In my line of work, I get to hear people’s personal stories. I’m honored by the trust, touched by their needs, and humbled by the fact they are willing to bare their lives to a stranger in an attempt to get help.
It aches to know that — so many times — I’m unable to help. But I listen and treat people with kindness and dignity. It’s the least I can do for someone who is hurting and asking, “Am I just invisible to the world?”
So yesterday, I heard a despairing homeless man’s story. His wife is 8 1/2 months pregnant. They only have lodging at a cheap motel through Sunday at 11 a.m., courtesy of someone who paid for a few nights’ lodging. He wants to apply for jobs but doesn’t have Internet access to do so online, doesn’t have a car to go in person to apply, and doesn’t have the $3.50 for a bus dayfare or even the $1.75 for a one-way bus pass. They are out of food. Some churches are willing to feed them … if they can come and get it. He and his wife walk everywhere they go, but they can’t walk across the entire city for each meal.
His wife has a skin condition that causes open sores and makes staying at shelters a nightmare of recurring hospital-grade infections for her. And to add insult to injury, he says that charitable groups and churches have looked at her broken skin and immediately assumed, “Meth head.”
There is very little dignity available to the poor.
The same charitable organizations have listened to his explanation of why he is on disability and given him skeptical, patronizing attitudes. (Ask anyone who has gotten on disability just how difficult it is to get governmental agencies to agree that you are truly disabled. It’s sobering. Yes, it is true that some people “game” the system. But it’s also true that we have social safety nets for a reason — to get people through rough times and humanely help them when their own resources are depleted. To help them get strong again, or to take care of them if that is truly beyond them.)
He has bipolar disorder, depression, sleep apnea and other disorders that might be manageable if they were on the low end of the spectrum … or if he didn’t have so many of them. Or if he could afford medication and treatment. (For people who are already frothing with mockery, let me just say that it’s easy to say, “Ah, get over it. I deal with problems too, and I make it just fine.” A lot easier than being a stand-up person who does what you can.)
The man said he will work anywhere, do anything within his skill set, if someone will give him a chance. Anything but plumbing or electrical work, which he doesn’t know how to do. In the meantime, they are surviving on his SSI check and counting the days until it arrives, and they are looking for charity. They are estranged from abusive and disinterested members of their families, too, so that avenue is also closed to them.
He’s perfectly aware that charitable agencies have limited resources to give him the housing, food and/or job that he needs. But he doesn’t know what else to do but ask for help, while he keeps walking to places to find food and ask for work and they wait for their baby to arrive.
He had a bitter laugh when I asked about him finding low-income housing. What he’s investigated to date turns up a housing market that’s unfriendly to the poor. There are apartments he could afford to rent … if they didn’t have guidelines that require tenants to make at least three times the rent payment just to be approved. it would take almost his entire SSI payment just to pay the rent, much less have twice that amount left over.
He’s discouraged enough that he said he understands why some people get low enough to break the law and take what they can to survive. He said he doesn’t do it, but he understands that level of desperation.
I listen to this with a hurting heart. And I am adult enough and have experience enough to be troubled by the fact that he keeps saying, “To be honest” (which people telling fully truthful stories don’t usually do) and “Unfortunately” (which, if repeated this often, begins to sound like someone who has encountered skepticism in the past and now has a ready answer prepared … almost TOO ready). And I tell him that United Way has a special number set up as a clearinghouse to connect people who are in desperate need to the resources available locally. He only has to find a phone and dial 2-1-1.
I think it’s a good first step, because I’m just a newspaper editor and I don’t have the resources that agencies have to screen people who want help and distinguish them from people who really NEED help. And I don’t even know all the resources that are out there, anyway. I feel hopeful until I hear his response.
He sighs and tells me a quiet, discouraged-sounding thanks.
And I think … grifter? Lazy? Or — more compassionately — just someone who has tried so hard for so long that he just wants to lie there and die rather than keep trying anymore? Depression and dire circumstances can flatline a person’s ability to move.
They are only 23 (him) and 21 (her). And a baby is on the way.
I don’t want to hear from anyone that they were irresponsible to have a pregnancy. When your life is measured by the fact that you can’t afford a one-way bus pass, buying rubbers is often out of reach, just as getting to a source of free contraception is also difficult. Yes, there are choices they could have made that would have prevented their current dilemma. But that’s not where they are now. Thinking that they have contributed to some of their problems doesn’t absolve me or anyone else from the sin of neglecting people who are in need right now.
They are between a rock and a hard place, and it’s time to extend a hand rather than indulge in any self-righteous tsk-tsking. There should be no pride in saying, “Not my problem.” (Equally, there should be no shame in recognizing that you can’t fix everything. But you should help when and where you can.)
So today I’m looking in my thin wallet and blowing the dust out of it before closing it again and wondering just what I can do, as a humane citizen of limited means, to lend this family a helping hand. To help them get to a minimal survival level again. To help them overcome the “Oh, just shoot me already” feeling of hopelessness that they must fell. To do SOMETHING so that they can find the bright side again.
It’s discouraging, isn’t it. Some days I just can’t close the folder on someone else’s sadness.