Friday, September 05, 2008

We Have a Problem?

This morning as I left Deering Oaks Park with Brody, a woman with a miniature schnauzer stopped me so our dogs could meet. The woman exemplified pleasant from her gregarious smile and perfectly white clothes to her sympathetic chuckle when I told her that my 120 pound mastiff/lab mix phobia of small dogs. Like most dog owners who meet, she wanted to talk.

She had moved to Portland yesterday. I didn’t ask where from. She’s an artist and her son is starting at the Maine College of Art. Could I recommend and good places where her dog could play off leash with other dogs? She was out meandering through Portland’s Parkside neighborhood appreciating the architecture. And, aren’t there a lot of homeless in the area?

I’m not sure why she phrased the last part as a question but I answered it as such. Sort of. “Yes, the city has a very visible homeless population,” I said. “And it grows significantly in the winter.”

Her mouth lost the pleasant creases of a smile. The corners dipped down distastefully low and her voice became a conspiratorial whisper. “There are so many panhandlers,” she said. “And some areas stink like urine.” Immediately I looked at my watch and using the oldest of all excuses, time, I extricated myself from the situation.

Brody and I walked a block and a half before I realized why her comments bothered me. She wasn’t being cruel. She wasn’t abusing anybody in front of me. To be fair, Portland’s PR arm doesn’t exactly highlight this aspect of our beautiful costal postcard perfect city. There’s no way she could have known that I had spent the last hour trying to convince one of the causes of her changed expression in the park that the government wasn’t 18 billion dollars from him and that he needed to start thinking of winter housing? There’s no way she could have been expected to assume that earlier that morning I’d been discussing with my mother the importance of recognizing dignity when people at a point in their life when it appears that all of their humanity eroded away into nothing. It bothered me that there was no way she could have known this.

But That’s not “We,” That’s Them

You and I are people. We use proper nouns like Joe to talk about ourselves in the singular and words like people to discuss ourselves en masse. If a person doesn’t have a permanent residence we change our words slightly. We omit any reference to the commonality of our shared humanity. We got some great terms for them. Panhandlers is a functional term, it evokes an image of something inanimate and easily found like a dishwasher or streetlight. Vagrant is more transitory in nature, like a passing annoyance or bad mood. A hobo is quaint like a local custom and a bum is a growing waste.

My favorite is homeless when used as a plural noun. The careful omission of and reference to people in that term defines a segment of the population as something other than human like you and I based on their residential status. I receive mail, therefore I am. They do not, therefore the diverse group (including: the mentally handicapped; addicts of all sorts; those hit by financial hardship; social castaways; and so on) can be summed up with one dingy grey, fit all word that places them exactly where they fit into our lives: outside.

What Was the Problem Again? Can You Put It Into Numbers?

We live in an information age. It’s great. Every morning I can roll out of bed, turn on my computer, and bring into my home anything in this world that I want. In a matter of seconds I can immerse myself in the thoughts of Jean-Paul Sartre or the adventures of Jean-Luc Picard. With ingenuity and focus I can make myself a strong voice with power to shake the masses or I can get lazy and veg out on flash games. It’s all there. We’re all there. Almost.

If a person doesn’t have a home, then they don’t have a computer. I can argue the benefits of capitalism versus communism with FoxyRed83 in China from the comfort of my living room at the push of a button. Learning that a particular homeless kid in my neighborhood is being regularly harassed by a local gang? That’s much more difficult. Since the homeless kid doesn’t have a computer, communication breaks down. I can’t interface with him.

This also means that the pleasant lady I met would have little idea that there are an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 people homeless in Portland. That’s 5% to 7% of this city’s population. To put this statistic into perspective, that’s more than the combined totals all of the Asians, African Americans, and mix raced people in the city. It’s roughly equal to how many people in Portland are of German ancestry.

That’s a fucking lot of invisible people out there. It’s more than I can help.

So Now What?

I like listening to people and I like writing. I can write a few of their stories. I don’t think this will change the world or even change one life. I need to do something. I can’t sit here without these numbers running through my mind. They make my stomach get all tight and I start feeling queasy. I don’t have money to give, even if that could be the silver bullet solution. I need to do something and this is something I can do.

I’ll tell you Chris’s story – the one waiting for billions owed to him by the Maine State government. I’ll tell you about Red’s laugh when he’s spanging outside the high end boutique I work at. When I’m done those two, there will always be High Steppin’ Bob, Betty Thompson, the Tommy’s Park punks and so on. Let's see who these people are.

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