Thursday, December 21, 2006

Anarchy for the Common Person

I got off the bus and hitchhiked from Yelm out to the Bald Hills the other day to pick up the car I had left at my parents’ house (I usually drive a '71 Ford Country Squire that I inherited from my grandmother and donated to Bread & Roses). It had been far too long since I’ve hitchhiked anywhere, or really since I’ve done anything to remind myself of my utter dependence on my community.

I only waited for about two minutes before a fellow driving a big pickup truck stopped to offer a ride. He was only going about four miles up the road, but he went out of his way to drive me the whole fifteen miles to the Bald Hills.

We talked a bit on the way about the big windstorm that had come through and knocked out the power across western Washington, about how the developers had really done Yelm in, and about Bread & Roses. The driver worked for Intercity Transit as a bus driver, and knew a lot of the folks we serve. He said, “It’s a good thing that you people are doing, helping all the homeless folks rather than waiting for the government to do it.”

It is good to hear people like him talk like anarchists.

"Holy Eucharist" -Catholic Worker Style

People often come by the Bread & Roses house with food donations. As they drop their beautiful gifts into my hands, they frequently thank me for my “hard work feeding all the hungry people.”

Aside from the fact that the thanking ought to go the other direction (I live on the same charity as our guests), I regularly find myself inviting the donors to stay and eat. The invitation is awkward, with an exchange of funny looks and the unspoken question, “But why am I invited if I don’t need food?”

No one starves in Olympia. If someone does, they probably need some kind of help other than food (like someone to guide them to the local soup kitchen), because there is an extraordinary amount of food here. This is one of the reasons why Bread & Roses no longer operates a soup kitchen.

Yet we still need gifts of food at our home, but not to feed our bellies. We need food because we do something special here at B&R: we eat together. Worker and guest, donor and recipient join together at the table in a spirit of fellowship, violating the social and economic norms that separate the rich from the poor.

It has often been noted that the poor in America live better than the middle class in developing countries. Yet Mahatma Gandhi and Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, looking westward, both found that we have our own unique kind of poverty, a kind of poverty that may even be more horrible than that found in India. The name of our poverty is “loneliness”.

Poverty itself is primarily a social phenomenon in western society. I have very little, yet few would identify me as a “poor person”. Why? What separates me from the huddled masses?

I have a good education, they say. But so do many of the homeless. Well, maybe it’s that I haven’t always been poor, I was once middle class. But the same is true of many of the guests in our women’s shelter. Could it be that I chose my poverty, as opposed to the many who did not? It is certainly true that I chose to be poor, but if this is what separates me from the poor then why are they reviled and I am not? Monks and nuns are praised and respected for choosing poverty, but the word “choice” is hurled at the poor as an insult.

The poor are defined more truly by their relationship to the rest of society than by their economic status. And the relationship that defines the poor and the homeless is one of alienation, isolation, and marginalization. I am not poor because I am not alienated from society. But many are.

As a community member at Bread & Roses, I see a lot of the people who are hit with the stereotype of the homeless “transient”. They are the end-stage drug addicts, the schizophrenics who frighten many people, the folks with the fine tuned survival skills that drive them to root through trash and to hold cardboard signs at street corners.

There are a lot of people, in fact I think this is true of most people, who do not see beyond the surface... beyond what can be noticed about a person with a momentary glance. They see someone dumpster diving. They see someone in poor health holding a sign asking for money. They see someone yelling obscenities at no one in particular or muttering paranoid delusions to themselves.

And, since they do not create the opportunities for themselves to get to know the homeless, they might never discover that the fellow in the dumpster has a college education, or that the person panhandling on the corner loves Dizzy Gillespie, or that the shirtless person muttering obscenities isn’t wearing a shirt because he gave it to someone who needed it more than he.

We have invited a whole lot of the homeless to come and stay with us, not just in our shelters, but actually in our home. Many of them have moved on to their own apartments or to adult family homes. Many of them went back on the spiral and are on the streets, in jail, or at Western State. Many of them cycle back and forth, making a little more progress each time they stay with us.

For people who are really ill, the process of healing takes a very long time. And this time can be very difficult. But they are our responsibility, because they are with us for better or for worse. We can have them in our community as a drain on our jails, hospitals, and public resources, rejected by society and left to live out their illnesses alone, or we can have them in our community as neighbors that we support and nurture back to health. Either way the poor are with us, and their lives affect ours. The choice of how to deal with that fact is ours to make.

We often think it easier to dismiss them as pariahs… as such the homeless become less visible, less necessarily a part of our lives. But this comes with its own cost, which we are seeing both in our decaying downtown as well as in our overcrowded jails. If we take them as neighbors, our lives suddenly seem to become much more difficult. It can take months to work through the system far enough to acquire medications for a mentally ill person, and I have spent countless nights staying up entirely too late dealing with the paranoid tantrums of a person in need of medications. Likewise I have spent too much time holding the hands of someone withdrawing from drug addiction.

But I am also aware that I am only one person, that there are some 40,000 people in Olympia, and that only some 700 are homeless. If it wasn’t just one household (Bread & Roses), but one hundred households, we could make a significant change in our community. In reality, the personal resources of 1.75% of the population of Olympia could house ALL of the homeless in Olympia, with little strain on our public resources.

This requires our personal commitment, which is far more difficult than just paying taxes and cutting the occasional check to Bread & Roses. But the truth is that a personal commitment carries a value that no amount of money can account for. The homeless are, for the most part, aware of the amount of money that is spent on them. They are aware that this amount of money could probably build them each their own personal Taj Mahal. This money is insufficient, because most of the homeless are also aware that most people would prefer to throw money at them (via services or via prisons) than to sit down for a cup of coffee with them.

While services are vital, it takes something far greater than social services to end homelessness. It takes a willingness to risk on our part. The homeless will be with us so long as we are willing to exclude them from our lives. But if we take a risk, make ourselves vulnerable, we just might make an impact.

This is why we eat together at Bread & Roses. There is something special about table fellowship. We find it ritualized in the Holy Eucharist, when Christians gather to take Communion together. Shared food brings us closer together. It makes us one community, one Body, and it heals the wounds inflicted by the class system.

So please continue to bring us your gifts of food. The small gifts you bring are used to mend souls and to restore personalities. But please know also that you have a much bigger gift to offer than food: yourself.

We have a weekly open potluck dinner at the Bread & Roses house. It is on Friday nights at 6:00 PM. (Our address is 1320 8th Ave SE near downtown Olympia.) Please join us for dinner!

Currently Reading:

  • Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America - Todd Depastino

Recently Finished Reading:

  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Utopia of Usurers - GK Chesterton
  • Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton