Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Comfort and Community
There’s both a reality and a myth, it would seem, that some people experiencing homelessness would choose to stay on the street even if they were offered shelter. I’ve been one of those among many who has said in the past, ‘I don’t know anyone who would rather be on the street than indoors.’
Yet look at this video from Channel 11 during last week’s bitter cold snap:
When I saw in the Dallas Morning News on January 6 stating that city officials were launching Operation Code Blue to try to get people indoors for the bitterly cold weather that was upon us, I felt both hopeful and cynical: we’ve been through these ‘Operations’ more than once, and what that has sometimes meant for ‘homeless’ people walking around downtown has been offering them the limited options of shelter, mental health facilities or getting a citation. At the camps, it’s generally meant ticketing and as well as confiscating the temporary homes and belongings of those living there — even as recently as a few weeks ago.
I’ve often wondered, is the theory of the these city policies that if you take misery and add to it a greater portion of misery, the sum of the misery will encourage people to make a change? I’m not sure if that accurately elucidates the philosophy, but I know it doesn’t work, as has been proven time and again both in Dallas and across the world. People have to be ready to move out of their situation, and their options have to be manageable.
I won’t attempt to explain the complexities of why someone would turn down shelter on a night in Dallas when the temperatures sink into the teens, because I don’t fully understand them. For certain, in past winters, I’ve known many people experiencing homelessness who have sought refuge in Dallas shelters and the homeless assistance center and been turned away for lack of space — even when the shelters have expanded their hours (beyond a 4 P.M. cutoff to secure a space) and lifted their space limitations to accommodate more people for cold weather policies. Certainly a number of people living outdoors have increasingly lost faith in the system that provides shelter. Yet I got an additional insight into their perspective last Thursday afternoon when I drove to one of the camps with one of my adult daughters to see how people were faring in the bitter cold.
We pulled up in my car and spoke to one of the camp leaders, whom I know.*
I introduced him to my daughter and asked, ‘So the city’s been here trying to get you all to go into shelters? How did that go?’
‘Did you see us on television?’ he asked. ‘We didn’t want to go.’
I said I hadn’t seen the television coverage. ‘Is the city strong-arming you?’ I asked him, and, to my surprise and relief, he said, ‘No.’
Then he surveyed the immediate landscape of surprisingly tidy cardboard homes and belongings stored in plastic bags along the sidewalk under a freeway overpass, and he swept his hand in an arc over what was around us. And a look of tenderness that took me aback passed over the face of this tough man.
‘This is our safety,’ he told my daughter and me. ‘This is our shelter.’ There was pride in his voice.
And in that moment, I understood something that I haven’t quite fully gotten in my six years of visiting the camps from time to time. Whatever camp life looks like to the rest of us — and, in this weather, it looks pretty grim — it represents life, community, survival and independence to the people who live there. It may not seem like much compared to the comforts of a warm place to sleep, and yet…
After all, independence and self-sufficiency are two of the premier American — and democratic — values, are they not?
I believe that, until we understand this sense of and desire for community, operating alongside autonomy, which every human being needs and values above many other things (apparently including comfort and convenience), we will have great difficulty in resolving the issue of long-term street-dwelling homelessness.
*[Ironically, this is the same man whose Bible and birth certificate were confiscated by the city in a sweep which I wrote about in this blog post. This is a perfect example of the counterproductivity of the sweeps, as, at the time of this post, he was very motivated and going through the process of getting off the street, yet he’s still out there.]