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How are requests at the state level for financial aid from the federal government, to emergencies (like the governor’s declaration Monday, Oct. 29, regarding the destruction caused by Sandy), justified by those on the political right?
How can people argue for “less government” and cuts to health care access for people in poverty, while justifying their own version of the distribution of our collective resources? I bet most answers would center on thoughts like, “It’s a natural disaster,” and “Those victims couldn’t help what happened to them.” If that’s true, my last question is, who made who the ruler of the community chest and determiner of whose suffering is justified?
We are able as a nation to send resources overseas and (appropriately) to our own victims of major storms, but when it comes to the poor, the mentally ill and those who are homeless in our own country we seem more capable of delivering blame than relief. The longer we do not act to provide real help to them, the longer they suffer and unintentionally act as a drag on our economic development potential. Thank God for those individuals and families who act on their own values and share their personal wealth for the good of others.
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We all have a right to expect that we and our families can live our lives in relative safety. We have a related responsibility to work together as the community we are to help provide that safety to each other. Lately it seems like we’re witnessing threats to our sense of peace as we watch and read about an apparent increase in the number of media stories concerning local crime in general and drugs and violence in particular. Some of us have not only read these articles but have experienced direct threats to our personal safety.
As director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, I’ve known a number of the individuals connected with recent stories of crime on the streets and in local neighborhoods. Some of these people committed crimes, while others were victims. For many who live lives of poverty and with disabilities, including mental illness and chronic addictions, depression and desperation can lead to a lifestyle that includes criminal activity and self-destructive behaviors.
For some of us who have our lives more put together, when we read about people being arrested, and the identifier in the story is that the individual is a “transient,” many of us think thoughts like, “That idiot!” or, “Throw away the keys!” Our world is relatively simple when the bad guy isn’t someone we identify as a community member.
But it gets more complicated when the offender is someone we know (think of all the head-shaking about Bob Carlson) or a family member. How would we want the residents of Missoula, Mont., or Corpus Christi, Texas, to react to a native son or daughter from Bangor who had lost his or her way and was in the end stages of addiction and/or congestive heart failure?
“Transient” dehumanizes the person. The process helps us defend our judgment and to avoid having to think about what may have led the person to commit the crime(s). The use of dehumanizing semantics isn’t new and has sometimes been the result of conscious policy. Think about wars and the use of words like “Jap” and “Kraut” and, in my lifetime, “Gook.” We put soldiers in impossible situations and then give them labels that deny the individual identity of the enemy soldier to try to help them justify and minimize the consequences of carrying out orders. Imagine having another human being in your sights and then having thoughts about the things you have in common — and that the person is also a human being.
The label “transient” is becoming code for “from away,” “not one of us” and “not deserving of anything from us.” I do not think we gain anything when we think of people this way. We can denounce the behaviors without dismissing the person. We can hold people accountable, and we can ensure that consequences are delivered.
But if we only punish, despise and abandon people — many of whom live in poverty with untreated illnesses — there is a cost to us, in addition to the lousy quality of life experienced by those individuals. It costs money to provide law enforcement response, to conduct legal proceedings and to pay for expensive medical care provided by way of emergency rooms because we have denied health care coverage to many of these people.
We really need to find ways in which to maximize our connections to each other in this community, while we work to identify more efficient and less costly interventions. It may be tempting to try to dismiss some people by using language that demeans them and keeps us separate from them, but in the end we are diminished by doing so. The maintenance of a large segment of people living in poverty is a sea anchor on our attempts to strengthen the economy.
If we want Greater Bangor to be as healthy a community as possible, we need to find effective ways to support people in need and work with them to reconnect with the rest of us. Not every effort will work, but each success will support and improve this city we call home.
Dennis Marble is executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
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