Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
Like most people, I commute to work. I have two neighborhoods where I “live” on a weekly basis - where my house is and where I work. Where I live is the place where I have put my roots down and raised my family, but my other neighborhood is also a place where I have invested about a third of my time during the week. I have a connection there that is amplified by the fact that the job I have is one in which I am serving that community. I work in a residential shelter for women who are homeless or whose homes are not safe places for them to live in.
Located in the East Village area of our downtown, I am well aware of the multitude of homeless people - some who are “regulars”, people who I see every day and others who are just passing through, homeless today but perhaps not tomorrow. A “people watcher” by nature, I am often struck by how invisible these people are. Professionals in suits and ties, or in skirts and heels walking the streets on their way to something incredibly important, usually looking right through the people of the streets or consciously averting their eyes, some crossing the street to avoid someone they perceive as a threat. Many speeding their pace up to pass by, trying to get passed before a word can be exchanged or God forbid, eye contact.
Certainly many factors have contributed to the high concentration of homeless individuals in the East Village. There are more services and shelters, more upscale restaurants whose dumpsters provide sustenance, more tourists who may contribute a quarter or a dollar when approached, more businesses whose doors close and provide an eave or doorway to protect from the elements or lighting to protect from predators. The sexual assault rate there is often the highest in the county due to homeless women having no place to hide to protect themselves against attacks. Homeless victims don’t make good witnesses, may not report the crimes and in any case, are not a priority for law enforcement and the courts, so the pattern repeats itself over and over again each night.
Going into work each night for the graveyard shift, I see the people who are huddling in doorways and along fences, covered in blankets if they are lucky enough to have them and many times, in groups of three or four for protection. I wonder who they are and how they ended up alone and homeless, fighting for every scrap of food and inch of sidewalk, trying their best to survive. The most heart wrenching scenes are the “new homeless“ - families with children and seniors, having exhausted all of their assets and options.
The vast majority of homeless have taken a somewhat circuitous route to wind up on the street. Every individual has a story to tell and if you care enough to ask, they often will tell you. It may have been rooted in domestic violence or drug/alcohol abuse. The two often go hand and hand as victims try and find a coping mechanism in a violent environment. Sure there are a lot of treatment programs for addiction out there but trying to get a bed can be impossible when you need it - most have waiting lists that are several months long as the people who need help far outnumber the available beds. Without insurance, you will need to cover the cost out of pocket - something that many people are unable to do. If you are a domestic violence victim, you may be able to get into a D.V. Shelter but they are often 30 day or slightly longer programs - hardly time to even to begin to address the many immediate and collateral issues. Transitional housing programs are also full to capacity with waiting lists, so many women and children are faced with having to return to the abuser or go to the streets for survival, the offer of help being far less than what is needed to really impact their situations.
Another commonality for many homeless people is mental health. Whether undiagnosed or under-treated, these people may get a few days or a week in the county mental health system, but with no follow-up care and no one to monitor their meds, they are often back in the same situation 30 days later. If you can’t afford food, refilling prescriptions becomes an insurmountable hurdle.
Especially with the economic downturn going on now, services for the homeless population are dwindling. We try and say that we are a compassionate society but simple observation tells another story. Reading some news stories about the debate on where to put sober living and detox facilities I was struck by how many people interviewed said things like, “Those people got themselves in the situation. Why should we have to have them in my neighborhood?” or “They’re bad for my business. We need to lock them up or put them somewhere else.” or “Why is it my problem?” The answer is that in a compassionate society it is all of our problem. In an economy like the current one, it could be any of us in that predicament. When we lose sight of a person’s humanity because of their appearance or situation, we diminish ourselves as well. Recently hearing a speech by a well-known talking head who was speaking about homelessness and domestic violence, I was struck by how each of his sentences started with “I”, “me” and “my”. How can we offer support to a population who is invisible? We can’t see them past our own egos.
A good start may just be to smile and offer a greeting or kind word when you walk passed. It won’t solve the problem but by acknowledging the humanity and dignity of the homeless, we bring them out of the shadows. Somehow in the light, they are not so invisible, more like us than different from us, less “them” and more “us”.
On a recent visit, friends from Scotland were shocked as we rode through the East Village on the trolley. They had never seen anything like it. There is virtually no homeless population in Scotland.
“America is supposed to be one of he greatest countries on earth. How can your society permit this kind of suffering? Why doesn’t your government help these people?” my friend asked.
“They are invisible to the government and to a lot of people. . . Churches and individuals do what they can. . . ” I didn’t really have an answer.
The East Village is my other neighborhood. The people I encounter there both break my heart and give me great hope. The idea that having nothing, one is still able to get through each day is a constant reminder of the human spirit, it’s strength and fragility, it’s ability to transcend the worst possible situations and still remain intact.