Today was supposed to be box pickup day at the office of our local Headstart preschool program. This is where families in our community can go on specified days of the month to obtain free boxes of nonperishable “drought relief” food.
To fill in those of you who reside in other parts of the nation or the world, California has been experiencing an unprecedented drought that has caused the water levels in reservoirs, lakes and rivers to drop to record lows. We have been doing our best to water the rose bushes as well as the pretty flowers planted just outside the parsonage door, but the church lawn is starting to turn brown. We are permitted to water only on specified days and between particular hours. Today was a watering day, so we were able to turn on the sprinklers for a couple of hours and even allow our little grandniece to run through the garden hose spray and get soaked.
However, our minor inconveniences are nothing compared to what California’s farmers are experiencing. Even as the price of gasoline has started to come down a bit, the price of food has been steadily rising due to shortages caused by lack of water and the resulting importing of foodstuffs from distant states. Hence, drought relief food boxes. Pasta, tomato sauce, canned veggies and fruit, peanut butter.
Today, however, there were no drought relief food boxes to be had. Apparently, the regional food bank’s stock has been depleted. There won’t be more until September. And Headstart says they will no longer be able to distribute the free food anyway. I called the food bank and they told me to call back in September. They don’t yet know where the new food distribution point will be.
Returning home in the car, my wife and I started discussing Homeless Guy #3 and his request for a ride to a residential placement program. He’s done this before, said my wife, and he has no intention of going anywhere. My wife, who has the most incredible gift of discernment of anyone I have ever met, turned out to be completely correct. #3 didn’t show up for a ride today. So what was all that palaver last night? Just his regular tactic of telling Pastor Mom what he thinks she wants to hear so that we’ll give him food. I don’t really understand this, as we’d feed him in any event. But I guess that’s how his mind works.
I told my wife that I’m actually glad it worked out this way, since the residential program isn’t accepting new intakes right now and I don’t know what we’d have done if #3 had been in earnest. There’s another area program he could have gone to, my wife said, but he’s not interested in going anywhere. Why? Because he doesn’t want to follow rules. And every residential treatment program has those.
I don’t know whether Homeless Guy #3’s inability to follow rules is a product of his drinking and drugging (and the long-term effects of those practices on his brain) or whether residential program proscriptions against alcohol and drugs themselves constitute the rules he chooses not to follow (whether due to his perceived need to self-medicate or just his fear of leaving behind the comfort zone of his destructive behavior patterns).
But I have come to realize that, whether he is aware of it or not, #3 has made a choice to reject society’s rules just has he has made a choice to be homeless. As I am famous for wearing my heart on my sleeve, I tend to see the homeless as victims who ended up in their sad predicament through no fault of their own. However, as a fellow blogger recently pointed out, it’s complicated. Homelessness was the only option left for some; others had more than one choice, with homelessness being the best option remaining open to them. Better than being in a physically, sexually or emotionally abusive relationship. Better than staying at a shelter where one is exposed to assault and rape and one’s few possessions are likely to be stolen. Or, perhaps, better than getting thrown out due to one’s unwillingness to follow the rules.
Logic would dictate that we should withhold our sympathies from those who have rehabilitative options that could reintegrate them into the mainstream of society, but choose to forego those options due to “the rules.” Every aspect of life has rules, we say, from the rule that you must raise your hand to ask a question in class (I know, I’ve been watching too much Sesame Street with the little squirt) to the traffic light rule that “red on top means you gotta stop, green down below means you better go.”
After all, we don’t want everyone in class shouting out at once, nor do we want deadly traffic collisions resulting from cars entering an intersection from every direction simultaneously. Rules are designed to promote the orderly functioning of society.
Or are they? I often found myself shaking my head in amazement when middle-aged men and women in my graduate school classes would endure the indignity of raising their hands as if they were in kindergarten. I think of Congress, where our senators and representatives follow the rules of parliamentary procedure. They may ask the chair for permission to take the floor for three minutes before yielding to the gentleman from Minnesota, but they don’t have to raise their hands, for heaven’s sake!
As for the traffic light rules, I learned a valuable lesson driving home from a trip up to Yuba City on a recent evening. Due to some issue with the power lines, the traffic lights were not functioning at every intersection all the way through the center of town. Pacific Gas and Electric had three or four trucks out working on repairs. Meanwhile, the lights all blinked red. The behavior of drivers was rather instructive. Everyone stopped at each traffic light, looked both ways for cross traffic, then slowly inched into and across the intersections. Not wanting to be killed by drivers on the cross streets, everyone was very cautious and allowed the cross traffic to go first. The result? There were no accidents and everyone got home safely. Why? Because people were courteous of other drivers rather than relying on them to follow “the rules.”
Homeless Guy #3 may be unemployable and a substance abuser, but does that mean that his choices should prevent him from having a roof over his head and regular meals? Oh, you use drugs? No food for you! I suppose that, if he violates the rules with sufficient impunity, he will end up in jail where the good taxpayers of California will see to it that he is housed and fed. But does it really have to come to that?
Surely, we can find a way to allow the homeless to enjoy the perquisites of basic human dignity without requiring them to follow rules that are, at base, arbitrary.