This summer, while walking to get a manicure, I passed this sign in a window.
It struck me as an eight-word summary of our society’s prevailing attitude toward homelessness.
Banning homeless people from sitting or sleeping in front of windows is a succinct way of saying, ‘Hi, I know your life is hard, but could you please not force me to acknowledge it? Actually, I’d appreciate it if I could just ignore your existence altogether. Okay, bye!’
Sounds pretty heartless, doesn’t it?
It perfectly reflects what I do pretty much every single day.
I know there are homeless people, and I think that is Shameful and Abominable. I don’t think there is any reason for anyone to go hungry or lack shelter anywhere in the world, but especially in a country that calls itself The Land of Milk and Honey and has a sonnet on its most famous national monument
welcoming inviting the poor to have a better life. (‘ “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” ‘) I mean, come ooon!
Still, when I move through the world, I am, for the most part, a hypocrite. If I see a homeless person, I avert my eyes. If I hear people begging for change, I tune them out. This summer I walked past at least one homeless person every day and not once did I give anyone a cent. Not. One. Penny. This past Tuesday, I heard a man saying, ‘This is what our society does to people–puts ’em out on the street. Spare change helps’ to passersby. It broke my heart. Man oh man, did I sympathize with him. In my head I was all, ‘It’s an outrage! No one should have to live on the street!,’ but in real life? In real life, I stood quietly in line for my falafel wrap staring straight ahead and keeping my change.
I behave like this (shamefully and abominably!) not because I ‘don’t believe in handouts’ or because I think most people begging are ‘just posing as hobos to scam us working folks out of our hard-earned dollars.’ I don’t think it boils down to, ‘Stop complaining, and get a job!’ In fact, I can’t begin to imagine how a homeless person could even find a job.
Think about it. Most people won’t even look you in the eye, let alone talk to you. And you’re supposed to land an interview and get hired?! No matter how firm your handshake and how winning your smile, you’re probably not going to get a job without some serious help.
I understand that, yet it doesn’t lead to action on my part. Why? Because I don’t know what to do. It seems like a huge, overwhelming problem that requires large-scale systemic change, and I have no idea what I should do to help (if you’ve got ideas, send them my way). In short, I feel powerless.
That’s not the best state of mind/state of being, but it is infinitely better than being jaded. There’s a big difference between the two, even if both mindsets lead to the same inaction.
Feeling powerless means you don’t know what can be done to change something.
Feeling jaded means you don’t think anything can be done to change something.
To avoid feeling jaded, one must have hope. In fact, it just dawned on me that jadedness and cynicism are tantamount to hopelessness.
Sometimes having hope isn’t hard. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s really, really, really, crawl-under-the-covers-and-cry hard.
When that jadedness starts creeping in, I remind myself that our world is filled with senseless problems.
In our world, there are lots of starving people, but there is also plenty of food!
There are lots of homeless people, but even more unoccupied buildings (not to mention guest rooms)!
There is tons of pollution and there are lots of environmentally-friendly solutions to the problem of pollution!
There are many marginalized groups, but there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be oppressed (I mean, one can argue that capitalism requires exploitation, but let’s save that for another blog post, shall we?).
I tell myself these truths, endeavor to figure out solutions to the problems I’ve identified but don’t know how to fix, and work for change in the ways I know how.
That last part is crucial to retaining hope. I am writing this from the edge of Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square by the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement) where I have seen so many signs that, unlike that sign at the top, fill me with pride to be a citizen of this country and reflect what I believe to be just.
If you are in New York City, I encourage you to come to Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square and express your hope for our society–protesting is an incredibly effective cure for feeling powerless, I tell you what! There are similar protest sites all over the country, so maybe you can find one close to home. If you can’t make it to any such gathering, but you still want to help out, call a pizzeria near Wall Street and ask for a pizza to be delivered to Zuccotti Park. You can pay for it with a card by phone, and you’ll be helping feed lots of hungry protesters, some of whom are homeless people here primarily because it’s a place where they can sleep and eat safely. You can probably do the same for other cities. I’m sure that there are other ways to help, but I heard about the send-a-pizza tactic this morning at church and think it’s very clever!
With hope (for the 99%!),