his dog, Harmony, a 14 year old geriatric pup who fits her name. His hands are still recovering, his teeth never will and his heart, however expansive, is shattered.

I found Christopher after he posted something on Facebook that sounded suicidal. “I give up” it began. When my intrepid friend tracked him down she asked me to go to him–a total stranger–and help. I said yes. That lead me to an abandoned mobile home space and a tall man with a brown dog sitting in a gravel spot surrounded by trash in a broken chair. He was on his cell phone and by his posture and expression he could have been a business person closing a deal, yet his dirty clothes, his untrimmed toe nails poking from old sandals, a single backpack with a broken zipper and his entire lack of options told part of the story.

But only part.

Christopher had been a very successful business owner. He had an optical shop in the affluent art village of Ashland, Oregon where he sold high end, hand crafted glasses to the rich and famous including more than one movie star.

Now-after his attacker brutalized him- he is homeless and by outside appearances looks broken.

On October 18, 2016- he was held hostage–chained in fact–by his landlord who rented him a one bedroom shop behind his house. Christopher was beaten, his hands broken, his teeth knocked out, his feet battered and he was burned with hot oil and dowsed in gasoline. “I was humiliated, degraded and tortured,” he says of the experience. Unknown to him at the time he rented his place–his landlord belonged to a criminal gang and had a long, violent history.

Christopher managed to escape to safety and the man who held him hostage is now in prison.

But in some ways so is Christopher. He cannot understand how so much evil exists on one hand, on another he chose mercy for his attacker. He agreed to his plea bargain. “I couldn’t be responsible for depriving someone of their freedom for life–even though I couldn’t understand what he did to me. Still, sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken the deal. He is not fit to live free among people. He is a monster.”

Christopher considered taking his own life. “I was in my shell. I was non functional.” He came away from the experience with nothing. His health too fragile to work, his home gone because he could never go back there, he found himself deteriorating. He went into a diabetic coma due to stress and lack of food and crashed his last thing–his car.

Christopher was waiting for his old dog to die so he could take his own life. “I couldn’t let Harmony down.” But Harmony did not die. She kept living and so did Christopher. “Now I don’t want to do it anymore. There are still sunrises and sunsets…the world itself. I got touched by the dregs of society, but for all its sham and drudgery the world is still a beautiful place.”

His pain is noticeable and I could feel it when we talked. He cried often, reached out for my hand, sometimes needed to get up and walk it off.  He would speak of the crime and discuss the “incomprehensible.”  He says he is disappointed that there was not a safety net deep enough to hold him. He’s tried all the services, he shows me all the calls he’s made on his cell phone to no good effect. “They can’t really help me.”

I left him at a clean hotel for the night where he could get a shower and his dog could take rest. It’s not enough. Nothing I do for Christopher is enough.

One time a cop told me there are few real, innocent victims. He implied most people put themselves in bad spots. I tried to believe that because it makes life less scary. But Christopher did not invite his trouble. What happened to him could have happened to me–or you.

There are innocent victims. There are people who do evil to them.

But there are also people who forgive evil, people who get back up and try again. There is me and you. And those pictures of rainbows on Christopher’s phone did happen.

So tonight I’m behind the locked door. I’m thinking of Christopher and I may shed more tears. I don’t know the way forward for him and I don’t know how he overcomes but I know he does. I can see that he is still the hero of his story.

If you want to help Christopher he has a GoFundme:

https://www.gofundme.com/HelpChrisRecoverFromTortureMaiming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Walk in the Light

I’m afraid to go hiking. I want to go. I wake up on Friday’s with the phrase, “Friday-hike day” but then I allow other things to cover me up rather than going.

Why?

I am afraid that in the full year I have failed to hike I will discover myself more fragile, tired or weak. I am afraid that I’m afraid and that scares me.

So much in life is a contrived narrative. We make ourselves out of scraps of stories from our families and teachers, strangers and culture. We create stories of “us” and the “others” and before long we believe it’s all true.

I believed I would never be afraid of going out alone. Now I am.

Yet, when I push through and I’m out there watching the bees, feeling the breezes blow up from the canyon, standing alone at a cliff edge–the story becomes nothing and reality is all I see.

It’s true. Everything is connected- even fear.

In this way I’m free.

So many things can be beautiful and make you afraid. Freedom is scary.

Creating is terrifying. Like writing a novel on a speeding train through Tokyo.

I read an account where a group of Japanese middle school girls were writing novels on Twitter while commuting on a train.  They composed short books -140 characters at a time. The story moved me deeply. I thought of how much focus and perseverance it took to put one sentence after another, day upon day while moving on a train to school.

The bit of their work I have seen is beautiful, born out of the brave notion they could do it.

 

 

I know a woman who reminded me of  how work, no matter what kind, can be the thing that causes so much else to happen. The work of walking far, of writing a new way–but even the things more ordinary can make miracles.

A woman I knew works at Taco Bell. She has burns, deep and old, scaring her face and neck, hands and arms. They are the kind that might have killed her–but she is alive and smiles easily.

I might think that working in fast food, and fast food itself is a bad thing. I might go deep into the ethics of what real food costs or I might just look in her eyes and watch her careful work and be glad for it.

Life is never as simple as my platitudes. For every bit of darkness there is an equal amount of light. For every strong view there is a kinder middle way.

This is light.

The little girls who live in one of the worlds most populated nations and fly down the tracks on a bullet train using their scrap of free time in an otherwise warp speed life writing novels a sentence at a time—this is light.

I look out my window and say–today is the day. I’ll just take a walk. One foot in front of the other for however far I go.

And that is light also.

There is something poetic about just showing up to all that it is, all that is dark, all that is light. Something noble, too, about being okay with being afraid.

The sun is shining for however long it does. I will write for however long I am alive and some of it will be good and some of it will be rubbish. Some will be written on a train or a deck chair or in a coffee shop–but it will still happen a sentence at a time. And every three to four weeks I’ll pop into Taco Bell and say hi to the people I admire there.

And yes, I will take that long walk. Fear only has so much hold. Today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Three Things You Can’t Say–Ever

I failed, I’m aging, I’m sad.

We, our culture, isn’t really set up for these things. Americans are #sowinning and #beastmode at the gym and #allsmiles. Why be sad or emotionally authentic in a country where you’re asked ten times a day how you are and the only correct answer is, “Good. How are you?”

We put the “in” in inane.

I do it too. All day long, “I’m good. How are you?”

I wonder what would happen if we cut the crap?

Here’s a sample dialogue from the grocery store:

Clerk: “How are you?”

Me: “I just read a Harvard white paper that the US is in Developing Nation status economically and I’m scared. I have no idea if the piece I’m writing makes any sense and my career never really took off.  I spend a lot of time alone worrying about those weird aging spots on my forehead. So I don’t think I’m so good. Actually I’m sad. How are you?”

Clerk: “I am not winning but I’m not exactly losing either. There’s a big space in the middle where I am mostly treading water with moments of greatness and other moments of public humiliation. Extremes don’t last. Oh and that thing about getting older. I relate. I am aging and it’s frankly a mess. I feel bad about 50% of the time and going to bed is my favorite part of the day.”

Me: “I’m on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to stay above the waves of menopause which drown many a good woman. Too much Progesterone and I’m exhausted and foggy. Too much Estrogen and I’m looking to join Fight Club. No hormones and every bone hurts, my ass goes flat, my head hurts and I’m so sad it’s hard to recognize it’s a hormone thing because it feels real. Getting the cocktail right can take a few years..literally…years. So I struggle with that but I think I’ve finally got it down.”

Clerk: ” Let’s add to that-as an aging, single woman I spend huge amounts of time alone. Just me and my Netflix. I’m still not over the fact my children had the nerve to grow up and leave me. As Sir Thomas Moore famously quipped, “My children did not turn out well, they grew up.” (For those who have no sense of humor that is a joke.)

Me: “But what’s not funny is that virtually nothing in our culture prepares us for the empty nest. We are supposed to convert the kids rooms, go on trips, re-make ourselves. Pfff. Who wants to remake a perfectly good life full of beautiful children friends who show us everything? I did not want that. If I had my way the kids would have stayed right here and grown old with me. So add lonely to my list.”

Clerk: “Exactly. And when you’ve given everything to your family and have the ass dimples to prove it, you’re supposed to shuffle off  and never speak of it, as if it didn’t happen.”

Me: ” I’m not agreeing to that. We did go all in and it’s okay to be sad when the kids leave, career seems less important and that dream of growing old like Jane Fonda probably aint happening for most of us. I failed along the way and still do. Getting old is a bitch but not everyone gets the chance–so it’s good in that way. ”

 

Clerk: “I feel that way. It’s not poetic or evoking some nostalgia for a time and place that never was but it’s comforting to know we can be in this together. It feels good to admit that we fail more than we win but we’re not judged by that. It feels as free as it’s possible to be admitting that I get sad and that it doesn’t kill me. In fact, sometimes I like it because it grounds me and reminds me that meditation is where truth and beauty find me. And I don’t love getting older but I don’t hate it either. It has some serious struggles–finding purpose, maintaining relationships with people who no longer need me but might want me and dealing with a body changing as much as it did in puberty.”

Me: “There’s no coming back from that.”

Clerk: “On the other hand I see the angst in the faces of those still in the big fights–the getting the kids set, keeping a marriage running on no sleep and more bills than cash and trying to climb some rungs of an imaginary ladder. That’s all in my past. The kids got raised, the marriage didn’t last but had a nice, long run, the bills are mine and they eventually get paid and I have no ladders-imaginary or otherwise.”

Me: “So, really how are you, right now?”

Clerk: “It’s a mixed bag. There’s some peace in knowing it’s all gravy going forward even if I don’t accomplish one more thing. So, it’s hard and it’s easy all at once. In that way maybe I am #winning and aging and sad and failing too. But I can handle it. It feels good to let it out.”

Me: “Yes, it does feel good.”

 

Start with the reality of your life and your struggles and wear them proudly. Say the things you can’t say. You have no idea how badly that is needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No-They are Not Coming. It’s Just You

I’ve left my main character, my only character right now, stranded outside a Denny’s somewhere in middle Ohio. He’s been dropped off by a kind hearted lady and now he’s on the road with his thumb out. It’s been about a month.

I’ve not lifted a finger to help and he’s shouting at me in the back of my head demanding I pull him forward. But he is one of many examples of my thinking being off, of despair thick and hard like a pan of burned brownies. It seemed tasty and now it’s just another mess to sort out.

Waiting for some outside signal or force to pull me from my latest down cycle is like my character with his thumb out acting as if help will arrive, somehow from somewhere. He could have walked to the next state if he just started. (of course since he’s in my head the poor guy is actually stuck but you get my meaning, right?)

My dad told me often that no one is coming to save me, “There is no free lunch and no guy on horseback. Life is about endurance and your ability to survive on your own. If you get help, examine it closely before taking it. Everyone wants something.”

I thought he was too guarded and probably wrong. But he’s not wrong. Not completely. Yes, there are nice people who help others with nothing in mind. I do it even. But self interest creeps in there even in the best of hearts and minds sometimes. And for those who have not refined their hearts and checked their assumptions, who have not sat down with their egos and had a long, stern talk–self interest is the guiding force.

Self interested folks will ask you for the same favor 100 times in a row.  They will say or do whatever it takes for the intended goal of getting where they want to go and shortcuts are best.

Self interested folks will not want to pay property taxes to fix the other guys street or pay for the education of the neighbors child. Self interest is why this administration is dropping bombs.

It’s ugly. Period. Always. Full stop.

I see this in the homeless community and often over look it feeling as if actual survival gives some excuse. When you’re hungry, tired and desperate no one is at their best. But in the back of my mind standing on the foot of my character is this thought, what if waiting for the cavalry contributed to the problem in the beginning? If you know, as many of us raised by depression era parents knew, that no one is coming to save you–would you act differently?

Would I?

Now I’m not reversing course here–I believe we should come to save each other. I believe in safety nets. I believe in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and housing the houseless. I believe in doing it over and over until they get the hang of doing it themselves.

But how do we get the hang of it and if we do..can it even be done in our rigged economy where no one is really getting ahead but the people in the front of the line?

I have more questions than answers but I believe in stopping the bleeding first. If you’re outside in the cold you need a place to go. That’s first.

Yet, there is this nagging sensation of self reliance which keeps coming to mind. When this down cycle comes to me and I am hiding under its blackness there is only one way out and it’s through. I must embrace it, sit with it, dive deeper into the darkness until it passes. There is no one coming to pull me out. There is no amount of talking, hoping, wine nor weed to solve the issue.

It is me asking for my attention until my heart opens its cage and the bird flies out singing its spring song. Until then, I will be here, in this well looking up for a speck of light.

Fighting for daily survival and cycling through depression are different yet similar. They both require a hard minded resolve that you will make it. A decision is made not to take an easy way out. You know you can do it, you know you can make a better day for yourself.

In a culture where a pill is called upon to save us, where fast food and fast facts are the order of the day and where important global issues are spoken about in 140 characters it’s hard to see where the values of perseverance and self reliance will get us. But they will get us out of this flimsy culture. They actually will.

So in my state of sadness which goes beyond watching a romantic comedy and eating ice cream, I’ve come to the same conclusion generations have come to before me–we must help each other and we must teach while we’re doing it.

I learned how to meditate my way through depression and know with a certainty that all things change over time. The shear toughness of Zen practice which is akin to military boot camp tells us it’s all just you and me. There is no great helper in the sky or anywhere else. That’s what it took for me. It’s not easy or pretty or fun but it works. There is no exception.

We have to stop waiting for the cavalry. They aren’t coming because they are us. If we are going to get out of this jam of poverty growing daily we must fix our economy by demanding living wage jobs, affordable housing and our money being spent on education as a first priority.

My dad sent his tribe of children to private school on a blue collar income and we grew our own food to make it work. He believed being educated was an intrinsic value that would keep us safe when he couldn’t any longer.

He understood teaching is the true value of a person. He understood one cannot teach unless one has learned.

So be a teacher. I will do it too. I will do it with, dare I say, some self interest. Helping out with no end in sight depresses me. I don’t like being this bummed out.

Before I invite anyone to stay with me again I will be asking what that person is doing to get on their feet. I will ask about their plans and hopes and encourage both. I will be the mother they may not have had.

There’s no shame in any of it. Zen picked up where my parents left off. Learning and self reliance are lifelong realities.

I know there’s nothing new here. Forgive me. But writing is another way out of my funky blue burned brownie hard pan depression of doom.

Self reliance demands I do it.

I’d like to know what you do when you’re bottoming out to get back standing. Please share so we can create community and solutions together for all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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