Monday, May 19, 2014

Reality Check

I witnessed a familiar scene the other day, walking through one of those nice little park strips you find between buildings in downtown San Jose: a man in dress pants, a crisp white shirt and a tie standing over a man lying in the grass, gesturing for him to move along. You don't really need me to describe the other man, but I will anyway--he was an older African American man, dressed in worn and dirty clothes, using a backpack as a pillow. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't on drugs, and he certainly wasn't doing anything offensive--he was just taking a nap on the lawn.

As I walked by, I suddenly turned around, incensed. "What are you doing?" I asked the man in the tie. "Seriously, have you taken the time to think about what you're doing right this second, and what it means?"

The man smiled unpleasantly. "Yes, I have thought about it," he said. "This is private property."

"So?" I asked. "Do you realize the implications of what you're doing? You are removing someone who is not harming you in any way...why? So you don't have to look at him. So you don't have to be reminded that there are people in our society who are suffering needlessly? So you don't have to be reminded that the lifestyle you enjoy is not accessible to everyone?"

"It's private property," he said again, his smile growing more smug.

I'll admit I was pretty volatile by now, tapping a finger to my forehead angrily and saying, "Yeah, but have you really THOUGHT about it? I mean, think about it. What does private property even mean? Who gave anyone the right to sell it in the first place? We were all born onto this planet in the same way. Who said it gets to be yours? GOD?"

I'm sure this sounded like a pointless observation to this dude, who was not engaging with anything I was saying, let alone critically questioning the very idea of private property--and I was making it easy enough for him to write me off as some random crazy lady (stupid temper). It certainly wasn't the reality check I wanted it to be.

So now I want to take the opportunity, from a calmer place, to stop and think about the way we treat our homeless. We don't even see them as people anymore, which I would argue is partly to keep ourselves sane as we walk by our fellow man suffering right in front of us and do nothing about it day after day after day. It's hard to know what to do. It's too systemic of a problem for us to just invite home every person we see on the streets. There are too many ins and outs, and anyway, many of us are struggling just to feed our own families.

So instead of helping them we kick them off lawns as though they're human pieces of garbage to be removed, rather than our brothers and sisters resting in our common spaces because...*ahem* private property man...they don't have living rooms. So not only are we telling them "I don't care about your dire situation," we are going on to deny them even the most basic relief because we don't like looking at them.

It's amazing how we normalize quite terrible behaviors. How many businesses have signs that say "restrooms for customer use only"? People without homes are also people without bathrooms. But we are afraid they won't respect our spaces, so we won't let them use ours. As someone who has worked in several restaurants, I can tell you that the ability to pay does not predict good restroom behavior. But hey, let's go on denying a whole caste of society respite, just on the off chance. It's not our problem.

The funny thing is, the people who actually decide to step up and help tend to seem threatening to those around them. We have this weird tendency to morality police others--to get angry at people for being *too* nice because they make us look bad by comparison. Here are several examples:

Store Clerk Yells at Man for Giving a Homeless Man Donuts and Change
Florida Town Punishes a Couple for Feeding the Homeless
Temecula Advises Residents Not to Help Homeless

I think we're the worst to one another when we feel helpless and guilty, and homeless people are a natural target for these negative emotions. We're guilty that they're there in the first place, but we feel helpless to solve the problem instead we make the problem even worse by treating them like refuse and denying them basic human kindnesses.

We need to shed the "not my problem" model and think about triage. Which is worse--the possibility of having a restroom defiled, or denying someone a basic amenity that they have no access to otherwise? Having to be visually reminded that poverty exists, or making our most vulnerable population feel as unwelcome as possible in every arena? Facing up to the fact that we could plausibly do more, and don't, or utterly dehumanizing our brothers and sisters in need?

1 comment:

  1. I'm confident that the man in the white shirt and tie has not forgotten his encounter with you. Of course he attempted to save face in the moment. But unless he really is a completely desensitized drone, the scene pops up uninvited and replays in his mind with some regularity. What he does with the memory is entirely up to him, but I have little doubt that you left a mark.

    Right speech and right action can be surprisingly loud and forceful. You may think you were not skillful in that confrontation. I'm not so sure. The post is some hard truth, skillfully told.