|Getting Over Fear:
The Homeless as Society's Conscience
|I have to admit that I grew up with some sort of
illogical fear of those who are less fortunate. I can't
really explain how it happened, except to say that
society socialized me, against my will, to fear the poor,
mentally ill, homeless, and, yes, people of color.
Admitting this is a tough thing to do, especially for
someone with left-wing politics. But, it's true.
Mass media's movies, TV news, magazines, and pop culture makes one fear the degenerates of society. For someone who was raised in a middle-class family with very little contact with people unlike me, it's difficult to know any better. Sure, most of my friends through out grade school and high school were working class, and only one good friend of mine actually went to college and graduated. But, they still looked like me.
This all changed when I moved to Akron and got involved with the local Food Not Bombs collective. Week after week we would goto a downtown public park called Grace Park and share food that we made with whomever was around. The park tends to be populated by homeless men and the poor neighbors of the area. If I had to guess the annual income of residents in the neighborhood I would guess less than $10,000 per year.
The park itself is very basic and sort of unkempt. It's almost as if City government recognizes who uses the park and consequently ignores it. There's a small playground, a one small flowerbed, a couple of benches, a couple of picnic tables, and not much else. The park gets a bad rap; it's known as homeless park, or queer park (for the urban legend of how gay men will cruise the park looking for anonymous sex). There's lots and lots of trash there. Off to the sides of the park you can commonly see small camps of sleeping bags and assorted bags.
Police commonly cruise by the park, and sometimes even through it, looking for people with outstanding warrants or open-bottle violations. But, usually just for harassment. The people in the park even have a nickname for one particularly notorious duo: Batman and Robin. For awhile, the cops would even watch Food Not Bombs as it shared food, I suspect since there was an article in the paper about the group that associated it with radical politics. After realizing that the radical act of sharing food was not dangerous, the police stopped watching.
It's fascinating to walk through the park and see who is in it. It challenges me every time I do it. I'm an overly-educated White guy who is studying for an advanced college degree, but I'm always meeting people whose life experiences far exceed mine, and whose analysis of society is somehow far richer than what I can learn from books. There's something incredibly humbling about meeting someone who has lived an amazing life, has had so many ups and downs, and still remains optimistic about the future. In fact, no where have I ever met more politically-aware folk who so immediately realize who is getting screwed in our society, and who is doing the screwing.
I'm not claiming that homeless folk are perfect. They have some of the same biases that the rest of society often has: homophobia, patriarchal attitudes, racial stereotypes, religious fundamentalism, and so forth. There's been a few times where I and others have had to step forward to either break-up fights or intervene before they occur. Even still, they are often more tolerant than others, more willing to get along, and come from a very class conscious perspective. I guess living under railroad bridges and on park benches puts things in perspective and forces one to prioritize what really matters.
The local homeless shelter is called the Haven of Rest Ministries. It's a religious outfit that receives truckloads of money from the local liberal (and conservative) establishment in town. Due to its near monopoly on homeless-related programs (shelter, feeding, rehabilitation, etc.), it can get away with horribly bigoted things like requiring that men go to religious services before meals. That's right, ya gotta pray before ya eat. Of course, a fair number of Jews, Muslims, atheists, and even Christians often tell us they have a big problem with this. But, since there's no other alternative, many shut-up and degrade themselves in order to eat.
I sometimes hear about do-gooders are intent on ending homelessness. Crap like this usually flows like a river from the mouths of people who have never actually met a homeless person, let alone sat down and broke bread with them and listened to them. It's even a pet-project of Republican Wives Clubs.
Like all good science fiction, it is fantastically out of touch with reality. Why, you may ask? Well, if you want to do away with homelessness, you should first do away with capitalism. In an economic system that is unregulated except in terms of what a dollar can buy, human compassion and human rights are nice words, but they don't mean squat. The whole basis of capitalism is the notion of private property, which as the great anarchist Proudhon said, it a form of theft. Property is a theft from the common good, an effort to remove public resources from public access and use them for private consumption. Just how are the homeless supposed to get back on their feet and compete with billionaires?
It reminds of me of folks who speak so sweetly of charity, but have never heard the word solidarity before. Ya want to end domestic violence? Then do away with sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other things that keep the sexes split up. Ya want to end wars? Then do away with nationalism, patriotism, jingoism, centralized States, the military-industrial complex, and such. There are no easy solutions to these things, and charity is a hierarchical answer to problems that require a horizontal approach of sharing and compassion.
Lots of church groups do things fairly similar to Food Not Bombsthey take food out an serve it to homeless people. They stand on one side of a table and regulate how much food each person gets, sometimes preach to them, and make sure that the homeless feel properly thankful. Food Not Bombs approaches it from a completely different perspective: we feel that everyone must eat, even the obscenely wealthy, and it's a crime, a human rights violation, to deny people food and make them feel guilty for needing it. We allow people to serve themselves, do not preach (unless asked why we're doing this), eat with them, and attempt to listen to what people have to say.
We don't do it because religion tells us to do so or because our consciences feel guilty for society's poverty. We do it because we believe we have so much in common with the people who hang in Grace Park and that a little bit of mutual aid goes a long way to breaking down the barriers between people. I have so much to learn from those who have just lost their jobs, got downsized, work at crappy temp agencies, have been evicted, are hitchhiking to somewhere else in the hopes of a better future, or are struggling to get over a drug or alcohol addiction.
Many remark that we remind them of their youth (since we tend to be late teens to early 30s in age), and state that we're keeping radical politics alive and well. They reciprocate with extreme kindness. I've seen people who have nearly nothing to their name, offer their last loaf of bread to everyone else to share, just because they want to. I've seen more compassion and comradery from these degenerates than in any other park I've ever visited. People are always offering to carry something for us and asking how we're doing. In most parks, if you look unsafe, you get ignored. If you look like some of us do (long-hairs, punks, anarchists) you are deliberately avoided. Not in Grace Park.
I feel a part of community there, and that's the best antidote to the fear that society pumped into me as a child. So what if I've made friends with people who society might consider vagrants, drug addicts, dropouts, or worthless? They treat me good and have taught me a lot.
And that's damn cool.