Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

When Help Doesn’t Help

It is sorely disappointing when you’ve tried to help a person again and again, only to be met with ingratitude in return. This is particularly so when it is evident that your efforts appear to have done nothing to improve his life.

Of course, when you start down the road of helping a needy individual, it is difficult to know when to stop. At what point does largesse cease being charitable and begin being enabling?

We had it out with Homeless Guy #1 the other day. I don’t regret that it happened; we said some things that have needed to be said for some time.

If you’ve followed A Map of California for a while now, you know that we’ve extended ourselves for this gentleman time and time again. We have fed him, provided him with new shoes, given him bus fare, purchased items he needed for his outdoor mode of living, given him extra pillows and blankets, counselled him, visited him in jail, allowed him to wash and dry his clothes in our laundry room and allowed him to use the church rest room so that caring for his bodily needs would not result in arrest on charges of indecent exposure.

This guy is a user in every sense of the word. He uses both drugs and people. His mental deficiencies, lack of social skills, substance abuse and anger management problems have left him unemployable, unhoused and in frequent trouble with the law. Recently, he served three months in the county jail on a string of felony charges, led by allegations of forcible rape. When the district attorney ran into difficulties with securing the testimony of their star witness (who now resides out of state), good old #1 was released on parole, his whereabouts monitored by an ankle bracelet. It is unlikely that he would have been paroled had he admitted to being homeless. Instead, he gave his mother’s address, leaving out the part about sleeping in a corner of the yard because his violence and vulgarity long ago got him banned from the house.

Homeless Guy #1’s lack of candor with law enforcement is now coming back to bite him. His problem is that he has no money to pay the ankle bracelet monitoring fees. So a few days ago, he visited the parsonage to demand money. When we refused due to our own financial difficulties, he began raising his voice and issuing a diatribe full of invective against the church in general and against us in particular.

Our friend is a master of excuses. Each time he asks for the key to the church rest room, we remind him to lock it when done. He has stopped complying with this simple request. He insists that he is unable to lock the door, although doing so is never a problem for anyone else. Leaving the rest room unlocked is convenient, as it allows him to sneak back in whenever he wants to spend some time indoors. The safety and insurance issues alone are daunting.

Pastor Mom finally told #1 that he is no longer welcome to use the church rest room. I was so glad to hear this. He should expect nothing less after carrying on about how we’ve made nothing but problems for him all along and how the church has never done anything to help him.

Maybe it makes me a bad person, but I hope I never see the guy again. The problem is that I know I will. That is, until the sheriffs finally come around and haul him off to state prison.

In the meantime, I remain disappointed and saddened that our efforts have been met with such blatant ingratitude. It brings out my cynical nature and makes me wonder whether some people just cannot be helped.

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Homeless Youth of California

No one really knows how many of California’s young people are homeless at any given time.  But on one day in the middle of the winter last year, a PIT count (a flash census — PIT stands for “point in time”) estimated the number to be about 15,000.  That’s 15,000 youngsters aged 12 to 24 sleeping under bridges and over heating grates, in cars, in shelters, in the woods or on someone’s couch.

I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of homeless young people, but I found this number to be truly appalling.  And that’s just for one state!

Many of these “throwaways” were abandoned at a young age or fled to escape homes marred by physical abuse, drinking and drugs.  On the street, they are frequently victims of sexual exploitation and encounter a downward spiral due to a life to day-to-day survival that prevents completion of high school and renders them unemployable.  They may find themselves with early and unplanned pregnancies, AIDS or malnutrition.

Among the greatest risks of homelessness among the young is aging out of the foster care system.  It has been estimated that about one out of every four foster children will become homeless upon turning 18.  The reasons for this are complex, and include such factors as a lack of family support, immaturity and the reluctance or inability of foster parents to continue to house their foster children after compensation from the state stops.

Drawing a bright line at the age of 18 makes no sense.  I fail to see the logic of stating “yesterday you were a foster child under the protection of the state, but happy birthday, today you’re on your own, go fend for yourself.”  Even the children of intact families are rarely in a position to support themselves the hot moment they turn 18.  So it’s really not a surprise that, after a childhood and adolescence of being bounced around from one placement to another, at the age of 18 foster kids fall off the edge of the earth.

I think of my late sister-in-law’s three children.  I didn’t know them when they were young, but they were removed from their drug addicted mother early in life.  This was fortunate, as my wife tells me stories of going to their apartment, only to find the kids without food and their mother gone.  One of my nephews was adopted as a baby, while my other nephew and his sister went into foster care.  They were fortunate to enter a stable foster home with committed parents and never had to go anywhere else.  All three are in their twenties and thirties now, and I am pleased to report that they turned out very well.  One is finishing up college and still living with his mom.  Another just celebrated the birth of his first daughter.  And the third has settled into her career and lives close enough to us that we are able to see her often.  What all of them have in common is that they never had to deal with homelessness.

Shouldn’t the story turn out that way for all of California’s foster children?

Visit the California Homeless Youth Project blog and read the touching stories of their struggles.

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That Homeless Guy in Your Living Room

So Homeless Guy #1 is finally out of jail.  For how long, I have no idea.

I gleaned a fairly good idea that his release was in the offing when I phoned the court last week to find out whether his case was on the docket for his scheduled trial.  No, the clerk told me, the judge had granted a motion to continue the trial due to the unavailability of witnesses.  I then asked whether the court had heard the motion in limine that had appeared on the calendar the day before.  The clerk didn’t know, but informed me that #1 had a whole string of motions set for hearing that afternoon, one of which was a motion for ankle bracelet monitoring.

That told me he was coming home.  But to what?  How do you parole a defendant to house arrest when he has no house to go to?

In this case, I suppose the court either didn’t know or didn’t care, as #1 had provided his mother’s address as his own.  He forgot to mention that his mother won’t let him in the house.  Oops.

Well, you know what?  I wouldn’t mention that fact either if I knew it might stand between me and (relative) freedom after being locked up in the pokey for three months straight.  Sleeping under the stars has to be a whole lot better than sleeping in a jail cell.

Homeless Guy #1 used to pitch a tent on the grass near the back edge of his mother’s property.  He had a sleeping bag, a Coleman stove and all sorts of stuff.  I have no idea what happened to his worldly chattels during his recent period of incarceration.

Given the circumstances, my hope was that perhaps his mother would give him a second (or 97th) chance and allow him under her roof.  I hear that a small pile of blankets has been seen out on the rear section of his mother’s lawn.  So much for that idea.

My guess is that house arrest doesn’t mean he actually has to stay in the house, just that he’ll be on the property.  Then again, it must not even mean that, as #1 has been seen wandering about the area.

A few days ago, as my wife and I prepared to head out the door at 6:45 in the morning, Pastor Mom got out of bed and started talking about how she should handle the situation.  The church is located just the other side of the fence from the verdant spot where #1 makes his bed in the great outdoors.  We knew he’d be showing up at the door of the parsonage.  And then what?

Pastor Mom told us that she had been praying about this and that what came to her was “innocent until proven guilty.”  I rankled at the very thought.  The man has been charged with a violent sex crime!  Yes, I believe in the American justice system, but I also see its imperfections.  Homeless Guy #1 is out on the street not because he’s innocent (although he may be), but due to the serendipitous intersection of a successfully argued motion and the jail overcrowding situation that we are currently experiencing here in California.

Sure, I like to think that he didn’t do it.  Homeless, mentally challenged people are easy targets for everyone, those who would like to take advantage of them as well as those who are charged with protecting them.  But what if he actually did commit this crime?

It’s possible that #1 will ultimately be acquitted due to lack of evidence, particularly if the district attorney fails to bring his witness back here from out of state.  My support of our justice system is not because I have confidence in its ability to distinguish guilt from innocence, but because it’s the best we’ve got.  I’ve yet to read about any superior system of justice.  The truth in this case is known only by God and the parties involved.  And I’m not so sure about the parties involved, considering that both of them have severe mental challenges.  I am not convinced that even they fully understand what did or did not happen.  After all, the allegations were made by a third party, not by the alleged victim.  I believe it is entirely possible that #1 may be convicted of a crime he did not commit or acquitted of a crime he did.

One thing we decided for sure is that #1 will not be permitted to enter our residence when our little grandniece is present.  That’s a risk we are not prepared to take.  Pastor Mom’s concern was about what we will do when he shows up at the door asking for food, coffee, water or ministry.

To me, it’s not about “innocent until proven guilty.”  We will never know what really happened.  In my humble opinion, however, it doesn’t matter.  When a homeless person is hungry, lonely or in need of spiritual guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide for his needs regardless of the sins of his past, present or future.  I’m pretty sure Pastor Mom would agree.

On Friday evening, I arrived home from work exhausted from the week, and walked through the door dragging my lunch bag behind me by its handle.  Lo and behold, there was Homeless Guy #1, relaxing in our living room.  He greeted me immediately and asked how my new job is going.  “Tiring,” I replied, “very tiring.”

As I headed into the kitchen to unpack the remains of my lunch, it occurred to me that #1’s misfortune could happen to any of us.  You never know what you could end up involved with.  Anyone can make a stupid mistake and end up in jail.  Anyone can find himself or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyone can make a series of bad decisions or suffer a run of bad luck and end up homeless.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

That homeless guy in your living room could be me.

Frustration

Arms

No, Ma, I didn’t try to slit my wrists!  Honest!

This is my third attempt at starting this blog post.  There are times when so much is going on that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  But I think I can fairly characterize the general theme of my thoughts today as “frustration.”

I have always imagined myself to be a patient person, the type you would feel comfortable spending time with your kid or your grandma or, say, teaching French to your teenage niece.  However, I am discovering that this is no longer true.  I am becoming old and crotchety, my reserve of patience having run as low as California’s reservoirs in our current time of drought.

And everything frustrates me.

Little things.  Big things.

Everything.

Perhaps I am overreacting because I have just had the Friday from hell.  Perhaps Saturday will be better.

For one thing, I am seriously questioning whether I have the right attitude to continue blogging about homelessness.  Those of you who have been reading my ramblings for a while may have a general idea of what I mean.  Homeless Guy #1, whom all of us here at the church parsonage have tried to help in every way possible, is now in jail awaiting trial for rape.  Homeless Guy #2 is quite disappointed in me because I failed to assist him with his legal paperwork.  I had explained to him that he only had a month in which to file it, but he never seemed to find the time to review it with me.  He called me from a friend’s cell phone two days before the deadline and I had to tell them it was too late.  As for Homeless Guy #3, oh my…  We have been allowing him to use the church rest room and he has (in my opinion) abused the privilege.  I am therefore in favor of revoking said privilege.  Not only have I been overruled on the grounds that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but I managed to make things worse by lashing out with an uncalled-for rude remark about it.  I don’t know.  The way I was raised, when you abuse a privilege, it is taken away.  Frustration!

I must pause here and say a special “thank you” to all of my 2,900 followers.  It warms my heart that you continue to read my posts week after week.  My current followers are even more precious to me because I am unlikely to collect many more.  You see, for months, A Map of California has been listed as a Recommended Blog by WordPress under the NaBloPoMo category.  Readers could find me!  Now, however, WordPress has removed that category.  Frustration!

I need a new pair of eyeglasses, as my current frames have become hopelessly scratched over the couple of years that I have had them.  I had an ophthalmologist appointment back in July, and was informed that I needed no change of prescription.  So today I called their office to request a copy of my prescription.  They informed me that there is a $45 charge to obtain said copy, but that they’d waive the charge if I purchase my glasses from their (expensive) optical store.  My poor wife was so upset that she said a bad word.  Fine.  We’ll just go to the optical department at Sam’s Club or Walmart and have them read the prescription off the lenses themselves.  When we called, however, they informed us that they don’t do that.  Frustration!

We recently purchased a birthday present for my wife from walmart.com.  It arrived in the mail and tonight my wife tried to use it.  Well, guess what?  It didn’t work.  Fine.  We packed it up and made a late night run to the store to return it.  Dodging the panhandler who insisted he needed just a few more cents to have enough for a hamburger, we asked the greeter at the door whether Customer Service was still open or whether we needed to take our return to a register.  She informed us that Walmart does not take returns “in the nighttime.”  We could come back after 7 a.m.  But you can leave your return here while you shop.  (As if it would still be there when we came to retrieve it!)  No, we’re not here to shop, we’re here for a return.  What time do you take returns until?  “7 a.m.!” was the cheerful response.  No, I reiterated, until what time do you take returns?  “We don’t take ‘em in the nighttime,” we were told.  “Yes, but what time is nighttime?”  Frustration!

We then stopped at the gas station next to Walmart to feed the car.  “Put it on the Visa?” I asked my wife.  No, she said, this place doesn’t take credit cards.  We have to pay cash.  She handed me a twenty and two singles, which I dutifully attempted to feed into the little machine on the island abutting the gas pumps.  The first single registered.  The second single had a bent corner, so I flattened it and attempted to feed it through.  No dice.  I spread it out some more and tried again.  Nothing doing.  After my third attempt, I noticed that I had waited too long to insert another bill (or another bill that the machine would accept, at any rate) and that the screen had reverted to asking me whether I wanted a car wash.  No, I don’t want a freakin’ car wash!  I want gas!  Okie dokie, Pump #1 is ready.  You can go pump $1.00 now.  Frustration!

Most frustrating of all, however, was my visit to the hospital today.  Now, the hospital is always good for providing me with an attitude adjustment.  The pain and suffering to be found there inevitably make my own problems appear small by comparison.  I was reminded by this of the guy who had come in with a leg infection.  And by the woman puking her guts out in the rest room so loudly that her distress could be heard in the lobby.  And by the woman who was stretched out across three seats in the waiting area, fast asleep and snoring.

I was scheduled for a colonoscopy today.  My doctor insisted.  I have reached “that age.”

I knew this was coming.  When we lived in the desert, I felt guilty every time I drove past the public service bulletin boards on Interstate 10.  “Each year, thousands of men die of stubbornness.”  “Real men wear gowns.”

Well, today I wore a gown.

My doctor is red hot on colonoscopies, not only because he had colon cancer and had to have half his large intestine removed, but also because his father is now dying of the disease.  In fact, Doc is currently out of the office for six weeks to spend time with his dad.

And then there is my own father.  More than twenty years ago, he had a little bleeding problem and had a polyp removed.  It turned out to be malignant.  But because it had been so close to the intestinal wall, they couldn’t be sure they had gotten all of it.  So he had major surgery and had a large part of his colon removed.  Turned out that there was no more cancer and the surgery wasn’t needed after all.  But, as the surgeon informed him, “only God knew that.”

God, if you’d like to speak to me about this subject, now would be a good time, please.

“I have to look at five feet of colon,” the gastroenterologist chastised me when I complained about the draconian prep regimen.  So yesterday I drank a gallon of vile-tasting liquid for the purpose of cleaning out my insides.  I tried chasing it with diet Sprite, then with iced tea, then with apple juice, but nothing can improve the taste.  It took me about six hours to down it all.  I spent most of those hours glued to the toilet.  Let’s just say that the stuff works.

This was not my first rodeo.  I rode this bronc about 12 years ago when I, too, had a little bleeding problem and feared I was following the path of my father.  After all, it is said that colon cancer has a genetic component.  I was fortunate in that no polyps were found and my troubles were written off to hemorrhoids.

So this time, I thought I knew what to expect.  Truthfully, the horrible cleansing solution wasn’t quite as bad as what they used 12 years ago.  But I had to be on a liquid diet all day Thursday and start drinking the solution at noon.  Last time, I got to eat breakfast and didn’t have to start drinking the putrid stuff until 3 pm.

My instructions read “nothing by mouth after 10 p.m.”  This wasn’t horrible last time, when I was to report to the hospital at 6 a.m.  Here, however, the gastroenterologist does surgeries in the morning, so my appointment wasn’t until 1:10 p.m.  The solution I had quaffed had wrung me out like a sponge.  Thus, by the time of my appointment, I was dehydrated as well as starving.

The procedure was to be performed at a tiny hospital about 45 miles north of here in Butte County.  (I nearly typed “Butt County,” which would have been appropriate.)  We have a large hospital just a couple of miles from home, but the gastroenterologist who was willing to take my Obamacare insurance works up there and does not have hospital privileges down here.  When I checked in and signed a lot of paperwork, the clerk called someone and then informed me that I needed bloodwork before I could have the procedure.  “No, I don’t,” I told her.  She insisted that I did.

Fine.  Back to the lobby I went to wait.  They called me to the little room where they do the blood draw.  The young phlebotomist searched for my bloodwork order and of course couldn’t find it because there was none.  She called back to surgery to ask “what I need” and then proceeded to spend some quality time with the veins of my left arm.  “I’m a difficult draw,” I explained, showing her the precise spot where the blood lab at my doctor’s office consistently hits pay dirt.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t pull it off.  “Ooh, it rolled,” she complained of my vein the first time she stuck me.  Look, lady, my vein doesn’t want to be doing this any more than I do.  She stuck me again.  Nada patata.  She called in the reinforcements.  The next lady was a bit older, but apparently no wiser in the way of my veins.  She stuck me and drew a little blood.  She rushed it back to the lab “before it clots,” admonishing me “don’t go anywhere.”  Um, and where exactly would I go?  Out for a sandwich sounded good.  A gallon of iced tea sounded better.  Okay, I’d settle for a sip of water.  Five minutes later, she returns with the bad news.  They didn’t get enough.  So now they bring in the big guns.  A man who they say is an expert.  And, sure enough, after two more sticks with the needle, and some interesting medical invective regarding my uncooperative veins and something called “flashing,” he managed to get enough blood.  Well, what do they expect when I am so dehydrated due to being denied water for the past 16 hours?

Back to the lobby.  My left arm was a mess of purple, red and green by this point.  Finally, I was called back to a room and told to disrobe and get into bed.  I was freezing, a result of being both naked and dehydrated.  A nurse covered me with a blanket.

I waited quite a while for another nurse arrive to start an IV.  My wife came back and sat in a chair near the bed.  Our long wait allowed her to enjoy the contraband she had with her, Dorito’s and her cell phone, both prohibited.  (Alright, I didn’t see a “No Doritos” sign, but some things you just know.)  She let me know that Joan Rivers’ death during a medical procedure is now under investigation.  “What kind of procedure?” I asked.  “Endoscopy,” she told me.  Oh, man, just what I want to hear.

Allow me to spare you a lot of boring details by simply relating that two nurses were unsuccessful in starting an IV in various locations.  They finally decided to bring in an EMT off an ambulance.  We had to wait quite a while for that.  He was unsuccessful on the first few pokes, finally getting in the IV on my right arm, “but not very well.”  I was to tell them if it hurt.  Well, within two minutes, the pain was not funny anymore and my wife called for a nurse to come back in.  Tears leaked out my eyes and ran down my face.  Tears of frustration as well as of pain.  By now it was 5 p.m. on a Friday and my doctor undoubtedly wanted to go home to start his weekend.  He came in and saw the sad state of affairs.  “I think I’m just going to call it quits,” I told him.  He said that he understood, and a nurse came in to take out the IV.  “It’s a good thing you let us know it was painful,” she said.  “It wasn’t in properly and you would have had the procedure with no anesthetic.”

Thus, I drank that horrible prep solution all day yesterday for nothing.  And I endured being stuck repeatedly like some kind of pin cushion for nothing.  And I still didn’t have my colonoscopy.

Frustration!

I just hope there’s nothing wrong with my colon, because I think it’ll be a couple of years before I will be able to entertain the thought of doing this again.  And I just can’t wait to see the bill we’re going to get for my little fun today.

One thing I know for sure:  I’m not looking forward to my next doctor appointment.  I can just see it now.  “You’re not gonna believe this, Doc…”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEp9oi1LVXw

 

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).

On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

Parasol

photo
The food line in front of the church on the other side of town extends from one end of the parking lot to the other.  This is the monthly food distribution in our small locality, a combined effort of the regional food bank and a state grant to the county.  You have to be signed up in advance to get food, a process that includes income and residence verification.  Yet every month, some people come join the party even though they’re not signed up.  Not only do these folks hold up the line for everyone else, but they provide a distinct element of drama when they begin yelling, crying or otherwise throwing tantrums.  We all get to hear about their disabilities, their children, their lack of transportation.  The workers try to do the best they can to accommodate their needs.  You don’t have a car to get to the food bank?  Sure, we’ll come to your house with the paperwork for you to fill out.  Be sure to have a copy of your Social Security check, rent receipts and recent utility bills.  No, we can’t give you any food until you complete the paperwork.  They’re coming to audit us this month and we’ll lose our grant.  That’s when the wailing usually begins.  “What am I going to feed my kids tonight?”  A worker hands her some bananas and a loaf of bread.  Everyone else online fidgets and rolls their eyes.  Why can’t they get their act together like the rest of us?

You can plan on waiting in line in the hot sun for an hour and a half to four hours, depending on how early you arrive and how many people show up.  Get there too late and you’ll be summarily told “Sorry, we’re all done for today.”

We try to occupy ourselves while we wait.  One woman repeatedly scolds her three little kids in Spanish.  The young couple in line in front of me take selfies with their phones.  The woman directly behind me sits in her wheelchair and sets up a large blue umbrella as a parasol against the sun that beats down on all of us.  “I can’t be out in the sun with the medication I’m taking,” she explains when I praise her ingenuity.  Neither can I, I think silently.  Note to self:  Buy parasol.

With my water bottle beside me, I sit in my metal folding chair, borrowed from the church fellowship hall.  When the line moves, I stand up and move the chair an inch forward along the sidewalk to avoid the wrath of the impatient lady in the wheelchair behind me.  I think she wants to poke me with her parasol.  When we run out of sidewalk and dump out into the parking lot near the food bank’s truck, I fold up the chair and text my wife to come get it and return it to the car.  There are still five people ahead of me, however, including two who haven’t signed up and are making a scene.  I can barely stand on my feet, so as soon as I get near the truck, I lean against it and then sit on the bumper.  This is a no-no, but it’s either that or fall down.  My poor wife, who has been dying to use the rest room for some time, has walked to a nearby barber shop to borrow their facilities.  As the bags and boxes of food are handed down to me from the truck, I set them on the ground where I can keep an eye on them until my wife gets back and can help me transport them to the car.  I know from past experience that if I take one load to the car, the rest of the food will be gone upon my return.  No one will know what happened to it, and it will be my fault, sorry.

Later, I will tell my little grandniece about my adventures on the food line.  She stares intently into my eyes as if she understands what I am saying.  She will be two years old next month.

We carry the packages in from the car and cover the kitchen table and counters with boxes and cans as we start to break down the government’s largesse.  Some of it will go to my niece to help with the little one — juice boxes, raisins, whatever meat and fruit she thinks her daughter will eat.  The rest of the meat and baked goods go in the freezer.  Cans and boxes are divided into what we will use and what we will give to others.  Our stuff goes on the open shelves in the kitchen, the rest of it into the “give-away box” in one of the cabinets.  This way, when folks come to the door of the parsonage needing more than a sandwich and a drink, we are all ready to make up a bag of food for them.  We always make up a bag for the elderly woman who lives on the other side of the fence.

There are always a few items that we still have to buy at the store.  Fresh bread, milk for my grandniece, tofu and hummus and other vegan stuff for me.  Almond milk.  Ice cream if we’re feeling lavish.  We try to wait for when things are on sale, adjusting our purchases accordingly.  We try to always have extra lunch meat and bread on hand to make sandwiches for the homeless.

The Food Stamp money on our EBT card never lasts until the end of the month, but we do what we can to make up the difference.  I might get a $100 check for some freelance writing assignments.  My wife will get a few bucks for babysitting.  Pastor Mom is on a fixed income but is always kicking in extra money.

With the help of family and God, we’re making it.

 

The Rules

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.