I Know What I Saw

It goes back to the question asked of then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles by a radio reporter. Twyla told me she'd asked the governor, "Why is there poverty?" He never answered her.

The reporter, who has since gone on to change her name to an African one, and additionally changed her career---which is the media's loss-- asked the million dollar question. There is only one answer to that question: there is poverty because there is immense wealth concentrated in the hands of relatively few. An extreme example is the diamond drenched wedding attire of Myanmar general Than Schwe's daughter, while the majority of the Burmese people can barely afford to buy food. Don't think for a New York minute I'm advocating a communist redistribution of wealth. I've heard too many horror stories from people who've fled those countries. A competitive economy is a good thing. It fosters innovation and improvement. Real competition, that is.

I started writing this blog a little over a year ago. Its broad theme was poverty. If poverty was a river, its tributaries would be homelessness, low wage jobs, poor health and unaffordable/inadequate health care. The blog became a journey. I traveled and blogged about what I saw and people I met. I'm not a statistician. There are agencies that collect data and spit out numbers and pie charts. I was interested in the human faces of homelessness, so I focused on a couple of people, real people. I spent some nights in homeless shelters, and some days sitting on sidewalks and in parks, and riding subways. I lived in the cheapest possible accomodations I could find in New York City, a place where I was bitten by bed bugs, and shared bathrooms and showers with ten or more other women, a place where you have no kitchen, no refrigerator, and no microwave. Living this way in the capital of the world is a lot more common than you might think. When New Yorkers are burned out of their homes, and they lose everything, a room in the YMCA is often where the lucky ones wind up--for months, if not years.

There was a delay in the beginning of this journey. Overly long, it seemed to me at the time. In retrospect that delay may have been benevolently intended. Or maybe unintended. The questions-- posed at the beginning, and now answered at the end--I had to find my own answers to. Some people, maybe knowing the answers or sensing the outcome, tried to divert the journey. One was a mentor, I realize now. A mentor who didn't give me any fish but sorta taught me how to fish. By throwing me into the ocean with the right bait.

Write about us, said the women in the Manhattan homeless shelter. The world needs to know. After meeting these women, I knew I had to write about them. Read about them in Refugees of America, In the Chairs, Gimme Shelter, and Ladies and Gentlemen...

I laid this blog to rest in May, one year after its birth. I've made some improvements since then, but with the exception of a few things I get fired up about--most notably the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi by the criminals in control of her country--this blog was over in May '07. It was then I understood with no doubt whatsover that home is where you hang your heart. Home is not a geographic location, or even necessarily the place where you were born.

In the past year, I've hung up my coat in many places: in closets, lockers, on the backs of chairs, and on hooks screwed into the wall. A few times, I even slept in my coat. I went back to a city that was my home in the 1970's. It was where I lived, worked, gave birth to my son, and freed myself from a self destructive habit. In our last apartment, on 93rd Street and Second Avenue, we stepped through our front door every morning and passed a disheveled man sleeping on the stoop next door. It was the same man every day, sleeping off a drunk. It was remarkable and memorable because he was the only one. In a city bursting with heroin addicts and methadone clinics, drug dealers, and taverns, I saw very few people sleeping on the streets. I never heard about homeless shelters then. This was New York City in the late 1970's.
In 1979 my lease was up. The landlord sent over his new lease, raising the $170 rent on our studio apartment to more than $400. I had an opportunity to move upstate, when I still had family living there. With my child, we left NYC.
I came back throughout the 1980's to visit a good friend. Her rent, on East 116th Street was $425. She had one bedroom, in a 5th floor walk up. The bathtub in the kitchen with a hinged board covering it, doubled as a kitchen sink. The toilet was in a closet size room with a chain pull flusher. Heat was often nonexistent. It was better than her previous apartment, she said, where two dead bodies had been found in the building. Still, she wouldn't let her two children play outside, where drug dealers sold heroin and crack on the front stoop.
(A side thought: why are so many kids overweight? Maybe because they can't play outdoors as kids used to do.)

Each time I visited NYC through the eighties, I noticed more and more people at subway stations or around parks asking for change, a little help, apparently homeless. It was in the 1980's that I first saw the so-called "bag ladies;" women pushing their worldly goods around the city in shopping carts, or trudging through the streets of New York loaded down with plastic shopping bags. This did not exist on such a scale prior to the eighties. So what happened?

Rent happened. I considered moving back to New York in early 1981. I went down to the city, bought a newspaper, looked at the rents and took about two days to decide the bridge had collapsed, washed away in the current, and there was no way to go back. Conventional wisdom is that the homeless are homeless because they are: lazy, mentally ill, drug addicts, drunks. Let me explode a few myths.

Homelessness is not for the lazy. It take tremendous energy and resourcefulness to live as a homeless person. Try it sometime: dragging your essential belongings around all day, including important papers; keeping yourself--and your clothes--clean, avoiding robbery, avoiding arrest, charging your cell phone--if you have one, getting adequate sleep. Read "In the Chairs," August 2006.

There are mentally ill people among the homeless, but with affordable rent, and community based clinics, the mentally ill wouldn't have to be living on the streets. Poor drug addicts live on the streets. Rich drug addicts live in their own homes. Some people become drug addicts after they become homeless. And "drunks:" I'll never forget the young people living on the streets of Gainesville, Florida who said they drank rum to keep warm at night. Which came first: sleeping outdoors or drinking?

If you are interested in the stories of people who are invisible to the celebrity obsessed mainstream media (msm) but are literally right in your face, and under your nose, scroll back. Read Dawn. Addicts, alcoholics, and sick people have always lived in New York City and in every other city and town in America. The difference is that in the 70's a low wage worker, a retiree or a disabled worker, and that includes veterans--did they not work for all of us?--all could afford a home even if only in a rooming house. Now, even middle class workers like cops, firefighters and teachers have to live in outer boroughs or in New Jersey because only celebrities and millionaires can afford Manhattan rent. Like post-Katrina New Orleans, Manhattan is closed to us commoners. Our tourism dollars are still welcome, however.

Corporate America is not going to raise the pay of American workers to keep pace with skyrocketing rents and mortgages. Does our government have the will to create more subsidized housing --maybe built by unemployed workers who could learn construction trade skills at the same time--so that America's lowest paid workers, disabled workers, homeless vets, and low income retirees can have homes?

Stay tuned.

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