Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A friend of mine moved ‘off the street’ today and into housing, and it was big news. His was a high-profile ‘success’ story, because this particular friend has been living a life of street-dwelling homelessness for quite a long time — fifteen years — and he has often been in the news, being a person who doesn’t mind being interviewed and is frequently poetically eloquent.
However, as is often the case, there is more to the story than its public version. Isn’t there always? The ‘more’ in this instance is that a couple of people — well, actually a person and a dog — got left behind when my friend moved into his new home.
I got a phone call from my friend’s ‘street wife’ of twelve years yesterday afternoon, saying that her husband had been informed by his employer, who had arranged for the housing, that he was to move into his new home early the next morning — only sixteen hours notice. Initially, both husband and wife had expected that his housing would include a place for her, too. When they recently found out this was not the case, they thought they’d have a week or so to try and make arrangements for her safety and well-being. Additionally, his dog — his constant companion and best friend for eleven years — turned out to be over the weight limit for the housing and would need to stay behind. And, in his new home, my friend will not be allowed to have visitors.
When the wife called me yesterday, she was distraught. Media had been at their camp as well as at the new home. Yet, even though his wife was present during the media visits, no mention was made of the her in any news report, nor of the fact that the dog (who did make it into the story!) and she are to remain behind in the ‘cardboard condo’ under the bridge.
The wife is frightened to stay out in the open camp without her husband and protector, with good reason. So some of her ‘housed’ friends banded together today and came up with the money to pay for a two-weeks’ stay in a motel for her and the dog — a temporary fix, but better than sleeping alone under the bridge.
On the phone yesterday, she said she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t go with him — had the rules at the housing unit been made purposefully to exclude her? I reassured her that no, I didn’t think that was the case. Rather it was more likely to be an issue of funding-raising on the part of the charity providing the housing. Generally, at least in this part of the world, any sort of housing subsidy for homeless couples requires that they be legally married, which these two people are not. They would like to be, but there are intransigent problems with his obtaining a divorce from a wife he’s been apart from for decades.
I’ll refrain from discussing how her husband made the decision to go ahead with his move, but I spent the afternoon today with my friend, the wife. As we ran errands in my car, we cried together, laughed together, and visited two of my close friends who have been consistent and steady friends to people who are homeless — both very kind, wise, forthright and resourceful women. Each of them gave the wife good counsel and support.
I believe that, God willing, she will be all right, and, hopefully, more than all right. She has skills and resources way beyond what most of us possess after living on the street for over a decade, and there are a number of people who are willing to help make accessible to her tools that will help her move out of her current plight. But her situation raises a number of hard questions, because there are many long-term, stable couples on the street in the same situation — unable to marry for one reason or another; unwilling to separate in order to get into housing.
Is there a way to make peace between our religious beliefs and morals, and the urgent need to help people — especially women as the most vulnerable parties — move from street-dwelling homelessness to a more stable life of being housed? What is our priority?
How do those of us who are advocates and service providers share the story of someone experiencing homelessness or poverty with the public in a way that still presents him or her as a person with dignity? How do we raise funds and practice public relations in ways that will help people move out of homelessness and poverty, without inadvertently falling into the inglorious category of helpers referred to as ‘poverty pimps’?
How do we hold people up as examples of our hopes, dreams and plans for our own organizations without exploiting them?
Where does the line get drawn between the landscape of our plans for them and that of their plans for themselves, and how do we gracefully and honorably navigate the overlapping territory? How do we do things that we believe to be truly valuable in helping other human beings without falling into the trap of believing we are their saviors?
Whose highest good is being served in this situation, when the cost of housing a husband is that his street wife and dog are left living under a bridge?
Link: See Dallas Morning News Photographer Courtney Perry’s blog entry, “Complexities,” in response to this post at http://courtneyperry.com/pblog/index.php