In keeping with the European belief that a year or two spent traveling the world is more enriching than a freshman psychology course and steady stream of weekend keggers at Kappa Kappa Dumbass, I took a year off between high school and clown college. My parents objected, of course.
“Glen,” they said, “life is like a pie and you have to grab your slice as quickly as you can. And if anyone else makes a grab for your slice of banana cream, you slap them down like the hand of god.”
The stuff about grabbing for my fair share obviously didn’t stick; I work for a newspaper, which means I derive most of my income from selling blood. But the hand-of-god stuff struck a chord with me, and I set out on a pilgrimage that Chaucer himself couldn’t have imagined. I played bingo in Mecca, did the twist in Jerusalem, bought a press-a-penny at the Vatican, ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches in Graceland, and did shots of yak butter tea with monks in Tibet. I saw beggars who chopped off limbs for a few dollars and monarchs who sneezed into trillion dollar bills.
And I thought to myself, “What a wild, wonderful, beautiful world we live in. I’m glad to have seen it, but relieved to return to my own home, where we might engage in the occasional spat amongst ourselves, but generally we watch out for one another. Maybe we’re all reaching for the same slice of pie, but we understand the taste is sweeter still if our brothers and sisters get a helping, too.”
But as my plane landed in New York, I noticed that the Statue of Liberty had gotten some work done while I was away. Some purported Christians who joined the new sect of NIMBYism had etched away those iconic words about welcoming the poor and instead carved an 11th commandment into her forehead: “Love thy neighbor less than thy property values.” Aside from my justifiable qualms about mixing god and government, I was a little confused by the ugly turn taken by a religion supposedly founded around a man who healed and cared for the poor.
Clearly, my days of butter tea and bingo were behind me. It’s true that since I returned home I haven’t seen anyone amputate a limb for what amounts to my half my daily income. But I have seen a woman with bone cancer living in her car while going to chemotherapy. Worse still, I’ve heard a man publicly denounce her right to park her car more than 300 feet from his house in a church parking lot.
In the last year or so, I’ve spent so much time talking about homelessness that I haven’t had the luxury of dedicating any space to a sketch of the boil on my ass or a list of my Top 320 Pet Peeves. I’m sick of talking about it, but I’ll wager my fatigue doesn’t come close to matching that of the thousands of people bedding down in their car or near the creek each night. I’m sick of writing about it, you’re sick of reading about it, and they’re probably sick of playing hide and seek with the cops. Let’s do something, already! Something like providing dedicated overnight parking spots, which is by no means a solution to the problem. But it’s a start.
Of course, the example set by a group of Arroyo Grande residents concerned about their property values probably won’t do much to inspire would-be good Samaritans. St. Barnabas Episcopal Church took the initiative and volunteered its own parking lot as an overnight safe haven for three homeless families, and the church’s neighbors—the closest of whom is a whopping 300 feet from the parking lot, an entire city block for the spatially impaired among you—responded. Area residents used the March 27 City Council meeting as an opportunity to trash the entire homeless population, bewailing the fact that three homeless families selected by a professional case worker would doubtless be accompanied by goodie bags of alcohol and illegal drugs.
One particular gem, who identified himself as Bob—I hope he gave a pseudonym, which is what I would have done if I was publicly kicking the crap out of the down and out—somewhat-coherently ranted about “this person that’s got bone cancer, taking drugs, doing all these things.” It had never occurred to me to verbally scourge a cancer patient for taking their prescription medication, but Bob seems to think it’s now open season on cancer patients. I still don’t know what the “these things” he alluded to were, unless he meant chemotherapy. Because really, how dare she seek treatment for her cancer?
And while we’re on the subject of judgment, it always baffles me that people feel so comfortable establishing guidelines for how the less fortunate should live.
“Homeless? Well, you’ve got no business drinking or doing drugs,” insists the smug homeowner who tosses back a six-pack of Budweiser each day and smokes pot recreationally. Well, that’s different, you might say, especially if you happen to be a smug homeowner. I’ve got my shit together. No one has any business judging me. But maybe you’re a paycheck away from homelessness yourself. Or maybe you’re carrying around a load of debt that would make the United States government shiver with fear. Or maybe you’re behind on child support payments.
The point is, none of us has it figured out. Not even the Tibetan monks with their prayer flags and butter tea. But we’re happy to lecture those slightly below us on the social totem pole. Happy to conjecture that they’re down and out because they’re filthy drug users and alcoholics. Happy to pay lip service to how very much we’d really like to help the homeless, so long as we don’t have to look at them, so long as they stay a polite distance from our homes and lives and property values.
You may be correct in your thinking that the homeless person you passed on the street today needs to get a job. But I’d say your need is more dire still. Get a heart.
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