“Those people” is a phrase to which I have become deeply sensitized. “Those people” implies an other-ness I can’t seem to wrap my brain around. Maybe it’s because it’s always seemed so easy for me to relate to others on some level – even those with whom I deeply disagree. If I can’t agree on an ideological level, at least I try to relate to them on a human level. At our core, we are all human beings and as such it is my belief that we are all born with certain rights, no matter where we’re born. We all deserve to be treated with dignity. Period. If you can’t treat someone with dignity, I find myself unable to keep silent and right now, I’m troubled to live in an America filled with fellow travelers insistent on talking about “Those People”.
“Those People” are everywhere. Those people are women. Those people are feminists. Those people are black. Those people are immigrants. Those people are jobless. Those people are LGBT. Mostly though, those people are poor and in pain and most of us are dangerously close to becoming one of “Those People”. I’m one of “Those People”. I’ve been in several of those categories at one time or another and still am in a couple.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a homeless man I met and helped. His humanity helped me more. To me, he was just another soul trying to survive on the same rock hurling through space. To most of the people around me, he was one of “Those People”. Not one week later, I was in virtually the same spot, looking for the homeless man I’d met the week before to offer him a blanket and one of my late friends’ old coats that had been hanging in my closet for three years. I didn’t find that homeless man, but I did meet another homeless man, clearly dealing with mental issues, but in the open air and bustling mid-day Kansas City Country Club Plaza, I felt safe enough approaching him. He held a cup in his hand that was clearly used for accepting the charity of passers by. He was old and very frail but when I approached him, his eyes danced and he rewarded me with a winning smile. I dropped a folded dollar bill into his cup, patted his shoulder and said, “I love you.” I was a little surprised at how deftly he reached out, took my hand, looked thoughtfully at the hand that had dropped the dollar, and then looked so deeply into my eyes. He smiled with a warmth I rarely get from even the best of friends. It was one of those moments that make you happy to be alive. I was literally thinking to myself what a good day I was having when I felt a firm tap on my shoulder…
I turned to see a young Plaza Security guard staring at me with a very unhappy look. He handed me a card and folded his arms across his chest in that rent-a-cop authoritarian way revealing just how little power he knew he had. Here was the card:
There was a brief moment of me trying to accept what the card was saying, but it wouldn’t compute. Here’s what my mind read: “
If you are receiving this card, it means YOU are the problem. Homeless people are like feral cats – feed ‘em and they keep coming back. We frankly don’t care that the “help” listed on the back side of this card is grossly inadequate for meeting the needs of the City’s homeless, that’s not our concern. We don’t want “Those People” in our neighborhood. If you’ll stop feeding them, maybe they’ll go away. If you’re deeply moved by their plight, donate directly to the Christian organizations on the back who can’t offer them food or a bed, but they’ll pray for them. It’s not that we don’t care. This is a “Not In Our Neighborhood” kinda thang.
I looked up at the teenager with a badge, arms still folded across his chest. In a low quiet tone I hissed, “How dare you.” I moved a step closer, invading his space. His arms dropped to his sides and the smug look faded. “How dare you tell me I have no right to show some kindness toward another human being. Sonny, you’re messing with the wrong woman. Don’t you have something better to do than stalk homeless people?” I wanted to tear it up and throw it at his feet, but didn’t wish to be detained for littering their precious Country Club Plaza. I stormed off, angry and red-faced. That once perfect moment of thinking I was having a great day had just been peed upon by a pimply faced punk with a badge.
I’d feel differently about it if we had adequate services but I actually called every one of the five centers listed on the back of that card. Here’s what I found:
Sheffield Place 8.9 miles away – Saturday afternoon at 4 pm – called repeatedly for over an hour to see how difficult it is to access their services. No one ever answered the phone.
Kansas City Rescue Mission 5.1 miles away – accommodate 62 for an overnight stay. They can feed 103 at night for meals and overnight stay. They have another program that feeds an additional 40 people for a grand total of 143 meals a night. In order to secure a bed at the shelter, you must check in between 3:30pm and 5pm or you don’t get a bed. The nice man said they’re not so full the first week of the month because people tend to splurge on cheap motels for a bath and some privacy. There are nights closer to the end of the month when they turn away countless people. In severe weather, they have a chapel where 15 additional people can sleep on the floor. This place seemed to be the largest and most accommodating of all. They were certainly the nicest on the phone.
Holy Family House 3.5 miles away – They only take women or families with children and get this…they can only take one family at a time.
Forest Avenue Church 2.4 miles away – Answering machine. Good luck with that.
Light House, Inc. 2.5 miles away – This is listed as one of the services for the homeless but guess what – it’s not a homeless shelter at all; it’s a maternity home for pregnant women between the ages of 12 and 21.
City Union Mission – Call this number, and the first thing they ask for is money. You have to dial “0” to speak with a person. When you dial “0”, the phone rings until you come back to the recording asking for donations and telling you to Dial “0” to speak with someone. This goes on until you donate or give up. I resorted to their local website that will only say they service “dozens of men”. They don’t talk much about their services, but go on an on about the “Biblical counseling” they can receive. Let’s say I believe their website and they “service” 450 people a day. They sure don’t offer that many beds – but a “service” includes “Biblical counseling”. Doesn’t sound very belly-filling or warm to me, just sayin’.
So, of the five resources offered by the wealthiest folks Jackson County has to offer, in a city that estimates more than 3,000 homeless people, Only four are actual shelters and I will generously estimate they can accommodate a couple hundred bodies a night. The rest of “Those People” need to go to poor neighborhoods. No one really cares if one of “Those People” becomes a crime statistic. There’s a reason they’re attracted to safer, more affluent neighborhoods.
The deeper issue for me, aside from the lack of adequate resources to meet the obvious need, is the attitude of the majority of Americans toward the poor, the jobless and the homeless these days – and that’s in the fundamental phenomenon of “Poor Shaming”. For business reasons only, I attended a swanky event downtown this week where poverty was strangely the topic at said soirée. A woman in a thousand dollar gown was waxing to a champagne swilling group of friends about how poverty is merely the result of poor life choices by “Those People”. My inner voice was telling me to let it go. My moral compass commandeered my mouth when I piped up and asked, “If poverty is a consequence of poor lifestyle choices, what lifestyle choice secures a life of plenty for those who inherited their vast wealth?” A dozen gozillionaires turned to stare like I had nine heads and was speaking in an ancient lost language. When you need someone to drop a turd in the punchbowl at a fancy shindig for the rich and famous, you can count on me. I never got an answer but hear from a reliable source that I will not be on the guest list at the next gathering of the Snotheads. I’ll survive the snub.
I’m guilty of stereotyping if I tell you I expected that kind of talk from the “haves”, but the problem is far more pervasive. In any conversation anywhere on the issue of poverty, I swear, there’s always at least one guy who pipes up to lecture me about how it is not the role of government to provide a social safety net to the have-nots. They will tell you that if every one of those programs was eliminated tomorrow and Americans were allowed to actually keep that money and not pay it to the Gub’mint in tyrannical taxes, they’d give it all to the poor and the churches who should be filling this role. I see plenty of mega churches with rock star preachers, fancy choir gowns and shining temples for Jesus that aren’t fulfilling the teachings of the Gospel. As human beings, we aren’t fulfilling the teachings of the Gospel. We live in an age where there’s so much talk of the “Makers” and the “Takers” bundled in an Ayn Rand load of horse shit that makes me nuts. If those guys got to keep all their tax money that now goes to the “moochers”, they wouldn’t give another thin dime. Those tax exempt churches, raking in the dough sure don’t have any interest in matters of social justice. I don’t understand how, in this era of gross wealth disparity, people who are one paycheck away from becoming one of “Those People” believe that poor people are the problem. It just doesn’t compute.
Poverty is a complex issue. Most people believe it’s about money. It’s not. There are social, cultural and economic conditions that create poverty – yes, create poverty. As our social safety net is slashed, more and more Americans fall into deep, crippling poverty. Once you fall over the precipice of poverty and homelessness, it is much harder to claw your way out. We know that the cure for poverty is education and work. If we had good schools and jobs that provided a living wage, far fewer Americans would fall into that category. In a round of budget cuts, Kansas City closed half of their schools, with underprivileged kids taking the hardest hit. The dropout rate in those neighborhoods has skyrocketed along with the crime rate. No schools, no jobs and no opportunities but taking minimum wage McJobs that keep full-time workers in poverty and society wishes to blame their lot in life on their bad choices? Too many of those “choices” were thrust upon these people. That’s not choice – it’s circumstance – and there’s a huge difference. There’s a Conservative movement in this country that’s antithetical to solving the problem of poverty through education and work and it’s frankly, mean-spirited.
In several states, in order to receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits, you must take and pass a drug test. Statistically, those receiving those benefits are less likely to test positive for substance abuse than those not receiving benefits – something like 3%. The cost of the drug testing in every state is far greater than the money saved by denying benefits to drug abusers. So why do it? It is the hope that applicants will find the process so humiliating and so shameful, they’ll go hungry before they ask for help.
1 in 4 American children receive SNAP benefits. Digest that number. 25 percent of all of the children in our country rely on the social safety net to receive food. Not good food. Not enough food. Not healthy food choices, but food. On November 1st, 48 million Americans were hit with a cut in their SNAP benefits when a $5 billion dollar temporary boost from the Stimulus in 2009 was allowed to simply expire. That reduces benefits for the average recipient by about 5% – but that’s not all. After the wrangling over the farm bill, House Republicans want to cut SNAP benefits by $39 billion dollars over the next decade by tightening restrictions on who can receive the benefits. But even that’s not enough for them. In 2013, 44 states received waivers on the Farm Bill, permitting them to offer benefits to “able-bodied” adults where the unemployment rate remained high. States are moving to let those waivers expire on their own – and those that don’t can expect the waivers to be revoked by Congress in the coming year. Before someone feels the need to pipe up about the pervasive “fraud” within the program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report on “trafficking” in the food stamp program. In a two year period, about $858 million worth of food stamps, or just 1.3 percent of all benefits were traded at discount for cash. 1 in 4 American children have less to eat than they did last week and you can expect the cuts to keep on coming. No one can explain to me how 25% of all the kids in this country deserve to go hungry, yet there’s always someone at the ready to claim that a child missing a meal is somehow “character building”.
There always seems to be plenty of money to invade another country, give a tax break to a rich person, or provide a “tax incentive” for an industry raking in billions in profits because they’re the “job creators” and we must reward the “job creators” and punish the “moochers”. The Right continues to propagate the myth of the Reagan Welfare Queen. And it is a myth. The Far Right Wing of the Republican Party translation: Tea Baggers have hijacked not only the GOP, but the entire country in their No Taxes. No Gub’mint. No Laws fantasy where everyone lives free and happy with their stash of guns and suddenly life is fair. They hate Socialism except for the parts that personally benefit them and they demand that those services remain in place. Their disability check is deserved, but not the next person’s. Their Medicare is justified, but not yours. Their Social Security is deserved but mine is all part of a Ponzi Scheme.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when the War on Poverty became the War on the Poor, and even that is a misnomer. A war, by definition means both sides are in the fight. An American in poverty is the most disenfranchised, voiceless, powerless human being in this country and they possess nothing with which to fight back. What’s happening now is more like the carpet bombing of entire villages of people who own little more than a straw mat and a thin coat. That’s not a war – it’s genocide.
I’ve had many opportunities lately to help those with an obvious need and I took that opportunity to extend the milk of human kindness. The churches, for the most part, use their money to make sure abortion and health care and civil rights are denied to huge swaths of our people. Individuals largely don’t have the resources to assist all those in need as they try to hang on to what little they have and the political right feels the government must not stand in the gap to create a bridge of human decency as they have since The Great Depression. And last week, I was told that I must not help them either – at least not in their neighborhood.
When 80 percent of the U.S. population is in poverty or face near-poverty, we don’t have a problem with lazy moochers, we have a problem with unbridled greed. I lifted this from Vermont Senator Bernie Sander’s website: “Last year, economist Emmanuel Saez estimated that the richest 1 percent of the U.S. captured a whopping 93 percent of the income gains in 2010, as the U.S. was emerging from the Great Recession. Saez is now back with updated numbers from 2011, and they make the picture look even grimmer: From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7% (Table 1) but the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 11.2% while bottom 99% incomes shrunk by 0.4%. Hence, the top 1% captured 121% of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery. From 2009 to 2010, top 1% grew fast and then stagnated from 2010 to 2011. Bottom 99% stagnated both from 2009 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2011. How is it possible for the 1 percent to capture more than all of the nation’s income gains? The number is due to the fact that those at the bottom saw their incomes drop. As Timothy Noah explained in the New Republic, “the one percent didn’t just gobble up all of the recovery during 2010 and 2011; it put the 99 percent back into recession.” Saez added that “In 2012, top 1% income will likely surge, due to booming stock-prices, as well as re-timing of income to avoid the higher 2013 top tax rates…This suggests that the Great Recession has only depressed top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s.”
So, the rich didn’t just take all of the economic gains of the last few difficult years, they actually took money from the bottom 99 percent, making them poorer. Obscenely rich people took advantage of a system they bought and gamed to steal from the poor. That’s what I mean when I say we don’t have a problem with lazy moochers, but with unbridled greed. These people have virtually everything money can buy, but they’ll take food from a child to line their pockets. That’s just pathological.
I’m determined to buck the system. After two years of not being able to find work, I’m now gainfully employed, though like so many Americans, I feel absolutely no security in my job and I get no company benefits. I’m clawing my way out of the financial hole I was in and I have a long way to go. That doesn’t mean I can simply pretend that “Those People” are invisible, deserve their lot in life, and are somehow sub-human. I see everything. I see every homeless person on the street. I see poverty. I see social injustice. I wasn’t born with a blind eye to anything and I’ve long considered it a curse. To the homeless man on the Country Club Plaza: You are not invisible to me. Every time I see you, I will always spare some money for you and I will always remind you that you are a human being and you are loved. To the woman sitting in the auto parts store parking lot, crying as she can’t find the Temp Agency, sitting on an empty tank of gas, feeling her world cave in around her: I know where you’ve been and I know where you’re going. Follow me. And here’s a $20 for your gas tank. With my still meager bank account, I can spare it. To my other homeless pal on the Plaza, I have a blanket and a warm coat for you and when I’m in town this Thursday, please know that I’m looking for you. To the next person who is broken and crosses my path: I have a hug for you and a small offering of help.