What is poverty in America? What is being poor? How long do you have to be unemployed before you aren’t even really going to be considered for a job? How many people are unemployed because they just don’t try hard enough to find a job?
We see poverty everywhere. There is the couple seeking shelter under the awning in front of the grocery store, at least until an employee is sent out to chase them away. They are sharing some food out of a grocery bag with their dog, staring at the people going in and out with blank stares. They are dirty, they lean against a ragged backpack that holds their worldly possessions. The dog is as thin as they are, and wears a ragged piece of rope as a combination collar and leash. A plastic bowl holds some water for the dog, poured out of a gallon jug that seems to have been refilled many times recently. As people approach the store, they look away, afraid to make eye contact. The couple may ask for money. They might smell bad.
On the corner, by the stop sign, there is a man with a small plastic American flag sitting under the tree. He’s been there every time you have passed by over the last couple of months. He too has a backpack, but looks a little cleaner. He’s not asking for anything, there are no pedestrians here. He sits on a small square of a blanket, his backpack by his side. He has a ragged paperback, and he’s reading it, not paying much attention to the cars that pass by. They don’t pay much attention to him either. You notice his beard and hair look a little greasier and longer than last week. Maybe you wonder if he sleeps right there too.
As you drive down the road, you see a bicyclist pedaling along too. You’ve seen him around before as well. He talks to himself, a lot. He also has a battered plastic milk crate strapped onto the back of his bike and it is packed with mysterious bundles and covered with a tarp on top. He’s also got a backpack. He’s none too clean either, and the bike saw its better days a long time ago. He heads one way in the morning, and in the afternoon, he’s pedaling a different direction. Someone told you he sleeps in a camp in the woods at the edge of town. Sometimes you wonder if there are others sleeping in those woods, and how much crime they are responsible for.
You never wonder what they do when it is pouring rain, scorching hot, or freezing cold. You never wonder if they get mail or if they have somewhere to go for a hot dinner on a holiday.
If someone proposes a “soup kitchen” or a shelter in your neighborhood, you storm city hall. You don’t want that riff raff in YOUR neighborhood. You don’t want it in the neighborhood you shop in either. You want these people to become invisible, because then, you don’t have to feel guilty about your own lack of charity towards them. Out of sight, out of mind.
After all, you work hard for what you have. You have a good job, a nice house, a new car, and your kids go to school and stay out of trouble. You aren’t like them.
If you suddenly lost that job, and couldn’t find another, how long would you really last?
How long would it be before you too were among the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed?
Most people, within 3-6 months, would have lost their homes, even if they did have unemployment. Their cars would have been repossessed too. At that point, finding a cheaper rental and a used car to replace the one you lost would be your priorities, but what if you couldn’t find either one?
What if you were sick, and unable to work? If your budget was eaten away by medications you needed to stay alive? How would you really survive?
Before you look away, before you refuse to donate to a charity that feeds, houses, and helps the homeless get medications and other necessities…put yourself in their shoes. Sure, there are some who are homeless by choice. Unfortunately, in today’s economy, a lot of the new homeless are the former middle class, people who once upon a time, lived a very typical middle class life. They don’t want to be homeless, living in their car or a hidden camp somewhere. They want to have a “normal” life, just like you. They tried, and whether through bad luck, poor planning, or bad choices….they failed.
Before you pass judgement, before you accuse them of anything, remember…
“But for the grace of God, go I”