How might hurricanes, waiting 5th in line at a traffic light, municipal policies regarding abandoned and abused animals, and an ethics discussion have in common? I think that, if you work with folks experiencing homelessness, they can illustrate how our own beliefs and assumptions inform how we look at others, including those people experiencing homelessness.
I learned to drive in Boston and the surrounding suburbs. When I was 16 my dad helped me buy a 1964 Rambler, Bell Telephone green. It had 3 on the tree, a flathead 6 for an engine and, with luck and a little skill, I could make it “chirp” in reverse. I drove that nice little 4-door hard, my innate competitiveness augmented by the general school of other drivers around me. Speed limit signs were taken as tokens and inaccurate, as the real limit would always be 10-20 mph faster. The coin baskets at toll booths (remember them?) were used for games of who could drive through the fastest and still get the quarter down the chute. Destinations reached by way of downtown streets meant that Boston’s Comm Ave and Beacon became Daytona and Monaco.
Imagine my surprise when, in 1988, I moved to the Olympic Peninsula on the northwest coast of Washington State. In Sequim, when waiting 5th in line for a light that had turned green 10 seconds earlier, the natural reaction was not to spin your rear wheels as you tapped the bumper of the car in front of you—no—people actually got out from behind their steering wheels to walk to the front of the line and make sure the driver in the lead car was okay and not having a medical crisis!! Unbelievable!
So what about hurricanes? More specifically, what about our collective reaction to news coverage? I was working at this Shelter back when Katrina devastated New Orleans and portions of the Louisiana and Alabama coastlines. The news coverage was relentless. I can remember that, for a real period of time, there wasn’t a broadcast that didn’t include some facet of the disaster. My memory says there was a trend to the stories—I remember watching footage of the features of the actual storm and the initial, physical damage. Then there were the stories about the Superdome. Then there were images of people on the roofs of buildings. Then there were less sympathetic, related stories of relocating people, commentary about who had stayed and who had left before the storm. And then there were point/counterpoint stories about blame (everything from the President to FEMA to local officials and even to some of the people most hurt). Many people went from innocent victims deserving of compassion to irresponsible, manipulative systems users.
One of my major responsibilities is to ensure that the Shelter has sufficient resources to safely operate. Sometimes, when speaking to groups and seeking their financial support, someone in the audience will be candid enough to question the intended recipients of their support. Some comments can get harsh and fully judgmental (“Why don’t they get a job?” “They came here from ________ to take advantage of our rich welfare system.”) And while we have enjoyed a truly tremendous amount of local compassion and financial resources I sometimes think, “I wonder if that person who just made one of those comments thought the same things about the hurricane victims s/he saw on t.v.” And then there are animals—it’s a sad and current truth that at least some of the towns in the County are paying for animals to be sheltered but not so for human beings.
I believe that most of us judge. I know that I do. We need to slow down, reflect, and do a little research before we vote for so-called leaders who are playing to the worst in us. We need to ask ourselves hard questions. See someone standing outside a shelter, smoking a cigarette? Watching someone in line at the grocery store using an EBT card to purchase food items you think are unhealthy or frivolous? Are we equally observant about people in need who are apparently trying as hard as they can? In the screamed words of the deceased Sam Kinison, it may be that “There’s a reason!! There’s a f_____ing reason!!!”