A report from the back alley

We live in a house in a city, at the confluence of several neighborhoods, each with its own character, history and demographics. We’ve been urban dwellers for decades and love being in the middle of so much human activity–pleasant, unpleasant, lively, loud, exciting, dangerous, cultural and multicultural, pretty, ugly, rough, civil, surprising, real. The social challenges that impact our country tend to manifest, in some way, within our sphere of daily existence: we are neither remote or insulated from America’s most intractable issues nor from suffering (which, of course, is experienced, at times, by all of us, whether indoors, behind curtains and brick walls; openly, on sidewalks; under roofs, in heated rooms, in underpasses, and beside dumpsters).

Our part of town is diverse in race, class, architecture, politics. Apartment buildings and 7-11 stores (there are two within eight blocks of one another) sit next to small, historic duplexes and single-family-homes. There is a sprawling hospital complex. There are coffee shops, a Safeway, nonprofit services for the elderly and the destitute, medical and law offices occupying cramped Victorians and stately, Federal-style former residences. Between our North-South streets run alleys. Through these alleys flows a continuous pageant of downtrodden and disenfranchised: people who scream at one another, or who dig trash from containers and throw onto the ground; people who quietly set up a box where they stay for weeks; people who spray paint the fences, urinate behind dumpsters, defecate beside houses; people who help keep the alleys cleaned up; people who collect piles of large trash items from god-knows-where and create nests of pure litter. There are people who show up with bicycle parts and chain those parts to every fence and pole; they hang out in groups, accumulating more bikes to disassemble; they smoke, drink, engage in surreptitious exchanges of money for packets of something, and they smile and wave when you pass. There are people who curse you when they see you, and people who slink away from your back door when you arrive home, pretending they were not doing something that you interrupted. There are people who help you close your garage door when it’s stuck open and you have to get to work.

It seems that much of the public conversation about homelessness and camping bans devolves into nothing more than one-upping, labeling and insults.

On our local NextDoor website, bitterness and spite occasionally erupt in the midst of what is usually an exchange of resources, generosity, thoughful reflection and kindness. To me, the rancor among community members is indicative of the levels of frustration all empathetic people feel over a global–not just local–situation that has ancient roots (poverty and injustice have been intertwined with stigma, illness and disability and other forms of incapacitation, as well as with parasitism, forever). The conflating of different circumstances and conditions doesn’t help. Among those who may be temporarily down-on-their-luck (or who never had any advantages or access to a leg-up) are also those not intellectually equipped to thrive in today’s evolving social and civic world; those who are schizophrenic and cannot function without medication and other support; veterans and others who have been traumatized and cannot rebound…women who have been abused and otherwise victimized and who do not have systemic or family support…runaways (and kids whose parents have kicked them out)…people who are self-medicating. I know there are a few who elect to live on the streets (to completely deny their existence seems dismissive and disrespectful, as would arguing that no one, anywhere, ever would ever choose street life when for some, that is the only bearable life). And, let’s be honest here: some individuals do not want to contribute anything to society, but are happy to take advantage of the compassion of others.

These complexities have always made it nearly impossible for governments to address social problems like poverty with absolute fairness or to the satisfaction of everyone, even though many, many good people continually do their best to help.

The difficulty of talking productively about homelessness is wrapped up in our refusal or inability to talk in nuanced ways, our proclivity to categorize, and our tendencies to cast issues and solutions in black-and-white: The homeless ban is cruel! The ban criminalizes homelessness! Homeless people are a nuisance! Homelessness is never a choice! Homeless people got themselves into their situation! People who want restrictions on where homeless people can camp are (spit when you say it) privileged, entitled and selfish. Etc.

To grandly (or cantankerously) blame the City government and the wealthy for everything, or to proclaim “We must do this!” or “We must do that!” is to do nothing but talk. First of all, no institution or class is monolithic. Secondly, who is the “we” in those righteously indignant sentences? Not everyone sees things from the same perspective; not everyone has had the same experiences, and not everyone considers themselves a part of a “we” (take Christians: many would disagree vehemently about whether to address social concerns systemically– focus on the larger picture to make things better in the long run even if it hurts some individuals now? Or try to help everyone in small ways today, but lose the long-term goal, the overall common good?) It’s easy to dictate, from one’s chair, in front of one’s computer, what “we must do!” –but big statements of solutions (when anyone on the ground knows how inextricably complex every solution is) –and belittling those to whom one feels superior– changes nothing.

What most people– that is, working people with bills to pay; with family and property to care for; with a sense of social responsibility overwhelmed by other, personal and professional responsibilities– have actual power to do is to treat others well, online and face-to-face; give what they can to the most effective agencies and organizations; vote responsibly; attend community meetings when possible, and offer to volunteer.

Yelling at each other with put-downs and “I’m better than you” and “You’re evil because we disagree on process!” seems counterproductive in every way unless the goal is just meanness. Casting as horrible the exasperated, middle class urbanites, homeowners or renters who want to keep their neighborhood safe, clean, appealing, walkable and liveable, is just as wrong as casting as lazy and dirty all people who are without shelter.

I suggest to anyone who quite genuinely wants to make things better (as opposed to wishing to blow off steam and make themselves feel superior): stop pointing fingers and adding flames to fires already burning too hot. Acknowledge how complicated the world is, appreciate everyone on the front lines, appreciate the good citizens who pay taxes, vote, own homes and want healthy communities, appreciate our local police, appreciate our in-distress, homeless neighbors who actually try to keep their encampments contained and clean in spite of their extreme hardships… and find out what small things you might do to make things a little better… or, if you can’t do a thing and cannot appreciate, either, well, just don’t add to the misery.

1 Comment

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  1. Really appreciate this post. As with so many issues in our hyper polarized time, I fear that taking a moderate approach will classify me as “one of those people” (ie out of touch, elitist, privileged, wealthy, can’t be bothered to see the problems of the masses, etc.). Because I fear those labels, I find myself falling in line rather than speaking to my ambivalence and owning my conflicting feelings.


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