Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Discarded

Within the past week, three things happened that made me painfully aware of how easily the homeless are discarded in this country:

1. An article: I read's April 1st post by Chip Ward, recently retired assistant director at the Salt Lake City Public Library System, The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless. This is an incredibly moving article, and the reader will undoubtedly feel sorry not only for the homeless who use the library for shelter but also for the librarians and the well-housed and well-fed members of the public who come to the library and are bothered by how noisy and smell these homeless people are.

2. A movie: The Pursuit of Happyness (watch the trailer) about a down-and-out father and his five year old son and how precarious their lives were until the father, unusually tenacious and lucky, moved from rags to riches.

3. A friend: “W,” has been working for me for about seven years. He shows up in my backyard nearly every day, and if I don’t have an odd job for him, he reads. He walks to and from his “camp” outside of town where he sleeps year round, his only company a feral cat that he has tamed, along with occasional curious raccoons and deer.

W is one of those people who fall through the cracks in our society: probably not mentally or physically ill enough to get SSI, but not mentally well enough to hold down a job. He’s tried, but he can’t.

Until about a month ago, W remained in good health. Then he fell and injured his knee. He would limp into town, try to do a few chores, then limp back to his camp. He stopped showing up on a regular basis. A week ago, he stopped by while I wasn’t here to get a few dollars. Then he didn’t show up for over a week.

A couple of nights ago, I became concerned that he couldn’t walk and was stuck in his camp with no food or water, i.e., that he could die out there and no one would know. I had no idea where his camp was, but a friend knew its location within a quarter mile or so. I decided someone needed to go find W. My friend’s brother, D, volunteered. At the same time D parked his car in my driveway, W showed up. I burst into tears out of relief that he was okay.

My personal friendship with a homeless person, who is bright, truthful, loyal, yet unable to make it in the work world, has convinced me that there are many, many people out there like W. These people need help.

Quoting Chip Ward, “America is proud of its hyper-individualism, our liberation from the bonds of tribe and the social constraints of traditional societies. We glorify the accomplishments of inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, pioneers, and artists. But while some individuals thrive and the cutting edge of our technology is wondrous, the plight of the chronically homeless tells me that our communities are also fragmented and disintegrating. We may have gained the world and lost each other.”


Anonymous said...

A beautiful post, Gail. And an overwhelming problem, to boot. The hopeful side of things can be seen in your personal interactions with people who many too easily dismiss. It's just fear, you know that. I don't think we're afraid of "them", we're more afraid that we'll somehow become them - treating them as lepers most of the time.


Gail Jonas said...

Tod, I agree with you that the fear is more from feeling that the gap betweeen "us" and "them" is not that big. I think that's especially true these days when the lack of health insurance can ruin the financial lives of millions of people. And that's just one example.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about something similar. How much our world exalts youth and beauty. How much it costs to be sick or aged? How much does it cost to not fit in and be scooped up in the court system or not be able to afford adequate services?

Who does all this money go to? Middle aged white men.

What becomes of the people who can’t afford a doctor or a lawyer? They die or rot in prison.

Is this our species' version of killing off the sick and the wounded?


Gail Jonas said...

I had to examine my own feelings about the homeless person in my life. I struggled with how much I really cared, i.e., enough to disrupt my schedule and make arrangement to try to find him, or was I only paying lip service to being concerned and actually was upset that he wasn't around to help me?

I spent a few sleepless hours asking myself what mattered most. Until this situation arose, I had no doubt that I would jump to help someone in need, but when it got right down to it, I had to wrestle with my selfish side in order to arrive at the caring response.

Anonymous said...

It's hard. Especially if someone is not mentally healthy (crazy is quite a contagious condition for most).

I usually try to avoid getting myself in a situation where my empathy will take over. Unfortunately my experience shows me that people will take full advantage of my caring side. So. I'm taught over and over again not to care.

Pretty sad.

Gail Jonas said...

My experience is that some disadvantaged people try to take over, and some don't. W doesn't. In fact, he will err on the side of suffering before he asks for anything.

I try to not make any decisions until the need to arises; then I trust my "quiet inner voice." Of course, I have to be quiet in order to hear it.

Ann said...

A friend of mine once complained of panhandlers at Santa Rosa Plaza, saying that if they needed money, they should work. In the past, this person was a manager at a manufacturing company. I asked, "seeing the way this person was dressed (tattoos, piercings, colorful hair, etc.) would you as a manager have hired them to work for you?" The reply: "hell no."

So many, many of our homeless have personality disorders, mental illness, or are simply unsuited emotionally for the workforce or sometimes mainstream society. As a society, it is our duty to care for them--the question is exactly how?

We are all afraid of being taken advantage of, we are all afraid of mental illness, and there are just enough scam artists and sociopaths among the homeless to scare us off.

And while I have no solutions, I sincerely recognize that there, but for grace, go I.

Alexis said...

Your post was quite touching, Gail, it opened my eyes again to the problem of the forgotten people in our land of abundance. Looking forward to reading more of your posts after work today, now that i've discovered your blog. =)