I take my dog for a walk. I write. I use indoor plumbing! Hooray for indoor plumbing!! But it’s been trying and sometimes humbling, getting used to the housed up routine again. I’ve caught myself complaining about having to do the dishes and pinch myself so I remember to be grateful I was able to cook that meal for my little family. I try not to think about how long I’ve had the hot water on. And what that’s going to look like on the electric bill. And this precarious perch I’m at where funds are still that tight. Then a homeless woman decided to set up camp where I like to walk my dog. Why, hello, Perspective, I didn’t realize we’d be meeting again so soon.
I read a lot of articles about homelessness, panhandling, shelter life and the policies that affect us. Viewing this issue from the fine line of being able to relate to both sides gives me some room to offer insights on some of the finer points that aren’t being addressed. Knowing what to do about the homeless crisis requires a balanced approach that might as well require a degree in philosophy to elucidate what is at stake here, though. For real.
My landlord owns the plot of land adjacent to our apartment building (and a beautiful stand of trees which I spend way too much time staring out my window at). I like to walk my dog through those trees to the open hillside, a little bunny and rodent haven with blackberry and shadbush growing just perfectly around a short trail. The top of the hill overlooks the freeway, but it feels like you’re miles away and as free as the bluejays that nest there. We are situated almost a mile’s walk from the closest bus stop and a little over a mile from the nearest convenience store. I had remarked to my boyfriend what a nice hideout it would be for a homeless camp, it’s hard to stop noticing good hiding spots. Oops.
Yesterday, someone found my little sanctuary and decided to do just that. Dear Compassion, don’t fail me now. That someone is a woman I met while living at the shelter. A woman who was kicked out of that shelter for behaving erratically, swearing at and scaring the children, and being generally disagreeable to staff and other residents because she kept forgetting to take her medicine. Shelters are not designed to meet physical or mental health crises.
There is another shelter in town which is low barrier and does not require sobriety to access resources. I wouldn’t want to stay there as a single woman. Rape, violence and theft are not going to be any less absent in an underfunded shelter system than they are in society at large; something everyone likes to forget about when they decry the homeless sitting on public property or camping in plain view of housed up folks.
Despite the housing first focus, this other shelter will also exit you for unsafe behavior. Access to these resources can be cut off much more quickly for the people who need this help the most, due to mental health and addiction related issues. Perhaps we aren’t dealing with a homeless crisis so much as an affordable housing shortage and simultaneously occurring mental health crisis. Maybe we should stop lumping it all into one pot. It is a catch 22 if ever there was one, in either case.
So here is my chance to view this from the housed up perspective and begin the delicate dance this fine line provides. The problem, she does make me nervous, I’ll be honest about that. I know she has both mental health and addiction issues and while the spot itself is somewhat secluded and potentially safe, it offers nothing in the way of water or sanitation. So I am equally nervous for her, as I am of her.
If she is using again, will she be mindful of where she puts her used needles? Not likely. And as much as I love and appreciate the plight of the homeless, a population I will always consider myself a part of, I hate drugs, I hate drug addiction and I especially hate having to worry about my son playing outside where he may come upon someone who has overdosed or left their biohazards for him to find.
An afternoon full of this ethical dilemma left me searching for ideas and questioning the bigger issues at play here. There is no slam dunk solution and damn it, that plagues me. Nonetheless, here’s to the solution I attempted and the options I wish I’d had.
The defense of public safety is often brought up in the context of public policy on the homeless crisis, what we have to remain vocal about should be obvious: Is she not equally endowed with this right to safety? She is. We all know she is, but answering that also requires asking ourselves how far we are morally obligated or willing to go to ensure this. The best place to start is affordable and supportive housing options. I would much rather subsidize a rent payment than a jail stay, but I value freedom very highly, call me crazy.
I met an outreach worker last fall who gave us some good ideas about staying safe and where to camp and how to access resources. He gave me the encouragement to get back on the grid again and give society another shot at proving not everyone sucks.
So that was the man I intended to get a hold of to help with this situation. The problem came when I couldn’t find a way to contact him. I remembered his first name and left a message with the low-barrier shelter. Because I can’t help but be responsible, I also had to get in touch with the landlord and let him know what was happening. I am grateful that his first response was not to call the police, but rather headed over to her make shift dwelling and let her know that she was on private property and would have to vacate. Until the issues with police brutality are adequately addressed, we need alternatives to calling the police -like that outreach worker- especially in the case of a citizen in as vulnerable a situation as hers.
I’m fairly confident the land owner will treat her with dignity and respect while pointing out the legal ramifications he would be facing if she was to hurt herself or someone else on his property. He is a compassionate man, he gave me a second chance in a time when those are getting harder and harder to find, after all. But the bigger questions still remain. She’ll get moved on. Our immediate concern will be addressed, but what about the larger context this situation has illuminated? What about her?
I read an article this morning about the NYPD violating homeless citizen’s rights regarding public property (an action I have been on the receiving end of too many times during this journey -despite remaining a law-abiding citizen in every other regard- to call it anything but illegal profiling). Here is one of the comments someone left, an echo I have heard over and over which we are all failing (or unable) to adequately address. This lack of objectivity over the value of each human life is shifting how we perceive human rights in general.
“The police SHOULD tell them to move along or be arrested. I for one, am tired of this liberal BS, there are homeless shelters and help to get back on your feet, the problem is those places have RULES, you know rules like “no drugs” “no alcohol” “must take bath” “must look for work” and the homeless STREET people aren’t good with that. If you pin them down with questions you will find that THEY are their own problem.
Guess fffing what? I HAVE TO FOLLOW RULES.”
Since when did valuing human life and equal rights become a solely “liberal” perspective and on top of that, “bullshit”? Arrgghh!!! Are we throwing out spirituality and moral obligation along with religion and equality? How did we get to this place where anyone who has any remaining compassion and empathy is now being seen as the enemy? And enemy of what exactly? Your peace? Your pocket book? Your freedom?
Speaking about freedom, because that’s what an examination of rights is truly speaking to, you know what else I read today? An article about a privileged white male who wants to support Trump so that he is not overburdened by the social shame of being a bigot. My biggest fear came in the realization that he is only 22. Fuck we are in trouble.
It’s going to be really hard trying to come up with ideas on how to incorporate these citizens back into society when jackholes like this believe so deeply in their misguided convictions. I know it’s why I have been searching for alternatives to this communication nightmare. Without which, that direction and mindset leads to more hatred and less empathy. Knock, knock, knock. Without empathy, there is no compassion. Without compassion, war, murder, and torture become norms that make it infinitely more plausible than not, we are simply going to end up killing ourselves off. Mother earth and Father god, you may just have to try again.
What can we learn from this one situation that can help get us on a course with viable solutions? How do we garner public support for adequate social resources in the face of this type of prejudice?
Raising the minimum wage isn’t going to do anything for people like this homeless camper. She is disabled, and although not even close to incapable, forty hours a week around “normal” people is too much to expect. For them, if not her. I met her, I remember.
While living at the shelter, this woman found out one of the workers at the food and clothing donation center was in the hospital. She bought a bouquet of fake flowers, dressed up the vase in ribbons and made us all sign a card even though most of us didn’t know the woman she was talking about. In the midst of her own struggle with life, she was compelled to remind another person of their worth, importance and value.
Giving back to society can come in a number of ways. Regardless of their position in the grand matrix, I’ve witnessed many of my homeless compatriots attempting to give back by small acts of kindness like this, creating exquisite and undiscovered art and music, or picking up and cleaning the neighborhoods they call home. They are actually the first line of defense, more often than not, against the more aggressive and dangerous riff-raff that most people falsely attribute to this population en total. Unfortunately, you have been conditioned into an apathy that makes it impossible for you to tell the difference.
It’s well past the time to start thinking outside the box. When one life or lifestyle is devalued, we are all at risk because none of us can dictate what tomorrow brings, not if we are to remain free. This should be your take away message: it is essential we stop this dehumanizing trend and start finding more robust solutions before our catch 22 brings nihilism to each and every one of our doors (or lack thereof).
We need to avoid the inevitable point where people without compassion see this woman and me as nothing more than fiscal drains because lo and behold, here comes your spoiler alert: there should be no surprise when supporters of self-entitled assholes such as Trump, start calling for mass exterminations if we don’t.