Every night the homeless man who lives on the street around the corner from our condo recites a monochromatic chorus of “no liquor, no cigarettes…spare change?”. He is always in what seems to be an uncomfortable crouching position, rocking back and forth to the cadence of his calls. In front of him is a lone plastic cup, filled with an eclectic mix of pennies, dimes, and quarters; solely relying on the altruism of others to mitigate his hunger.
As many of you who have lived in big cities can attest, it is difficult sometimes to differentiate between those truly in need on the streets and those who are panhandling simply to take advantage of people’s generosity. However, as Jeff and I walked by him, on his resident piece of sidewalk outside our small neighborhood market, he recited his usual line: “no liquor, no cigarettes, spare change?”. But, when Jeff responded he didn’t have any change, the man asked if we would please go in and buy him milk. After thinking about his comment, Jeff and I turned back around to comply with his request (we figured if he was asking for milk he probably was honestly in need) but he was gone. Since living here for the past few weeks we have found out that he is mentally handicapped and that the owner of the local market often gives him food to stave off his hunger in exchange for a few coins, even though they never total up to the cost of what he is buying.
I feel that it is pertinent to begin this blog with a discussion about how America’s citizenry cares for its homeless population, given Jeff and my’s housing situation for the past few weeks. As many of you have heard by now, our bathroom remodel was supposed to be finished by the time we arrived in Cambridge, unfortunately, it went two weeks longer than expected leaving us for the first week living a transient lifestyle shifting between our home (that lacked a bathroom) and a friends condo across town. Having to rely on someone else for a place to sleep was a frustrating and stressful experience and I can not even begin to imagine what it would feel like to live continually on the streets.
Yesterday I went out and observed the nuances of people’s body language and speech patterns as they walked by a homeless gentleman holding out a cup for change. The vast majority would walk briskly on the far side of the sidewalk and refuse to make eye contact with the man. Very rarely did anyone even respond to his words, let alone place change in his cup. I believe the actions of the people passing by took away the man’s basic human dignity and demonstrated a predisposition to refuse even the acknowledgement of the man’s situation. Imagine if you were begging on the street for your existence and people crossed over to the far side of the sidewalk and wouldn’t even look you in the eye. How degrading.
It continues to amaze me that in one of the wealthiest nations of the world we are willing to just look the other way when it comes to the nearly 2 million Americans that are living homeless annually. Even in my small hometown of Pekin, IL there were 86 students in the school district considered homeless last year. In HLS professor Duncan Kennedy’s essay Radical Intellectuals in American Culture and Politics, he talks briefly about what he calls the American fantasy, which is the strong belief in a capitalistic system which allows for equal opportunities and the ability for every individual to achieve great wealth through hard work. You may recognize this as America’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality”. The problem I believe is that sometimes we as Americans are so enamored with this idea that we fail to recognize its limits. How many times have you heard someone make a comment about how a person on the street or public assistance should “just get a job?”. But, it is difficult to obtain employment if you are mentally or physically handicapped or if you never received a decent education because of a failing school or a difficult family life as a child. America is the land of opportunity, but those opportunities are not always as equal as we may assume.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this topic…such as how America’s capitalistic mentality affects the way we treat our destitute, how we can solve the homeless crisis, your personal stories with similar experiences (Meg, I remember you had some thoughts on this when you came back from SALT), other biases or issues that you think come into play when people are dealing with the less fortunate, or any other thoughts you may have. Please, discuss!